On Monday, Valve announced it was disabling the ability for Counter-Strike Global Offensive (CS:GO) players to buy and sell container keys.
For ZDNet readers unfamiliar with CS:GO's in-game features, CS:GO containers are in-game loot boxes that store player skins, weapon models, and other in-game perks. In order to open a CS:GO container they found while playing, players have to buy a "container key" that matches their container from Valve with real money.
Until yesterday, CS:GO players could buy keys from Valve and then sell the keys to other players for real money, cryptocurrency, or other in-game perks. For years, players have been using this in-game trading system to turn small profits or as a way to exchange in-game perks they wouldn't normally be able to collect.
However, in a statement posted on late Monday night, Valve said that "worldwide fraud networks have recently shifted to using CS:GO keys to liquidate their gains."
In other words, criminals are using stolen funds to buy CS:GO container keys, which they later resell to partners, as a way to lose money trails via CS:GO's in-game economy -- and subsequentially escape law enforcement investigations.
Valve said the abuse had become so rampant that "at this point, nearly all key purchases that end up being traded or sold on the marketplace are believed to be fraud-sourced."
The game maker published a CS:GO update yesterday that banned the resale of container keys. From now on, only the player who purchases a CS:GO key can use it, the company said.
"Any keys in existence after this update will now no longer be able to be sold, so any that currently exist are going to skyrocket in value as a reaction to this update," Alex Guirakhoo, strategic intelligence analyst at Digital Shadows, told ZDNet today in an email.
"For example, up until October 29, a standard CS:GO Case Key was selling for about 3 USD, but the price has since jumped to almost 9 USD per key."
"On dedicated Reddit trading forums, like /r/GlobalOffensiveTrade or /r/csgomarketforum, discussions have already turned to looking at alternative "currencies" to replace CS:GO keys, like items from different games," Guirakhoo added.
"CS:GO keys are also a valued commodity on several criminal forums, so it wouldn't be surprising if other game developers follow suit to increase restrictions on the sale of these items."
But what Valve is now facing is not unique to the company. Blizzard and Riot Games have been battling in-game currency being used to launder money for years. A 2016 Trend Micro report described a similar phenomenon taking place inside World of Warcraft and League of Legends, with crooks buying and then reselling in-game perks as a way to move money from "dirty bank accounts" to clean ones.