Is the TF2 economy being used by Russian criminals to launder money?

Team Fortress 2 Earbuds

By on November 19, 2012 at 5:18 pm

As you may (or may not) know, Valve’s free-to-play shooter Team Fortress 2 has a thriving economy behind all those piles of hats, fuelled solely by the sale of items from the in-game Mann Co. store. It’s actually quite complex, and surprisingly vast — millions of dollars worth of items exist in player backpacks, and the most wealthy players can have tens of thousands of dollars sitting in their backpacks in hat form.

Warning: This article has a lot of jargon in it, though I’ll try to keep it as simple as possible for those who aren’t familiar with TF2’s trading scene. Just keep in mind that keys are worth ~$1.25, and Earbuds (or buds, as they’re colloquially known) are worth $32. These items are often traded on TF2 Outpost, a popular Steam item trading site.

This economy also (conveniently) allows Russian criminals to launder money, much like you’d see in a low-budget ‘60s noir flick — except a lot less exciting.

The Researcher

Of course, there’s a hero in the story too: Reddit user base1024 (also known as base64) runs a site called TF2Finance which tracks the values of ingame commodities by automatically scanning high-value trades. In a post on the SteamRep forums last Monday, he explained that he’d discovered evidence of huge amounts of Mann Co. Crate Keys being injected into the economy — over 5000, in fact.

The Tip-Off

These keys, purchased by Russian accounts using (presumably) stolen credit cards, were then quickly used to trade for large amounts of Earbuds at high prices (30 keys, as opposed to the normal 26-key market price). Here’s where base64 noticed that something was amiss: his website logged an abnormal amount of Earbud trades – four times as many as usual. After a little more investigative work, he found that a ring of traders had been buying Earbuds at the aforementioned extreme prices and then immediately selling them for 700 rubles each ($22 USD, $10 below the normal selling price for buds).

In itself this was suspicious behaviour, but base64 took the investigation one step further by tracing the keys to their original purchaser. Upon looking inside the inventories of the purchaser and the users on his friends list, base64 found a large amount of both keys and Mann Co. Store Packages, free items which are granted by Valve for every $20 spent in the store. The existence of these items was evidence enough of large-scale key buying, but the rabbit hole went even deeper…

The Russians

With further investigation came more revelations: each of the users was a member of a Steam group called “DIE Friend”, with a start date of September 18th, 2011. I’ve spoken to many knowledgeable folk in the trading community, who claim that this sort of trading has been occurring for a while now, and the start date of this group only serves as more evidence to support this timeframe – all in all, at least ten accounts in the group have been definitively proven to be engaging in suspicious buying behaviour. base64 summarized his findings from the group on the forum:

  1. We all know that a Mann Co Package is granted for every USD$20 of purchase from Store. They had 14-17 Packages, so they “spent” USD$280-$340 on Keys using each account.
  2. All the involved accounts in this group were created at least months ago.
  3. The accounts were Free-to-Play (Per my replication of Valve’s database in May 23, 2012)
  4. No weapons/hats stayed in these backpacks.
  5. They sometimes open the Mann Co Packages, or just give them away to Buds sellers.
  6. Usually no Keys/Buds were left behind.
  7. The proven accounts NEVER signed in at TF2 Outpost. However, they do look for Buds sellers there.
  8. They refer each other to the largest Buds sellers on Outpost

It’s pretty damning stuff. The implications of this sort of activity are fairly dire too: with a huge amount of keys being injected into the economy, item values are slowly dropping, and some traders are beginning to speculate that a market crash is looming. The uncertainty isn’t just conjecture, either — according to a previous article on his site, base64 believes that the value of keys (in USD) is slowly depreciating, and it’s very possible that the injection of “stolen” keys into the economy is helping this along.

So why would anyone do this? It’s estimated that the credit card thieves are making around a 33% return on the money they put into the system: for the thief, every $300 worth of keys they buy will net them about $100 of near-untraceable real-world cash. As a money-laundering scheme it’s surprisingly simple, and as an inside observer, it’s absolutely fascinating to watch how the macro-economy of TF2 reacts to these events. I’ll be paying very close attention to how the situation develops, especially in regards to Valve’s reaction to this sort of activity.

The TL;DR

base64 sums it up best:

A group of Russians bought over 5000 keys from the Steam Store today using illegitimate credit cards, and bought a few hundred Buds from TF2 Outpost at a ridiculous price of 28-30 Keys (The average yesterday was 25.5 Keys). They have been doing this for quite a long time and their activity today is alarming.

I’d like to thank base64 for the time he spent discussing this with me — he really knows his stuff!

Valve has not responded to my request for a statement regarding the matter.

12 comments (Leave your own)

I wonder if this is possible with D3. you can apparently purchase cards that add to RMAH balance, which can then buy items/gold, which can be given to another account, which can be sold for real money.

there are processing times involved with the purchases, but I imagine valve has something similar.

 

I don’t think there is any need have a question mark. I saw this news on another site last week and it seemed like they had pretty solid evidence collected by some guy who frequents item sale websites (often dodgy).

 

These are one of the many reasons I see people saying stuff like “Make these types of items craftable” etc, similar to promotional TF2 items now-a-days. Although It may drop the “value” of these items, this sort of stuff was NEVER meant to turn out like this, and in the end, greedy russians (and teens) end up living off this sorta crap making a few K and Valve just goes “oh, shit happens”.

What happened to the guy they apparently hired to look after and fix this sorta stuff from happening anyway? :\

 
Black Patriot

Did they actually hire the economist to prevent this sort of thing, or did they hire him to help them create a functioning economy, which (like all economies) attracted a black market. One might even say that they did too well in balancing everything if activity like this is possible.

Of course you’d expect that Valve would cooperate with the police (within the requirements of the law, don’t want them just giving away info without a court order) in investigating any illegal activity on their systems, including money laundering, and I’d think that they’d also keep extensive records of everything that goes through the Mann Co. Store.

 

Staggering. Seriously, holy crap.

Waiting for updates!

 

This is not terribly efficient manner of laundering which proves that these folks are amateurs. The deep net is FILLED with viable money laundry services and the fee is anything from $5 per transaction (Bitcoins converted to pre-paid Visa cards) to around a 7% cut taken by Second Life’s laundry attendants. If you are going to do something bad at least do it right.

At the end of the day Base64 is a pretty switched on guy…

 

I swear to god I chuckle a little every time someone says “deep net” seriously… who the hell launders money by trusting someone they don’t know and met on the internet? LOL

When i read the title I was expecting MILLIONS of dollars in cash, not chump change from a couple of people stealing credit card numbers.

 

nekosan,

It might not be millions of dollars, but it’s still quite a lot of money that’s going through these Earbud buyers. Obviously can’t tell for sure, but I’d estimate that tens of thousands of dollars are going into their piggy banks.

 

nekosan:
I swear to god I chuckle a little every time someone says “deep net” seriously… who the hell launders money by trusting someone they don’t know and met on the internet? LOL

When i read the title I was expecting MILLIONS of dollars in cash, not chump change from a couple of people stealing credit card numbers.

Easy. You less money scamming people. And considering how fast word travels on the internet it is a little hard to be a career scammer, especially since these degenerates would run in tight circles.

Also: what the hell is wrong with you? The deep net is any network that is connected to the internet but is not indexed. What the hell else is it called? The not-so-surface web? The not-quite-inter-net? The inter-????-PROFIT net?

Far out…

 

it does seem really inefficient actually. I ain’t no pro but yeah.

 
James Pinnell

nekosan:

When i read the title I was expecting MILLIONS of dollars in cash, not chump change from a couple of people stealing credit card numbers.

The scale of the TF2 economy couldn’t support millions in trades on a short term basis without significantly causing waves within Valve. This lowscale stuff would be either testing the waters or just one element of a wider laundering scheme I’d say.

 
dorianGREY326

James Pinnell,

I would say thats a pretty solid guess right there.

 
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