YouTube is littered with bot-driven videos promising big in-game riches—that also try to steal your personal information.
YouTube Gaming has been clawing its way into streaming platform Twitch’s market share for months. But new data retrieved by WIRED suggests that YouTube Gaming also has a serious problem with scammers and cheat-makers—and lots and lots of bots.
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.
Other channels amass popularity by integrating viewer numbers into their scams. One channel advertising free money in the children’s game Roblox stipulates that players must subscribe and like the YouTube Gaming stream and “stay this stream 24/7” to get their free cash.
YouTube’s scammer problem threatens to put a damper on its broader gaming ambitions. Over the last year, YouTube Gaming has absorbed some of Twitch’s biggest streamers and esports channels, including all of Activision Blizzard’s esports leagues: Call of Duty, Overwatch and Hearthstone. As the platform eats up more and more of Twitch’s pie, it competes with Twitch in the critical metric of “hours watched.” Twitch earned 842.5 million hours last month to YouTube Gaming’s 358.3 million—up from 287.4 million last year, according to analytics firm Arsenal.gg.
But data shared with WIRED from Arsenal.gg and Stream Hatchet indicates that at least some portion of those YouTube Gaming hours may come from channels advertising cheats, free video game money, or straight-up scams. Data from those firms shows that somewhere between 39.8 and 47.4 million YouTube Gaming hours watched in January were from seven top channels broadcasting unsavory software or services in online games. Scammers that the analytics firm flag don’t count toward YouTube Gaming’s overall numbers, but an unknown amount slips through.
“We are committed to making YouTube the premier destination for high-quality gaming content and are actively investigating the matter,” YouTube said in a statement to WIRED.
YouTube has struggled to moderate gaming scams for years. In 2018, videos advertising free in-game Fortnite money plagued the platform. At the time, ZeroFox published a report describing how they discovered over 1,390 videos with a combined millions of views that encourage users to share information in exchange for free Fortnite V-bucks.
“Botted channels have been around since streaming platforms have been created,” says Stream Hatchet CFO Jake Phillips. “However, the recent surge in botted channels may be due to the increased attention of the ‘Platform Wars’ as people try to climb to the top to steal ‘imposter market share’—viewership outside of the regular market share since it is being bought or faked.”
Neither Stream Hatchet nor Arsenal.gg (through StreamElements, which publishes their data) typically include cheat channels in their published data about the top YouTube Gaming channels. Schneider says that he doesn’t believe it’s fair to compare legitimate channels’ data to the potentially falsified viewership data. Arsenal.gg did not respond to WIRED’s request for comment by press time.
The prevalence of these game-cheating YouTube Gaming channels with what appears to be huge numbers of bots complicates the narrative of the so-called “platform wars” between Twitch, YouTube Gaming, Mixer, and Facebook Gaming. While Twitch’s livestream directory might have a couple pirated sports streams or sketchy gambling streams, its top ranks aren’t nearly as dominated by ads for cheats. If a chunk of YouTube Gaming’s hours watched is due to this sort of behavior, then it may be a little longer until Twitch is knocked off its throne.