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Indie dev mounts successful sting operation against scammy Steam curators

Artist's conception of indie developer Fabrice Breton knocking out some scammy curators.
Enlarge / Artist’s conception of indie developer Fabrice Breton knocking out some scammy curators.

Valve has removed a handful of Steam curator pages after a virtual sting operation exposed them as part of an apparent scam to acquire and resell free game keys.

In a Twitter thread posted earlier this week, Brok the Investigator developer Fabrice Breton discussed the flood of free game key requests he got from Steam curators after his game’s recent launch. While some of those curator pages were no doubt legitimate, Breton suspected many more were scammers using artificially inflated curator pages to get free game keys. Those free keys could then be converted into cold hard cash through gray-market code resellers like G2A, thus eating into legitimate sales that provide profit to the developer.

To separate the scam curators from the real ones, Breton said he responded to those key requests with keys for the free, limited Prologue version of the game rather than the full release. While those keys would be indistinguishable from full ones before redemption, any curators actually interested in playing the game would quickly realize the difference and reach out about the problem.

Only a few curators complained, “confirming that most of those emails are from scammers who did not even activate those keys on their account before posting a review” as Breton put it. The game’s quick availability on key resale sites also suggests that many of the free keys Breton sent out were not being played by the recipients.

Did you even play the game?

Following this little experiment, Breton says he noticed “a good chunk of ‘suspicious’ negative reviews” for his game popping up from some of the curators that got the Prologue keys. That included many curators for which Brok was the only game with a negative review and a few curators who flipped their recommendation from positive to negative (likely after “getting angry clients coming back at them” from resale sites, according to Breton).

“Those reviews are 100 percent fake because, considering I sent them Prologue keys, they couldn’t play the full game,” Breton noted. And while Steam’s more direct user review system requires reviewers to actually own and play the game being reviewed, a curator page can recommend or pan any game in the Steam catalog.

Reddit user darklinkpower did a deep dive on the curators that panned Brok and noted a number of suspicious similarities between many of them, including identical creation dates and admins. All of those curator pages are no longer available as of Wednesday morning, though, after an apparent purge by Valve for “violating the Steam Community Rules and Guidelines” (some of the curator pages are currently still available in Google cached versions from recent weeks).

“Somehow, I feel just slight guilt over it now,” Breton writes of his apparent role in getting these curators removed. “I’m aware those scammers often live in less fortunate countries where making a living is harder. But they should do positive work, building something instead of filling our mailbox with spams and leeching off the work of others.”

Breton recommended that Valve modify Steam’s Curator Connect program to limit the flood of fake requests developers face and to let developers identify and verify trusted curators. Breton also wants Steam to “not allow curators to review games they don’t own [or] at least allow players to see which curator reviews were done by playing the game and how much play time.”

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