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What’s the harm in passing some time smashing candies, conquering crosswords, and defeating online opponents? Critics have plenty to say about the consequences of too much gaming. But cybersecurity experts will tell you there’s more to worry about than just screen addiction.
It turns out scams are taking all the fun out of gaming apps for about 1 in 5 of the 147 million people who play. Mobile app and game fraud cost players $1.6 billion in the first half of 2020, and the pandemic has only made matters worse. Cyber criminals have capitalized on the vulnerability and restrictions of COVID-19 to perpetrate various kinds of e-fraud on unsuspecting Americans as they turned to game apps for entertainment and distraction.
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Here are some of the sneakiest ways that hackers cheat you out of your money — and, sometimes, steal your most sensitive personal information — when you're just trying to have a good time.
#1 "Romance scammers" sliding into your DMs
The unscrupulous con artists known as romance scammers like to prey on your kindness and generosity.
Plenty of online games have private chat components, and this is where scammers can contact you under the pretense of friendship or romance, win your trust, claim some kind of financial hardship, and then eventually convince you to wire them money or even send funds via gift card. They prefer the latter method “because they can get cash quickly and remain anonymous” that way, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). There have been an unsettling amount of people who have lost their entire life savings, in dribs and drabs, to romance scams.
“In 2020, reported losses to romance scams [in general] reached a record $304 million, up about 50 percent from 2019,” the FTC reports. Criminals can play with your heart (and your bank account) on many platforms — including social media and messaging apps — but online games are probably the place where you’d least expect them. And that’s how they like it.
If you suspect someone you’re talking to on an online gaming platform is trying to scam you, the FTC suggests the following:
Cut off communication immediately.
Do a reverse image search of the person’s profile picture to find out whether it's linked to another person's name.
Do a search for the type of job that person has along with the word "scammer" and see if anyone has reported a familiar-sounding scam from that kind of worker.
#2 Thieves and phishers disguised as the keepers of cheat codes and gaming tips
We all love a good hack — no, not that kind of hack. We’re talking game hacks: the tips, tricks and "cheat" codes that help us advance and sail through game levels with ease, and without actually cheating, of course. Avid gamers convene in online messaging forums to share this kind of intel, and some malicious actors can see these as ripe opportunities to scam ambitious players out of money or financial information.
These hackers might spam message boards with links or even contact users directly, offering things like cheat codes, boosts, and upgrades in exchange for payment. But once you hand over your dollars or credit card numbers, you never actually receive the goods. You do, however, notice fraudulent purchases on your cards and realize you’re the one who’s been cheated. And if you’re prompted to click on a link to receive your tips, you might also be downloading dangerous malware onto your device.
Lesson learned: Never offer payment to an anonymous person you "meet" online. Instead, take advantage of the cheat codes and other tips that are readily available to the online public for free. And be careful of what you click on.
3. Credential stuffers who guess and hijack your username and password
Do you tend to recycle the same usernames and passwords across all your online accounts? This is a common but dangerous habit, and experts warn that it’s one of the easiest ways for hackers to gain entry into those online accounts — including your gaming profile, which contains your payment information.
Scammers usually gain access through a data breach, in which a multitude of usernames and passwords are disclosed all at once. They then use these log-in combinations across many online platforms in an attempt to hijack accounts, capitalizing on the fact that many people simply reuse the same credentials.
This kind of crime is called "credential stuffing." And online entertainment is one of the most common avenues of attack.
To help keep your online gaming fun and carefree, and lessen your risk of credential stuffing attacks, the FTC recommends using long, complex and unique passwords for everything. If this isn’t your forte, consider outsourcing the job to a password manager — a cyber tool that automates the process of password creation, protection and storage for you.
Also, always enable multi-factor authentication wherever possible when logging into an online account. And keep tabs on any dark web activity by signing up for alerts (such as through a credit monitoring service) that let you know when your information might have been shared on the black market.
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