Richard Lewis: Twitch is failing its users with scam streams

There they are. You’ve heard of this streamer before but never actually watched them before. Their game really isn’t your thing but you’re bored, there’s nothing else going on and they’re on the front page so it’s as good a way as any to fill the time. One click. 

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and are not necessarily shared by Dexerto.

You miss the fact that there’s not a verified tick next to their name. Not every big name on the platform has one anyway. They’re barely interacting with chat, ignoring the flurry of sub animations that are popping up on screen. They have to, there’s so many it wouldn’t be practical otherwise. Chat scrolls, full of nonsense and languages you don’t recognise. You ignore it. 

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What you are watching is actually pretty entertaining. There’s a giveaway on screen. People in the chat are saying they won. Probably unlikely a first-time viewer would get anything but since you’re here, why not? It’s obviously legit. There’s no way someone of this size would be lying. Just got to type in your details and see what happens…

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Now for most of us, this is a scenario so far fetched that you’re probably laughing at how ridiculous it is as you read it. There’s a mistake made by the fictitious viewer in almost every other sentence. Us hardened cynics could never be fooled. Yet every day on Twitch there’s real potential that these ‘first-time viewers’ are being burned by fake broadcasts of popular streamers. 

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Lately, the business has kicked into high gear. Hell, it’s become such a glaring problem that even the mainstream game press have taken time out from their busy schedule of harvesting hate clicks through burning popular figures for years-old tweets to write about it.

The scam works like this. They choose a popular streamer, one that would attract a sizeable audience and have sponsors capable of providing giveaways. Then they register a Twitch account with a name that is as close to theirs as you can possibly claim. Next, they copy their avatar, details from their profile page, and then download footage of one of their streams using a program like Twitch Leecher. They then create an overlay that says you can get free prizes, typically skins, as part of one of their sponsors’ giveaways and that you just follow the link to an external site. 

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A fake shroud stream, which attracted upwards of 8000 “viewers”. Fake chatters boast about getting a prize to trick real viewers.

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The site is typically a phishing site that will ask for login information or worse. This is placed over the old footage from a previous broadcast that is played in its entirety to give the illusion of it being live. To further add to the deception they often use viewbots to boost the numbers enough to push it to the top of the section or even Twitch’s front page.

People seem to be under the impression that this is something new. In reality, this type of con has been going on for years. What has changed is the scale and the efficiency with which these scams work now. Before they were impersonating smaller streamers, ones that might only rope in one or two unsuspecting rubes. These days they are impersonating the biggest names in streaming and have a system in place that means they are back within an hour or so of being shut down. All of this suggests that they are making money and Twitch isn’t reacting fast enough to stop that being a reality.

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Now, if you’re interacting with a corporate suck-up they will probably say something along the lines of “what can Twitch realistically do to stop these streams?” They will pontificate on how helpless the Amazon-owned company is to protect its users despite them having a moral and arguably legal obligation to do. The company that swoops within minutes to ban a woman showing the wrong kind of skin or someone saying something that sounds like a bad word absolutely cannot stop these streams from being broadcast for hours at a time. They just don’t have the means.

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If they’re not arguing that then it’s Reddit edgelords adopting the “If someone is fooled by these streams they deserve to get scammed” position, forgetting that Twitch also has children and naive newcomers in their vast audience. 

If the scams didn’t work then people wouldn’t do them. Email scams still rake in hundreds of thousands of dollars every year from the vulnerable and the desperate. The difference between this and an email from a Nigerian prince is that in replying to ‘his royal highness’ you still have to get worked via a confidence trickster. The malware you’re exposed to through these fake Twitch streams is a lot more invasive. Not to mention the reality is that your email provider has done a lot more to keep you from ever seeing those kinds of emails than Twitch seem to be doing to stop these streams from making their way to the front page on a daily basis.

CS:GO streams are popular targets, claiming to give away ‘free skins’.

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Sure, the first lesson you need to learn on the internet is that it’s all bullshit and you should probably trust nothing. You haven’t won an iPhone. You don’t need that anti-virus software. You aren’t eligible for a lottery dividend. That attractive woman you’re messaging isn’t real. Etc etc. I’d be lying if I said I haven’t laughed at the misfortune of others, but before you think it’s only confused ‘boomers’ that get rolled like this, consider that a report by the FTC found that millennials are particularly more vulnerable to online scams than seniors with “40 percent of adults age 20-29 who have reported fraud” having lost money in a fraud case.

It’s my view that big companies revel in the doubt that such discussion creates. It gives them just enough of an excuse to continually fail you. They can say, ‘hey, we’re banning them as fast as we can’, a statement that ultimately means nothing. They can say ‘we’re making our viewers aware of these streams in a bid to protect them’, which is a nice way of saying “it’s your fault if you get fucked over by one of these streams even though we are enabling them.” Yet anecdotally we know that things like adult entertainment are taken down within such short timespans people barely have time to get to the vinegar strokes.

Let me tell you how I know Twitch could be doing a lot more to stop this. You may recall when Valve’s doomed card game Artifact sank to the point where you could fit all of its active players in a phone booth. At that time, the corresponding section of Twitch became a goldmine of weirdness. Then, because the internet was a mistake, it went from being a place you could find shiny nuggets of bizarre content to a sewer filled with steaming chunks of the worst the online world has to offer.

Twitch’s Artifact section seen at the peak of its descent into chaos.

Sure, I can laugh off a picture of Mario doing the Goatse pose, but looped footage of the Christchurch shooting is impossible to stomach. Needless to say it was at this point the games press latched on to what was happening and it was widely reported that the Artifact section had descended into anarchy.

As the media machine did its thing, Twitch tweeted a statement that said they were taking drastic measures to resolve the issue. It read:

“Over the weekend we became aware of a number of accounts targeting the “Artifact” game directory to share content that grossly violates our terms of service. Our investigations uncovered that the majority of accounts that shared and viewed the content were automated. We are working with urgency to remove the offending content and suspend all accounts engaged in this behavior. In addition, we have temporarily suspended the ability for new creators to stream.”

Huh. That’s strange. If I was cynical I’d probably assume it was because the negative press, highlighting the racism and the white nationalist terrorism, didn’t play out well with advertisers. They didn’t just stop there though. They actively sought out who was responsible and started pursuing legal action against them. With the information they had they requested a court order to find the “John or Jane Doe(s)” responsible and seemingly have settled the matter, most likely after the main perpetrators shat themselves at the prospect of the full force of an Amazon-owned entity taking them to court and their identity being revealed in publicly available documents.

This was an (admittedly deserving) aggressive response to a problem that while emotionally upsetting and damaging to the company’s image didn’t put any users at risk of having money hoovered out of their accounts or having sensitive data leaked. Why then are we not seeing similar action in the works against these scammers? And if that is underway why have you not put out a statement about it?

Honestly, who can say? You’ve got more chance of consistency from NFL pass interference calls than this company and their priorities are impossible to figure out. It is a platform that seems to have become defined by its complacency, safe in the knowledge that as long as people believe it is where the party is they will never go anywhere else, no matter the bullshit and no matter the risks. It’s a platform where you can come, roll a few rubes and disappear without reprisals because it appears that they are funneling their seemingly shrinking resources into their flesh patrol and bad-word detection squadrons. That’s fine though. While you’re bleeding kids, we’re bleeding purple.