Back in December, I reported on an issue that’s been plaguing Twitch for quite some time: scammers who pretend to be popular streamers and lure people in with the promise of fake giveaways. As of now, Twitch has yet to comprehensively solve the problem. Instead, it’s played whack-a-mole with thousands of fake accounts.
The playbook these impostor channels run is pretty straightforward. First, they take old footage of popular streamers—for example, Michael “Shroud” Grzesiek, who moved over to Mixer last year and whose presence on Twitch immediately attracts eyeballs—and then they slap a “free” skin giveaway overlay on top of that. If you type a corresponding command in chat, you’ll be given a link that’s supposed to spirit you away to the promised land of rare CSGO or PUBG skins. Instead, it typically prompts viewers to plug in their Steam information and authorize a trade that swipes all of their skins. Rare skins can fetch a high price in real-world dollars, so for scammers, there’s gold in them thar duplicitous hills. Scammers can also apply a sheen of legitimacy to all of this by boosting their view counts through the stratosphere with bot viewers and chatters, who propel illicit streams to the top of Twitch’s “browse” section, where you typically expect to see big-name streamers.
These channels pop up daily, often multiple times per day. For example, while idly browsing Twitch midway through writing this story, I came across a Shroud impostor who had over 12,000 viewers. Chat moved at a robotic pace, with a gaggle of definitely-real “people” blabbering about all the sweet, sweet skins that were falling into their laps. This one in particular got banned about 20 minutes after I found it, but I’ve also seen complaints from Twitch viewers about channels like these remaining live on the site for hours.
One Twitch viewer who chose to remain anonymous told Kotaku that they have been using multiple scripts to keep track of scammers by way of known naming schemes and tech that detects text in images. They say that 2,900 fake channels have sprung up and been hammered back down since December. (Their scripts automatically report fake channels to Twitch, which presumably aids in the company’s whack-a-mole efforts.)
“I cannot tell how many people fall for this scam, but it must be very many because these scammers create not only new channel[s], but also new domains that also get reported from another project that I’m running to Google and Cloudflare,” the anonymous Twitch user told Kotaku in an email.
Twitch viewers have also been trying to warn each other about these scams. If you check the official Twitch, CSGO, PUBG, and Shroud subreddits, you’ll find countless threads calling attention to impostor streams. One viewer, who goes by the handle RiverrowXD, even decided to go down the rabbit hole of following the links in a fake channel claiming to be Counter-Strike pro Jake “Stewie2k” Yip, just to see what would happen. They were savvy enough to avoid having their skins swiped, but they found the scam to be convincing enough that they could see how Twitch viewers—especially new ones—might fall for it.
“It is not the sign that says ‘free skins’ that tricks people,” RiverrowXD told Kotaku in an email. “It is the fact that a channel has a 1000+ people (bots) watching a stream with a ‘sponsored message’ by a website that gives free skins, that tricks people... It is an easy scam to fall [for], especially for people who are new to either Counter-Strike or Twitch. You can’t really blame them, either. It is hard to know better when you are new to it and just trying to get into the community by getting cool skins to show off.”
As for Twitch, the company is clearly taking action against impostor accounts, but so far, it appears to be metering out justice on a case-by-case basis. If it has a more comprehensive plan in place, it will not say, because that would give scammers the signal to change their tactics.
“While we cannot share details that may aid bad actors looking to circumvent our controls, we regularly assess and update our platform to ensure we are addressing emerging and evolving behaviors,” a Twitch spokesperson told Kotaku in an email. “We encourage users who see these types of streams to report them and not engage with suspicious links.”
The company would also not disclose any information about the severity of the problem and did not respond to my question about how many users fall for these sorts of scams. However, it’s worth noting that Steam account-based item scams have definitely worked on lots of people in the past, at least according to Valve’s metrics. Back in 2015, before it rolled out additional safeguards, Valve said that account hijackers claimed 77,000 accounts per month through illicit trading schemes.
One big problem that Twitch has yet to address, as pointed out by the anonymous user who’s been tracking scam accounts, is that “creating a new Twitch account is super easy. Twitch [checks] if you are a human by sending a five-digit code to your email address that can just be extracted and filled in with a script.”
As long as it’s easy, people will probably keep doing it.