How games like 'Fortnite' and 'Counter-Strike' are used to launder money

Gamer in headphone playing video game at home.
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Despite being released over seven years ago, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive remains one of the most popular games in the world. Counter-Strike boasts more than 500,000 concurrent players at any given time and hit its highest active player account ever earlier this year. With that huge player base comes a considerable amount of in-game transactions as people buy and sell virtual keys that are used to open containers that hold in-game goods like weapons and skins. These keys could be sold or traded in exchange for real money, cryptocurrency and in-game bonuses, both through Valve's own marketplace and third-party markets. But, as it turns out, most of the purchases of keys were not being made by CS:GO's fervent player base. Instead, scammers and malicious actors have been using the game to launder money.

Valve announced this week that it would shut down all trades of the container keys. From here on out, if a player purchases a key in the game, it will be tied to the purchasing account and cannot be given to anyone else via trade or sale. The reason for the change, according to the game developer, is a massive influx of fraudulent behavior. "Worldwide fraud networks have recently shifted to using CS:GO keys to liquidate their gains," the company said, noting that "At this point, nearly all key purchases that end up being traded or sold on the marketplace are believed to be fraud-sourced." Existing keys that are already tied to accounts can still be sold or traded, but newly purchased keys will not be eligible for the same type of movement.

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The result of this change, at least in the short term, is that keys that are already in existence will see a spike in value. Security firm Digital Shadows told ZDNet that CS:GO keys have already spiked from being sold for about $3 on average to $9 per key. That price likely won't stick for long, though. Members of different CS:GO communities, including a variety of subreddits on Reddit like r/GlobalOffensiveTrade and r/CSGOMarketForum theorize that traders will simply turn their attention to other games that have similarly tradeable assets. Keys in Team Fortress 2 and Arcana items in DOTA 2 appear to be immediate targets of trade, as members of the trading community note they have relatively stable prices.

While Valve's admission that its marketplace was being manipulated by fraudulent actors is a major development, it certainly isn't the first time that in-game marketplaces have been used by malicious actors to launder money. In 2016, cybersecurity firm highlighted significant efforts by fraud networks to use marketplaces in World of Warcraft and League of Legends to transfer money from dirty bank accounts to clean ones. The report indicated that the scammers would typically acquire in-game items or currency (sometimes through exploits or other illegal means such as hijacking user accounts) and advertise those goods on various marketplaces. They would then sell the goods to players in exchange for cryptocurrency, which could then be cashed out without being traceable back to the criminal activity. A 2018 report from Bromium found similar activity occurring in games like Minecraft, FIFA, Star Wars Online and Grand Theft Auto 5. According to Bromium, games present an ideal market for these types of laundering efforts because they allow cash to move across borders and are difficult to track because these marketplaces are not heavily regulated the way standard currency markets would be.

One of the biggest hosts of this type of activity is arguably the most popular game in the world: Fortnite. Earlier this year, a report from The Independent found that Fortnite has also become a popular tool for money laundering efforts. Criminals use stolen credit cards to purchase V-Bucks, the in-game currency of Fortnite, and sell it at a discounted price. Those transactions allow the criminal actors to effectively "clean" money that they can then withdraw from their accounts with impunity. A 2018 report from security firm ZeroFOX claimed to indentify more than 53,000 instances of fraudulent behavior in Fortnite transactions in just a one month period.

Until game marketplaces are more heavily regulated and monitored for this type of activity, they will likely remain popular targets for scammers and fraudsters looking to clean their money before withdrawing it. Complete shutdowns of trades like the one Valve has instituted may be extreme, but it's at least an acknowledgement that the company let things get out of hand and is willing to take action to prevent criminal activity.