In January, all seven of the most-watched YouTube Gaming channels weren’t run by happy gamers livestreaming the game du jour. They were instead recorded, autoplaying videos advertising videogame cheats and hacks, sometimes attached to sketchy, credential-vacuuming websites, according to one analytics firm. The trend has continued into this month, with five of the top seven most-watched YouTube Gaming channels last weekend advertising cheats.
Take one example: As of this article’s writing, a video featuring a cracking teenage boy’s voice promoting an unconvincing “money glitch” in Grand Theft Auto 5 boasts 11,000 concurrent viewers.“So basically it’s about glitching Rockstar’s online servers and makes them send out whatever amount of money,” says the voice. The video encourages Grand Theft Auto 5 players to visit a website called “Perfect Glitches,” type in their gamer tag and the amount of in-game money they want—up to $9,999,999,999 a day—and hit “generate.” But, ho—the user must first prove that they are human by filling in their personal information on two other websites.
A chat box alongside the video displays frustrated messages: “I still haven’t got the money,” or “I did all the steps.” The stream, which often sits atop YouTube Gaming’s directory, remained live last weekend for over 21 hours, during which it was viewed over 1.1 million times. Today, it has been live for nine hours.The account behind the video, Queen PSH, has been active since October 2016, and appears to engage in a common form of scamming, says Zack Allen, director of threat intelligence at security firm ZeroFox. After you fill in your personal information—anything from your address to your credit card number—these types of sites will often turn around and sell it. Other times, sites that promise cheats or in-game money will download malware onto your computer. Perusing the site Queen PSH links to, Allen discovered that it is connected to a network of 18 other websites, including other cheating and porn sites.
“These networks do a really good job of redirecting and doing a sleight of hand,” says Allen.While several YouTube Gaming cheat channels have disappeared since January, a couple of long-time users remain and many more keep cropping up. One particularly psychedelic channel features a 3-D cat in a Russian hat advertising free in-game money, against a background of gaudy Russian text and a scrolling chat box. Stitch from Lilo and Stitch dances on the top left corner. With 10,000 live concurrent viewers as of this article's writing, the video buoys the whole category for a somewhat niche shooter game called Standoff 2.
It’s unlikely that the bulk of those eyebrow-raising view numbers are real humans watching this stuff. Instead, scammers drive bot traffic to them to push the videos to the top of YouTube Gaming directories, where they can get the most exposure for the longest period of time–a better position from which to dupe unlucky viewers. “You can think of it as an underground platform economy where people can buy clout and direct traffic to these videos,” says Allen.Although none of the top cheat channels’ owners responded to WIRED’s requests for comment, their high number of concurrent viewers—an average of about 11,600 from the weekend’s top five, according to Stream Hatchet data—compared to their low frequency of live chatters and new subscribers indicates the likelihood of bots. One video advertising a hack in the game Escape From Tarkov has 11,615 live videos as of this article’s writing, while only 1,440 people subscribe to the channel. Another advertises cheats in PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds on mobile with 9,360 live viewers and only 1,600 subscribers.