By Joseph Leray
Members of SteamRep -- "a non-profit site that partners with community administrators to improve the safety of game-related trading" -- have uncovered what they believe to be organized fraud in "Team Fortress 2", Valve Software's massively popular, team-based FPS.
After conducting lengthy and detailed research, user base64 alleges that a group of Russian gamers are using stolen credit card numbers to buy and trade in-game items, and then selling those virtual items for real-world cash, often at a loss.
Here's a simplified breakdown: in-game keys are used to unlock crates, which hold new weapons and customization options for Team Fortress 2 players. These keys can be traded for other in-game items, including earbuds. Earbuds were a promotional item given to players who launched TF2 from a Mac, but the promotion ended in 2010, and their market value remains high because they're no longer available.
These earbuds are so rare, in fact, that dedicated TF2 players are willing to pay real-world money for them. In this case, scammers are buying up tons of keys from the in-game store, trading them for earbuds, and then selling the earbuds online.
This transaction seems to result in a loss for the scammers: it costs $2.49 for a key and takes about 30 keys to trade for a set of earbuds, but the buds are being re-sold at only 700 Russian rubles, roughly $23.
SteamRep users point out, however, that using stolen credit card information for the initial buy-in results in pure profit. Alternatively, some users think the scammers are using Team Fortress 2 as a money laundering front. Furthermore, this scam has been going on for a while: users on another forum spotted other examples in April.
This could have interesting consequences for Team Fortress 2 -- it's meta-economy is now flooded with extra keys, and (assuming the initial key purchases are fraudulent), Valve will be left holding the bag once the credit card companies start retracting the charges.
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