As a gamer, you love the stuff you’ve racked up over the years—that rare Fortnite skin from six seasons ago, a complete set of Tier 20 armor in World of Warcraft, or a Steam account loaded with your favorite titles. Hackers love it too. Because they can make money off it.
Hackers have been stealing and reselling online gaming accounts for some time now. Yet the recent 400 percent rise in online gaming theft shouldn’t come as a surprise, particularly as so many of us turned to games for entertainment lately. As people leveled up, gathered loot, and filled their libraries with games in the cloud, hackers saw the opportunity.
The opportunity is this: gaming accounts have a street value. The virtual items and perks we acquire through gaming take time, effort, participation, and sometimes just good luck to build up. In a way, we’ve worked hard to earn our fun. Meanwhile, others out there are willing to take a shortcut. There are those who’ll pay for a well-stocked gaming account that someone else has built up, and hackers are more than willing to hijack accounts from innocent victims and sell them online.
Put simply, the virtual goods in your gaming accounts are like any other good. They have value. And just like anything else you value, they’re worth protecting. That’s exactly what we’ll help you do here.
Sanctioned markets, gray markets, and dark markets: Where gaming goods are sold
First up, let’s take a quick look at the different ways digital goods get moved and sold out there—just to get a sense of the marketplaces that have cropped up around gaming and where hackers fit into the mix.
And there are several. Over the years we’ve seen all kinds of gaming marketplaces crop up, whether they’re sanctioned marketplaces built inside of online games, gray marketplaces that exist outside of games, and dark marketplaces where stolen accounts and goods are exchanged.
1. Sanctioned marketplaces
As a gamer, you’re likely familiar with any number of sanctioned auction houses and marketplaces that are built right into online games, all designed and supported by the game’s developers. A classic example is the long-running auction house in World of Warcraft where players can buy and sell items with in-game currency, the World of Warcraft gold piece. And as marketplaces can go, the rarer and more coveted the item, the higher the price the seller can get for it. In fact, there are plenty of articles on how to play the markets for profit, in a quasi-stock market-like fashion, and all within the legitimate boundaries of the game.
In recent years, we’ve also seen the rise of in-game currencies that players can purchase for cash, again by design and with the support of the developer. A couple of examples are the World of Warcraft Tokens and Minecraft tokens and coins. What you can do with such tokens and coins varies from game to game, yet players can use them to acquire in-game currency, items, or paid to play time.
Increasingly common are in-game stores that allow players to purchase items and perks with cash, just like any other online store. Taken together with all the other ways a player can round up items in a game, it’s easy to see how a gamer’s account can grow into something somewhat unique and valuable over time, simply by playing and participating in the game.
2. Gray market “boosters” and other services for cash
With the time it takes for a player to level up a powerful character and acquire the items that can come along with it, there are out-of-game organizations that will, for a fee, do that work for a player in return for payment. Essentially it involves a player starting a gaming account, rolling up a character, and then handing over the account to a “booster” who will play the game on the owner’s behalf. When the agreed-upon level is reached, the booster hands back the character to the owner.
Of course, there are all kinds of potential problems with this. Strictly from a security standpoint, this means an account owner is handing over their credentials to a stranger, with no real guarantee that this stranger simply won’t change the account password, never hand back the account, and simply walk away with any funds that may have been paid upfront.
Further, “boosting” and other similar services may be against the user agreement the player signed when joining up for the game. For example, World of Warcraft recently updated its policy, stating that they now,
[P]rohibit organizations who offer boosting, matchmaking, escrow, or other non-traditional services, including those offered for gold. World of Warcraft accounts found to be in violation of this policy are subject to account actions. These actions can include warnings, account suspensions and, if necessary, permanent closure of the disruptive World of Warcraft account(s).
So while “boosting” services may not be illegal themselves, they can run counter to user agreements and may lead to cases of fraud when a booster service fails to fulfill its commitment or simply locks a player out of their own account.
3. Dark market sale of stolen gaming accounts and goods
Then there’s the theft and resale of online game accounts, clear examples of digital goods illegally changing hands. Stolen accounts make their way into dark web marketplaces and ads on chat platforms and social media, thanks to hackers who’ve cracked previously legitimate accounts and then packaged them up for sale. In some instances, cybercriminals will sell entire game collections, such as online gaming platform accounts where gamers may have purchased and have access to dozens and dozens of games stored in the cloud.
The method behind this theft is much like a credit card or bank account hack. Often using credentials lifted from a data breach, hackers will take known usernames and passwords and feed them into a credential stuffing application—which can then attempt to access hundreds, even thousands, of accounts through automated login requests.
Given that many users out there use the same passwords across their accounts makes them an easy target for this practice and can reap a large harvest of cracked accounts. From there, the account can be accessed, have its password changed, and then made ready for advertising and sale, where an account can be resold for a few dollars, or for potentially thousands depending on what the account contains.
Protecting your online gaming account from getting hacked
There’s plenty you can do. A few simple steps on your part can drop some serious roadblocks in the way of a hacker who’s looking to crack your account or target you for a scam.
1. Passwords, passwords, passwords
Each of your accounts should have its own strong, unique password. No repeats. And if you have some sixty-plus accounts across all the shopping, banking, gaming, and forum posting you do, not to mention your apps, that sounds like a lot of work. Because it is. Although it doesn’t have to be. A password manager can do the work for you by creating and storing strong, unique passwords for you.
2. News of a data breach? Change your password
Data breaches happen all the time now, striking businesses both large and small. If a business or organization where you have an online account gets breached, change your password right away. Related to the above, make sure the passwords across your other accounts are strong and unique. It’s not uncommon for hackers to try breaching passwords in other accounts, all in the hope that the victim is using the same or a similar password on other accounts as well.
3. Multifactor your defense
Several gaming services offer multi-factor authentication (MFA) as a means of protecting accounts. In addition to requiring a username and password to log in, MFA further verifies account activity by sending a unique code to the email address or text to a device you own, which makes gaining illegal access that much tougher for hackers. Some gaming platforms even support an authentication app, such as the Battle.net Authenticator, offered by Blizzard. In all, the occasional extra clicks required by MFA can really save you some massive headaches by preventing theft. If you have MFA as an option, strongly consider using it.
4. Don’t feed the phish
Phishing attacks have made the jump from email to bogus ads on social media and in search too. In short, a phishing attack involves the hacker posing as a well-known company or organization with the intent of fooling you into providing your username and password. With that, they can drain your account, whether it’s money from your bank account or goods in your gaming account. Spotting phishing attacks can call for a sharp eye nowadays because some hackers can make the phishing emails and sites they use look like the real thing. Comprehensive online protection software will include web protection that can spot bogus links and sites and warn you away from them, even if they look legit.
5. Watch out for “spearphishers”, too
Spearphishers are a special sort, in that they make more targeted attacks. While a phisher will send out an email blast or attempt to rope in a high volume of victims with an ad, a spearphisher will send a direct message to specific, potential victims. You may have seen or heard of this in massively multiplayer online games where an otherwise unknown player sends a message to another with a link to a website, complete with the promise of loot, in-game currency, or services to level up characters. Ignore and don’t visit that link. Chances are it’s a scammer, or at least someone who may be breaking the game’s user agreement by offering such services.
6. Mods and malware
Whether you’re downloading a mod, an expansion, or a new game itself, go with a reputable online store or source. Hackers will drop malware into all kinds of files and applications, games included. Given that such malware could log keystrokes that steal login info, inject ransomware code to hold your device and data hostage, or simply wreak havoc on your files and things, it can have implications for more than just your gaming accounts and the virtual assets you have with them.
Hackers know there’s good money in gaming accounts. They wouldn’t bother with them otherwise. Realizing that your gaming account has value is the first step to protecting it.
In addition to taking the steps above, consider comprehensive online protection software. It offers defense in breadth and depth, covering everything from device security, privacy, and identity protection. However, if you want an even faster and safer gaming experience, gamer security is worth looking into. In addition to strong security features, it also offers performance-enhancing technologies that prioritize system resources and keep your gameplay going smooth.
In all, keep in mind that gaming accounts are serious business for hackers. Put up your defenses. Then get out and enjoy yourself, knowing that you have made it far, far tougher for them to ruin your fun.