Indie Games: Elaborate Scams for Free Copies

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Posted April 10, 2018 by Chad Waller in Video Games

Snake oil salesmen aren’t new by any means, nor are con artists. People steal. People lie. Hell, people equal shit if Slipknot are to be believed. But when it comes to marketing indie games, the internet has created a different kind of snake oil salesmen, one not selling a product but an audience. That audience is fake.

Destructoid has covered the practice before, detailing a few bad people pretending to be journalists and Youtube stars so they can get free codes to games. They send an email, promising a big audience in exchange for some review codes, and then they take those codes and sell them on back-alley markets for a quick buck.

It’s not nice. It happens a lot. It’s also the tip of the iceberg.

As it turns out, scammers can get pretty elaborate.

 

Did you know scammers will pretend to be games journalists?

The emails look something like this:

My name is Lev. And I represent the site [website] which is based on moves and PC/сonsole games and news about them. Also we make reviews on newest and most popular games. Our team of editors took a look at your game The Land of Glass, and we would like to make a review and feedback on it. For that I want to ask for a few Steam keys for a review if you have such an opportunity.
Thank you for your time.

The English is choppy because in this case, the website is Russian. That in itself isn’t a red flag because Russian gaming websites are out there, and if I’m marketing a product, I want the whole world to know about it, not just the USA. I’m more than happy for some Russian coverage! The same goes for Brazil or German or Polish or what have you. These emails come from all walks of the planet, not just those with middling copywrite law.

No, the red flag is the email address ends in @gmail.com. Big websites will not use @gmail.com. Lev is a real games journalist. He writes reviews and editorials. However, when I go to his website and find his contact info, I find that it doesn’t match what what’s in my inbox. Lev is real, but the person that emailed me is not.

The second red flag is that the reviewer asked for multiple keys. This happens often, the excuse being, “we have a big staff and need everyone to play to do a proper review!” If you’ve ever paid attention to any games press at all, you’ll know that that’s a lie.

The scams don’t stop with simple impersonation though. In fact, they go pretty deep.

 

Did you know scammers set up entire video game websites for free keys?

Here’s what they do. They make their own site, something like playzona.co, and then fill it with content that is not theirs. They use scripts to hijack articles from other websites and slap their name on ’em, meaning you’ll open a website that looks not only real, but big and influential. There will be reviews, editorials, news, and opinion posts. If you go to the contact page, you’ll find press@playzona.com.

Now that’s a real contact email!

However,  the red flag is that plazona.co has no staff. The about page contains no writers, and articles contain no authors.

If you go to a random post, copy the first paragraph, and Google it, you’ll find it originated elsewhere, on a bigger website from a different country. Often times, the feature image will even be the same.

Because this wouldn’t be fun without a little payback, I’m going to list every site I’ve come across thus far and slap the word “SCAM” next to it. That should make for some Google-friendly results. I’ve also been contacting the original owners of their content so these websites can be removed. If you find others, I encourage you to do the same.

  • http://gamepregled.website/ SCAM (they’re swiping content from http://jocuri.go4it.ro)
  • https://www.game4italians.com/ SCAM (every bullet point in their reviews come from Steam reviews)
  • http://pccult.net/ SCAM (they’re swiping articles from https://www.eurogamer.pt)
  • juegoz.net SCAM (they’re swiping articles from https://www.gamereactor.es)
  • http://playzona.co/ SCAM (they’re swiping articles from https://www.eurogamer.es)
  • http://ocena-gry.pl/ SCAM (they’re swiping articles from https://www.interia.pl/)
  • http://spiel-news.de/ SCAM (they’re swiping articles from https://www.welt.de/)
  • http://whygaming.be/ SCAM (they’re swiping articles from http://www.rpgfrance.com/)
  • krayngaming@gmail.com SCAM (not a website but pretending to be a youtuber)
  • games.kgportal@gmail.com SCAM (pretending to write for kgportal.ru)
  • stevenescobar131@gmail.com SCAM (pretending to write for mmoingames.com

I will be retroactively updating this list, by the way. If you find other examples, let me know. I’ll add them too.

What makes this all so shitty isn’t that these people are jacking keys from indie devs—though that is shitty—but that they’re promising coverage and not delivering. When you release a product, you want people to care, and you want people to know it exists. I was so excited to see my email inbox filled with review requests the day after my game released, and so bitterly disappointed to realize over half were from scammers trying to rob me.

I have to vet every email I get now, every review request, every Let’s Play opportunity, and every Twitch streamer. Sometimes I can’t find anything and gamble.

I don’t want to end on a sour note though, so…

 

How can we avoid this?

There’s no easy way to stop these scam websites, as they’re often hosted in countries far, far away. However, we can make it easier to fact check them.

Youtubers and Twitch streamers, please include a contact email in your about page. Make a burner one if you have to, a simple contact.streamer@gmail.com would suffice. Check it once a month to delete the spam. Because you should be just as upset as we are that scammers are pretending to be you for codes. They’re lying to steal from me, but they’re also lying to steal from you, too. They’re taking your identity.

Game websites, please post a general contact email on your about page if you aren’t already doing so. Press@gamesite.com lets me know that press@gmail.com is a scammer.

Developers, sign up for websites like keymailer, Distribute(), and Woovit. They exist to hook you up with Youtubers and Twitch streamers, and they have a vetting process. The process isn’t all that extensive in some cases, but it’s better than nothing. The services are also very nice and easy to use. Woovit gets bonus points for being exceptional.

Steam Curators, if you end up requesting keys through email, please ask that the key be sent through Steam’s curate system and not through email. I’ve gotten some fake curators too, but they can’t do much when I tell them I’m sending the key through Steam.

It’s not a lot, but it’s better than nothing. And if we can raise some awareness as to what’s going on, perhaps we can get some of these scammers to stop, or at least ruin their days. It’s hard enough marketing a product and getting people to care when over half just want to rob you blind.

Stay safe indie devs, it’s a wild west out there.

 

Now, I’m obligated to end with a wee bit of self promotion. My totally cool card game, The Land of Glass is available on Steam. You can scope the trailer out below


About the Author

Chad Waller

Chad Waller is the cofounder of Dual Wield Software, a two-man video game company that just published The Land of Glass on Steam. You should check it out! You can follow him on Twitter @DualWieldSoft and find his company page on Facebook with a quick search.