Avoiding the Red Flags: Threats from Videogame Hacks and Mods

Videogames are fun, and they can be highly competitive when high scores and bragging rights are concerned. This is amplified on online gaming, where you’re not only competing with the game’s AI, but with other players all over the world as well. Sometimes, though, the competition aspect can get a bit too heated, and some players may find themselves looking for an unfair or illegal edge over the competition. This can be done through illegal game hacks and modifications, or ‘mods’—programs that modify some of the game’s parameters to give the player an unfair advantage, such as unlimited health or auto-aim (in the case of shooting games, where the aim is to shoot as accurately as possible).

It should be pretty obvious why this is frowned upon. After all, the point of competition, no matter its nature, is to see who the best is on a level playing field. Illegal game modifications don't just undermine the spirit of competition by giving one player an unfair advantage, but they ruin the point of competition in the first place. Instead of camaraderie and sportsmanship developing between competitors, it fosters one-upmanship and underhandedness—values that shouldn't be instilled, especially in young players.

Besides the ethical and moral considerations against illegal or unsupported mods, there are also security-related ones as well. Recently, it was discovered that certain mods for the PC game Grand Theft Auto V actually contained info-stealing malware. It was detected as a keylogger, or malware that logs all keystrokes made on the system it’s in, and sends those gathered logs to its operator. Since it logs all keystrokes made, there’s a good chance that it includes the login details for the victim’s online accounts—easy pickings for a cybercriminal.

This isn’t the first time that malware has been packed into unofficial game-related software. Such things have been reported on for years, from license key generators spiked with malware to mods that change how the game looks and plays. While these types of mods don't really give users any kind of competitive edge over other players, they're still seen as effective bait. GTA V is a hugely popular game, and one that has a healthy modding community. Given the huge number of players who are willing to download and install third-party content without thinking twice about security, the fact that it's being used to deliver malware isn't surprising. And with cybercriminals also looking to infect gamers with cryptoransomware, the risk is even bigger than before.

[More: Why Gamers Make for Ideal Targets]

To add to all of this, there doesn’t even have to be an actual malware-packed mod for gamers to be victimized. The mere act of looking and searching for third-party game hacks, cheats, or mods has its own share of risks, as cybercriminals are well-known to pepper popular search engine queries with results that not only redirect users to phishing or malicious pages, survey scams, and downloads of "tools" that can supposedly tweak the game (but are equally likely to install malware that can tweak a victim's system or device). And you can bet that these results will come up at the top of the pages, as cybercriminals are also known to use every trick in the blackhat SEO book to make sure it’s the first thing you see.

With that said, game mods aren't necessarily "bad", or something to be avoided. These modifications do add more content to a game, and for some, they even change the way games can be played. A number of fan-created modifications have become so popular that they've spun off into entirely different games that have become more popular than the original game (see: Counter-strike, Defense of the Ancients, and DayZ). So popular, in fact, that some have been bought and licensed, while some have become featured events at a number of international tournaments such as the World Cyber Games.

Ultimately, it’s all about the context of the mods, their usage, and where they’re coming from. Just make sure that you’re downloading them from places that are trusted. Mod sharing sites usually have a forum component where players can read or submit reviews and feedback from other users, so checking the comments from the community is always recommended—some of the more established gaming mod communities have moderators that police content, as well as a fair share of responsible members who won't hesitate to flag infected or malicious files. It’s also a good idea to scan the mods you download BEFORE installing them (in fact, everything you download should be scanned by security software, just in case). Finally, if the game mod you’re eyeing seems suspicious or too good to be true, it probably is, and that’s reason enough to not download it or simply delete it outright.

Game mods aren’t all that harmful, it’s just that there are some that are genuinely made to screw up your gaming experience (and your online safety). So be aware of whatever you’re doing, and to not just blindly download everything you see under the sun. One of them could turn out to be malware.

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