Outside of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the 2020’s have been marked by the exponential growth and global reach of various social media platforms, most notably Instagram and TikTok, evolving into powerhouses of social influence. Today these outlets and the ‘influencers’ that comprise them have become a seemingly unavoidable part of every day life for everyone from Gen Z’ers all the way to Baby Boomers. Seeing a nearly equal ascent (though far less heralded across the world) is the realm of video game streaming, as eSports matches and gaming-related shows/specials presented on various platforms have too climbed to new heights in this golden age of technology and information sharing. One streaming platform in particular has stood out above the rest thus far however. Twitch, which is operated by Twitch Interactive – a subsidiary of Amazon.com, Inc. – had $2.3 billion in revenue last year and is on track to make even more in 2021, averaging 2.84 million concurrent viewers so far this year.3 Twitch also has a commanding market share of the livestreaming industry accounting for 67% of all content hours watched and 90% of the content streamed. Top streamers themselves are too collecting large sums for showcasing their skills or the products of some of the world’s most recognized gaming companies, with several streamers raking in multi-million dollar collective payouts from companies for simply producing promotional content to be showcased to the masses. As is the case with most thriving enterprises and industries however, the big bucks have drawn the attention of bad actors seeking to exploit the system for personal gain.
In early October, Twitch fell victim to a major data breach in which hackers leaked the source code for the platform (i.e. the platform’s specific programming language) as well as data on payouts for creators, clients, and the prototype for a PC gaming platform Amazon had yet to unveil. The leak also opened eyes to a widespread illicit financial operation across the Republic of Turkey that will likely have broader implications for both the platform as well as the global financial system. Being a mostly “community-driven” platform, Twitch relies on user donations in addition to corporate sponsorships to fund content creators. Watching streams online is a free practice, but subscriptions to the exclusive content of specific streamers does require one-time or recurring payment on a tier-based system which gives viewers access to varying perks (a base subscription runs users $4.99/month at current). In addition to the subscriptions, users can directly support their favorite streamers even more by purchasing “bits”, which are essentially tokens that can be bought through the platform and ultimately sent to streamers as a way to “cheer” them on. Streamers are then paid according to the exchange rate of the bit tokens. Normally, once these bits are purchased, they are nonrefundable and cannot be converted back into actual money to be withdrawn by those making donations, as Twitch will only convert the bits into actual currency on the streamers behalf. For context, Twitch Partners and affiliates earn $0.01 per Bit donated to their channel, with Twitch taking a cut from the initial purchase price made by the donor. Official pricing per bit bundle can be found on the Twitch website, with bundle pricing ranging from as low as $1.40 for 100 bits to as high as $308.00 for 25,000.
With cybercriminals always looking for ways to make a safe buck while staying clear of the proper authorities, the recent data breach revealed that hackers and scammers alike have discovered that they can use the unique Twitch donation system to their advantage in an effort to launder their dirty money while flying under the radar. The process used in the uncovered ploy was very simple and straightforward, which in itself is troubling for a global financial sector that remains in the midst of a nearly two decade-long crusade against financial crime in the cyber realm. In this ruse, fraudsters and hackers reportedly pilfered the personal payment information of unsuspecting individuals, purchased large amount of bits on Twitch, donated them to complicit streamers who were in on the scam, who would then donate most of the funds back while keeping a small cut of roughly 20-30% of the total profits for themselves.2 The operation was ultimately discovered in Turkey when domestic Twitch users and streamers caught on to creators who were posting underwhelming (and as such, suspicious) activity on their streaming channels while receiving large and largely unheralded donations. Many of the channels in question were quite small with only a modest following, yet they had disproportionately large amounts of bits being donated to them. In many cases, the sheer number of bits being donated was disproportionately high for the number of views their videos were even receiving. Eventually word got around to some of the bigger Twitch streamers in Turkey who used their platforms responsibly to shed light on the subject with their loyal following, leading to high-profile attention being cast on the platform from international financial authorities.
“This is something that many of us have been aware of for a long time, but we couldn’t [convince] Twitch and the owner Amazon nor the audience for years,” Turkish streamer Grimnax, who said he’s also received offers to take part in the scheme.”2 We waited for the prominent names on the platform to talk about this issue, as I and mid-level influencers like me weren’t loud enough.” 2 Vigilante Twitch streamers have been successful in their efforts to expose these money laundering schemes to the public, and this coupled with the growing outcry from fans on the issue finally attracted enough attention to the problem that Turkish Parliament has decided to step in and proceed with a formal investigation into the alleged improprieties. The Vice President of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Gürsel Tekin, recently said in a tweet that he also presented a motion to Parliament, calling for the Financial Crimes Investigation Board (MASAK) and other relevant Turkish state institutions to scrutinize the scandal.1 Time will tell what steps will be taken and what changes to Twitch and/or Amazon will come about as part of these revelations. If this latest scandal has taught us nothing else however, it is that criminals will find and exploit even the most obscure of channels in their attempts to beat the system.
- Başaran, Emre. “Twitch Urged to Act as Money Laundering Scandal in Turkey Exposed.” Daily Sabah, Daily Sabah, 1 Nov. 2021.
- Chalk, Andy. “Money-Laundering on Twitch Triggers Call for Investigation from Turkish Politician.” Pcgamer, PC Gamer, 3 Nov. 2021.
- Iqbal, Mansoor. “Twitch Revenue and Usage Statistics (2021).” Business of Apps, 16 Sept. 2021.