To start with some background: we receive requests for review keys from scammers nigh daily, especially around new releases, so I figure there has to be a pretty substantial industry revolving around it. With hundreds if not thousands of small developers on PC, and more appearing all the time, there is probably always new prey to be found. As such, I figured sharing our experiences might help someone out, especially on the long term.
Why would anyone want to bother scamming a key from us?
I’ve often seen the opinion “the benefit of getting a review from a legit source outweigh the risk that it’s a scam” or “if someone goes to all that trouble just to get a free game, let them have it“. I’m here to show you otherwise.
It’s my belief that this attitude is exactly why the scammers are so abundant. Their motivation shouldn’t be underestimated, since most of them aren’t looking for “free games” for themselves, but rather money, plain and simple. One scammer often operates several fake accounts, and every key they receive (possibly from the same dev) will turn into real currency on the P2P key marked. I don’t have any estimates for how much money they are actually making off this, but it wouldn’t surprise me if some were making more than a good living wage off it.
A real jackpot for them would be something like 4 review keys for an unreleased game, and being added on your reviewer mailing list to receive all of your future games too.
“But I’m not getting fake review key requests,” you say? This may change very quickly. Or perhaps after reading to the end you realize that you have, in fact, been getting those already.
If you give a scammer a key, you may first realize you made a mistake when you almost immediately receive half a dozen similar requests from other fishy accounts. (If it’s a Steam key, I recommend revoking it at this point – this has recently been made possible in SteamWorks). You’ll however almost certainly stay on scammer hotlists ever after (and these lists are quite possibly shared/sold between scammers) and be subject to every new type of scam they come up with.
So, let’s get to the real meat of the topic.
How do you recognize a review key scammer?
If you were hoping for a simple mistake that marks all scam emails, I’m sorry to disappoint. However, there are a number of clear warning signals that you can evaluate. When in doubt, I would recommend taking an extra step to verify their business, or if you don’t have the time for that, just ignore them. If you’re a small developer, and not a full-time PR person, you should have better things to spend your time on. I’ll go into ways you can verify their identity later.
Tip #1, which will get you most of the way, is to have a healthy dose of skepticism. If something looks too good to be true, it probably is. If something looks a little fishy, it probably doesn’t stand the light of day.We all get these mails. There are countless variants depending on how brazen/stupid the scammer is, and some of them have enough effort to look legit. Some things to look out for:
They tell you they are sure to give you a very positive review. Read no further. A legitimate reviewer would never tell you this. Whether the contact is real or not, you don’t want anything to do with them.
They advertise in the mail how many subscribers they have. A real channel typically wouldn’t be so crass about it. They’re just trying to establish their importance and make it look like they’re doing you a favor by taking some keys off your hands.
You got several similar mails in a short period of time. This usually doesn’t mean you suddenly got popular. It means a single person entered your email onto their list and activated the automated scam accounts they operate. The emails may not be same word for word, but their structure (greeting, body, signature) is very similar, including how they for example link their channel and twitter account at the end of the mail.
Some text appears in a different font in the email. Usually your company’s name / game name. This doesn’t necessarily mean the email is a scam, but it does show it’s a copy-paste job at best, not someone writing you a personal email in their own words.
They have 3 million subscribers. These guys wouldn’t email you for a review copy. No harm in checking their contact info of course, but I’d put the odds any such mail is legit at roughly around zero.
They are requesting multiple keys for their “friends” to help review the game, or for “promotion”. Especially for streamers, unless you personally know the other party, you can just write all of these off as scammers. Legit review sites may occasionally ask for additional keys for giveaways, but they would never present it as a condition for reviewing the game.
The channel they are linking to doesn’t list a contact email and the email doesn’t provide any other way to verify it’s their channel. How convenient. Don’t take a leap of faith, either ignore or take an extra step to verify (see later section). Any legit YouTuber who would take it upon themselves to email developers for keys ought to have their contact info on their channel’s ‘about’ page.
The linked channel’s ‘about’ page actually mentions that they will never mail you for a review key. This is because they’ve gotten contacts from other devs who were targeted, so it means someone is posing as this channel. It may even explicitly mention the fake email the scammer uses. Always worth reading the ‘about’ page.
The YouTube channel’s contact info matches the email, and their videos have a nice amount of views. This is where things start to get more interesting, let’s take it up a notch.
Tip #2 – A mail from a “YouTuber” requesting a key has a 90% chance to be a scam (not an actual statistic, but it doesn’t hurt to think so). Bear this in mind, and you may realize that the channel that looked OK at first glance has some glaring issues.
The channel’s last video is from a year ago. Probably not the original owner of the account, or even if they are, this channel is now only used for scamming devs.
The channel displays videos with a massive amount of views, but their more recent videos have only a handful of views. Something sketchy in the channel history. Maybe a few videos’ views were boosted with bots to make the channel appear more popular, but it doesn’t actually have any human subscribers.
The channel’s front page isn’t actually listing their own videos but favorites or some such. Just trying to bait people who only give it a cursory look.
The channel seems relatively active, but all the videos are F2P games / FPS footage / MOD reviews (and this has nothing to do with my game’s genre). Uploading generic videos to give the appearance of activity, possibly with views boosted by botnets.
The videos have 50k views but no comments. This isn’t normal activity. Probably a bot channel.
The email came from [channelname]@yahoo/hotmail/gmail.com. Just a statistical factor, most scammers use something like this for their email address. Exhibit more caution.
The channel’s in a non-English language. Obviously not exactly a sign in itself, but a very high number of these scammers use non-English channels to make it harder to look up information on the channel and get an idea of what it’s about. Usually combines with the features above, and is just an extra reason to discount the mail.
The channel doesn’t list an email address, how can I verify the mailer’s identity?
If the channel itself looks real and relevant enough that you’d want to be featured there, but you can’t verify the email address of the person who contacted you, and you want to go the extra mile to make sure, there are a few things you can do.
Use a social media profile for verifying them. If their ‘about’ page doesn’t list an email address, but does link to social media like Twitter, Facebook etc, and you have an account on one of those, email them back and tell them that to verify their identity you need them to follow your account on chosen social media with the associated official account. If they’re for real, they should have no problem doing this.
Use a 3rd party review key distributor. There are services such as Keymailer that do their own screening of streamers, and you need to only add your keys and send them to people requesting them at will. When in doubt, you can tell the person that you hand out review keys through this service, and direct them to the relevant page to request a key there. You will see whether the streamer they are claiming to be appears on the list. This saves you a lot of headache (and also allows you to reach other actual streamers).
Well, this section was mostly about streamers requesting keys, but what about review sites? Much of the same critical evaluation applies, but here are a few specific points to consider:
Recognizing a fake game review site
There are 2 general types of scammers, those impersonating a representative of an established site, and those faking the site itself.
It’s an established review site. Verify the email address from their contact information. Even if there isn’t an email listed, they should at least have a contact form where you can ask if this person really works for them. A larger site’s email address is unlikely to be “firstname.lastname@example.org” and more likely to have the same domain as the site itself.
It’s an unknown review site. Again, this is where things get juicier. The site may list a contact email that matches the one that approaches you, so it should be legit, right? Well, most likely it isn’t. Check against the following criteria:
The review site is based on a blog platform. You can tell these apart pretty easily by the simple scrolling design. Though this may change in the future, at the moment most fake review sites are built like this. Of course there are perfectly OK review sites that are hosted on blog platforms, but this is a strong warning sign.
There is no user interaction. The site doesn’t feature any kind of forums, and has no comments or other interaction on any of its articles.
The review articles are ripped off other review sites. Copy paste a bit from the middle of a review on the site into Google, and see if the same review pops up on an established review site. You might be surprised.
The site is in a foreign language. This is a pretty devious variation of the above. The whole site and reviews have been google translated into language X. If you speak that language, you will be able to tell right away, otherwise you can ask a friend who speaks that language. They will almost certainly tell you that the text is google translated. Of course there are review sites in all languages, but this is a very popular scamming tool since it obfuscates your attempts to verify the legitimacy of the site. When combined with other warning signs (especially getting several similar review requests for similar blog-hosted “review sites” in different languages within a day), you may just ignore these with a good conscience.
The site actually posts unique reviews, but they are completely generic. This final point is a bit tricky and somewhat a gray area. The site may have real interaction with you, and they will write a review for the game, but when you read it, it only uses stock screenshots, and only speaks in generalities, without citing any detail that wouldn’t be obvious from a few minutes of research into the game. In other words, it does not appear they used the review key you sent for writing the article. I’m not sure if I should include this as a scam, but beyond lazy writing it’s possible they do not act honestly either. The end-game for them may be to give you a review that will satisfy you, and be included on your reviewer mailing lists to receive all of your future games. They will keep writing generic reviews to avoid suspicion, all the while selling your review keys. This behavior can be hard to even identify, but if you suspect this is happening, you can try to track the activation of the review key you sent from SteamWorks (if it’s a Steam key, obviously).
This turned into a longer article than I expected when I set out to write it, but I hope I was able to give you some good tools for recognizing scammers. I may update this later if I run into some especially interesting or innovative scam attempts. Did I miss something? Let me know in the comments.
If this article was able to turn your bubbling excitement over receiving a review request into brooding cynicism, good. Instead of hoping for reviewers and streamers to approach you, you need to actively look for new contacts yourself. Because all review requests you receive are more likely to be scams than not. Sad but true.