One frequent indicator of a game’s success, beyond the traditional praise, of course, is the interest garnered from the more shady parts of the internet. Whether that be so-called ’cracked’ versions circulating on dodgy websites or strange key requests, a game’s release is often preyed upon by scammers, particularly in the indie community where inexperience and naivety may make you an easy target.
As you’ll see below, scammers are willing to brazenly impersonate even some of the more widely known figures in the industry. For those with little experience in dealing with games media or handling code requests, this could result in copies of your game finding their way onto the global key reselling marketplace resulting in sales you’ll never see the profit from. Unless you call them out and refund your chargebacks that is.
Here we share some information based on our own experience as an agency that frequently needs to detect and subvert scammers, which will hopefully prevent you from becoming a victim.
What’s a key scammer?
A key scammer is someone who pretends to be a member of the games media or an influencer (for example a content creator or streamer) in order to fraudulently obtain a copy, sometimes multiple copies, of a game (usually a digital key) from a publisher or developer.
Why is this a thing?
You might be wondering why someone would go to such great lengths to get a free copy of a game when piracy exists as an equally unsavoury, but way more low-effort way to steal from an unsuspecting developer.
While some key scammers are simply looking for a way to play a new game for free, the majority will be hoping to sell the obtained game key on the grey market – online marketplaces where video game keys can be bought and sold.
While our thoughts on the grey market are probably best for another post, the fact is that most scammers are asking for a key from developers so that they can profit from their hard work.
On the face of it, it seems like a lot of work for a relatively small sum of money, but a successful scammer can quickly and efficiently throw out hundreds of emails per day, and see a good percentage of success. Some scammers even eke out a living just by illicitly acquiring and selling keys.
Surely key scamming isn’t legal?
In spite of the popular assumption (probably because it’s so common), key scams are a form of internet fraud, which is illegal in the majority of countries. Bodies such as the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) in the US and Trading Standards in the UK are set up specifically to help deal with and prosecute scammers, but that’s not always easy to do when the bulk of requests come from anonymous Gmail accounts. This means that developers have relatively few protections against key scams, and must be proactive in avoiding them wherever possible.
So how can I spot and avoid a key scammer?
Scammers will predominantly pose as members of the games press or as influencers in order to claim keys. The former is slightly more trivial than the latter; those with experience of video game outlets should be able to cross-reference the email address used with the claimed site’s web address to sniff out a fake.
Spotting a fake influencer, however, is more difficult. A large number of streamers and video creators will leave a business email address on their YouTube, Twitch and Twitter pages – this should be the first stop for anyone looking to verify a query.
If this isn’t an option, look for a way that the supposed influencer can verify their identity using other, official means. One method that we find particularly useful is asking influencers to contact us directly via their social media accounts. Any chance to add at least one layer of verification will help combat potential scammers. Verification is your best protection.
An additional red flag to look out for are requests for multiple keys, usually in the guise additional members of an editorial team needing them. Rarely will legitimate editors ever ask for more than one or two keys for a game, even within the bigger outlets.
Lastly, some key scammers will pose as Steam Curators with high follower counts, who will offer to leave Steam reviews in exchange for a key. The topic of Steam curation is too nuanced to go into here, but we’ve previously written a blog post on the topic you can check out.
Given the time and effort involved in weeding out the valid requests, there are other options available.
Developers may find apps like Keymailer useful, which allow influencers to verify themselves and request keys directly – however, these come at a cost and aren’t entirely immune from manipulation.
If you would rather take the work off your hands altogether, another option is to look into external PR solutions to handle this for you. PR agencies are experienced with key distribution and have systems in place to detect and handle fraudulent requests.
Increasingly, key scammers are out to create an income source for themselves from others’ hard work. They will prey on developers with the promise of coverage which of course never materialises.
With some vigilance, anyone can avoid their games from falling into the hands of the poorly-intentioned, but for those who want to take the guesswork out of distributing codes, options such as working with third parties experienced in handling key requests are always useful.