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Money-laundering on Twitch triggers call for investigation from Turkish politician

(Image credit: Bloomberg (via Getty Images))

The massive Twitch data breach that occurred in October revealed all sorts of behind-the-curtains information, including a rundown on just how much money its top streamers are making. (Short version: It's a lot for those at the top.) Many didn't seem too bothered by the leak, but it was definitely bad news for some streamers in Turkey. According to a Middle East Eye report, the leak also exposed how a number of streamers in the country were pulling in very large amounts of Bit donations, despite having tiny numbers of followers.

Introduced in 2016, Bits are a virtual currency that Twitch viewers can purchase and then use to "cheer" streamers—and, more importantly, support them financially. Partners and affiliates earn $0.01 per Bit cheered in their channel, while Twitch takes a cut on the initial purchase: So, for instance, 500 Bits costs $7 to purchase and would net a streamer $5, if they're all cheered—donated, really—to the same person.

It's a simple, straightforward system, and so was the scam. Thieves would use stolen credit cards to purchase and donate large amounts of Bits to willing streamers, who would then refund the bulk of the donations into different accounts, keeping a small cut—reportedly 20-30%—for their trouble. Sounds like money laundering 101, and it was apparently not a great secret.

"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, told Middle East Eye. "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."

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BBL Legoo, a streamer and Valorant pro, copped to taking part in the scheme in a Twitlonger post in which he said that roughly $4000 was sent to his channel. (His Twitter account has since been suspended, but the Google-translated explanation remains.) He says he was approached by a former friend with a proposition to make some extra money: Viewers would earn Bits by watching ads, presumably on his channel, and then share a portion of those Bits with him—all perfectly legal and above-board, he was assured.

"I jumped like a fool and said okay," he wrote. "Later, when I realized that the Bits were anonymous, I became suspicious and wanted to quit. But since I was on the rise at that time and the person who did it had a trump card [on me], even though I told the person many times that I didn't want to continue, I was forced to do it."

Valorant pro Mehmet Yağız "cNed" İpek has also admitted involvement in the scheme, although he "did not intend to" take part in it, according to a translation at Turkish team BBL Esports also dismissed a number of members, including Legoo, over suspicions of involvement.

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The scandal was big enough that it caught the eye of Turkish politician Gürsel Tekin, vice-president of the Republican People's Party, who called on the country's Financial Crimes Investigation Board to conduct an investigation. 

Tekin also implied that streamers like Legoo might be prone to involvement in these schemes because of their relative youth, tweeting, "Unfortunately, a certain age group does not fully understand the subject because they are unfamiliar with these [criminals] and their operation."

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It's not clear how much money was actually cycled through the scheme. According to Turkish site Haberler (via Google Translate), more than 2,400 Turkish streamers participated to some extent in the scam, which saw nearly $9.9 million laundered. Twitch declined to comment on specific numbers in a statement emailed to PC Gamer, saying only that it has taken action against streamers in Turkey for "abuse" of its systems, although it did not offer details on either the nature of the infraction or the punishment meted out.

"Recently, members of the Twitch community have expressed concerns toward the legitimacy of some creators’ revenues in Turkey," a Twitch spokesperson said. "We want to assure our community that we do not hesitate to take decisive action against accounts engaged in prohibited conduct. We take efforts to combat and prevent financial fraud on Twitch on a regular basis, and, in September alone, we took action against over 150 partners in Turkey for abuse of our monetization tools and have worked with those affected who have reached out."

"We will continue to identify and remove any broadcasters found to have engaged in financial practices that are in violation of local laws or Twitch policies."

In a separate statement, Valorant developer Riot Games said that it is aware of the situation and "following closely."

"Due to the sensitivity of the issue, we can only decide on any actions to take based on the necessary investigations from relevant authorities," a representative said. "We haven't taken any action yet or shared any information around our plans."