Stopping Review-Copy Scams

Every day scammers cheat developers out of review copies of their games, then try to sell them. Let’s work together to stop this practice.

One of the biggest challenges faced by any open marketplace like Kinguin is combating scams. Some scams involve a con artist taking advantage of a developer or store by using a stolen credit card or payment account. Another kind of fraud involves the scammer pretending to be a reviewer, streamer, or influencer of some kind. This scam involves using bots to request review copies en masse.

Every week Kinguin gets a complaint about a key scam, and we jump right in and try to resolve it. We’ve had people do enormous amounts of tracking to prove that the keys were from a review-copy scam, and we’ve had people complain that the game they have been giving away for free is being sold on Kinguin. In almost every case, we remove the games in question and work with the developer to prevent it going forward.

In every case, the developers get upset, which makes complete sense. However, their anger is usually focused on the easy targets -- the merchant who sold the key and the marketplace where they found the keys, but not the scammer or the person at their company who fell prey to the scam. While the scammer is to blame completely, we must all accept our role in perpetuating the scam.

The scam only works because scammers recognize that most people are too busy to verify and validate the email, claims, and keys. The only way to stop it is for all of us to be more diligent in verifying and validating.   

A little background on the review-copy scam.

These review-copy scams are the most common reason indie developers find their games for sale, and the scam usually involve heavily automated systems that just keep trying until they get a response. By heavily automated, we mean computers that generate thousands of emails and email addresses that they randomly tie to the name of a legitimate person or personality. These emails often have email addresses that include a real person’s name, with something like “work” or “reviews” attached to it.

This is why you might sometimes see emails from your friends (but not from their email address) in your mailbox. It’s the same kind of scam. And the scam only needs to work a very small percentage of the time in order to be profitable, because tens of thousands of emails are sent. Often the scams work in those moments when somebody is distracted or tired -- like when a developer is in crunch time just before the launch. After all, we all make those mistakes when we’re overworked, overtired, and need a break.

It doesn’t really cost anything to make a new Steam key, but spending time to verify whether a request is legit becomes an important allocation of resources. Most developers will opt to give someone the benefit of the doubt and trust that the Steam key they generate will result in a review, which is better than not getting anything at all.

They often don’t give the keys a second thought, until their game shows up on marketplaces like Kinguin. Then the developer gets understandably upset because somebody else is profiting from their hard work. In essence, the scammer is stealing from the developer. However, they are also stealing from any unsuspecting merchant, the marketplace, and the consumer, as first two have to refund the purchase price to the customer when the keys are revoked, and the consumer is left disappointed and untrusting. Kinguin often apologizes by offering additional compensation for the customer’s troubles.

Kinguin’s role in the scam

From Kinguin’s perspective, we do everything we can to prevent this from happening because it hurts everybody involved. In this specific case, the title was banned from being sold on Kinguin within hours, and the merchant was banned. Only 0.12% of all products sold on Kinguin are ever revoked. Our fraud prevention team works around the clock to stop these scams and to minimize their effect. Currently, Kinguin’s fraud rate is 0.16% -- well below the industry average of 1.8%.(1)

We are fast to remove games when requested by a legitimate member of a development team. With 25,000 games for sale at any given moment, it’s not feasible for us to verify each copy of each game before it goes on sale at Kinguin. So we must rely on developers to help us.

A painless way to stop it

However, we do offer an automatic way to prevent this that costs nothing and in no way binds a developer to Kinguin. If the developer signs up with Kinguin’s Indie Valley program, they become the exclusive merchant for their games on Kinguin. With this arrangement, a developer becomes the exclusive retailer for their games on Kinguin, preventing anybody else from selling a copy of the game. It costs nothing to register, and the merchant keeps all profits, since there are no middlemen. Being a part of Indie Valley does not affect any of your other sales channels. In fact, all of our Indie Valley developers also sell their keys elsewhere.

The way to stop it worldwide

Ultimately, it’s a developer’s responsibility to protect their intellectual property or accept that they might lose control of it. Kinguin is happy to help in every reasonable way we can. After all, we are on the same side. We don’t want scammers using our marketplace either.  

How Developers can stop review-copy scams:

  • Give review codes only to legitimate influencers

  • Quickly check all emails to see if they are reasonably human in nature, random letters and number are not ([email protected] is likely computer-generated)

  • Reply to the email and ask for validation of their site or channel

  • Legitimate reviewers will reply, bots usually will not

  • Check the quality and frequency of the reviewer’s posts, you want both

  • Look at the number of subscribers and views of posts (small numbers are not going to give you the exposure you want)

  • After a week or so, revoke any unused review keys

How Merchants can stop review-copy scams:

  • Make sure you know the wholesaler or source

  • Verify your stock before listing it on Kinguin or any marketplace

  • Test random keys

Basically, trust is the best guideline. Do you trust the review copy requestor or person wholesaling the keys? If yes, go for it. If no, do not.

Scammers are the common enemy

It is important to remember that the scammers are the enemy. Unless the merchant is the scammer, or in on the deal, they are probably a victim as much as the developer, since they paid money to the scammer or wholesaler for the game key. So, while the developer lost potential revenue, the duped merchant lost actual money plus potential revenue. And marketplaces like Kinguin are left to clean up the mess, take care of customers, offer full refunds, and provide some form of compensation to the poor consumer.

If you think that Kinguin makes money regardless, we’d urge you to think again: our revenue from the sale is also refunded to the customer, plus an incentive to help rebuild the trust lost through the scam (usually an additional discount on the next game they buy, which comes out of our profit on that game too). In the end, it actually costs marketplaces like Kinguin more than we would have made had the sale been legitimate. Plus Kinguin offers lifetime protection against revoked licenses, so the consumer never pays the price for the scam.

How to stop it all

Stopping it begins with putting the situation in the right context and truly understanding the process and the consequences of scams that work. Since generating an endless amount of Steam keys costs nothing, the developer doesn’t really suffer any financial consequences until those keys start stealing sales from legitimate keys. If the free key is gone, it’s gone - it costs nothing to replace it. Unfortunately, it hurts everyone else involved in the process if a scammer acquires and eventually sells the key. Then the developer gets to be irate, the merchant gets punished, the consumer is inconvenienced and frustrated, marketplaces are left to clean it up, and the scammer gets away.

Let’s work together to stop these scammers.

1 Printful: The Basics of Ecommerce Fraud – What It Is and How To Manage It, By Elina Bumbiere on October 11th, 2018