How do hackers target children on video games?
Children are online more than ever before. But as children immerse themselves in the world of video games, they have become increasingly vulnerable to hackers.
By 2025, the video game market will reach a value of $256.97 billion.
One in three people around the world play video games, and a significant portion of those players are children.
Digital and real currencies in games
One of the most popular games with children is Roblox, an online platform that allows users to create their own games for others to play.
Millie, 11, enjoys playing Bloxburg, a house building simulator, while Tavion, 10, is a fan of Pet Simulator.
In both games, completing tasks gives you in-game currency that you can use to buy items. But you can also buy the currency with real money. Roblox has its own currency called Robux.
“One of the more recent developments in gaming has focused on in-game purchases,” says Dr Kelli Dunlap, a clinical psychologist and game designer. “Yes, you bought the game, but now if you want more, you have to pay a little extra.”
The allure of in-game purchases is especially attractive to children who may not have an adult understanding of money.
Jovan, 10, is one of these children. Aware that his mother would not let him do the shopping, he was smart enough to ask his grandmother instead.
“Unbeknownst to me, Grandma and Jovan have a little system,” says Jovan’s mother Vicky, explaining how he can ask her to give him some money for a new gaming token.
“We have to keep Grandma in check sometimes,” says Vicky.
Online treasury for hackers
As children spend more time and money on their games, they amass collections of digital objects that hold great emotional value for them.
It is these digital collections that hackers target.
One day, when Tavion logged into Roblox, he found all of his most precious pets missing. His griffin was stolen.
Jovan had a similar experience playing Rocket League, a driving/soccer game. A car he had customized with special decals and wheels had lost all the customizations he had worked hard to add.
The hackers went a step further with Millie, whose entire Roblox account was taken from her.
“The money that we had deposited with Roblox and all the pets in that account and everything was gone,” she says. “I felt devastated to see that everything was gone and I think I cried.”
Digital objects, real emotions
Losing the play objects they’ve worked hard for can be a difficult emotional experience for children, Dunlap explains.
The effort the children have put in to complete tasks for these items gives them value.
“Even though the object is digital, this sadness is real, and it makes sense when you think about the thought and care that kids put into their digital creations,” says Dunlap.
“The day I got hacked, I felt very sad and I didn’t understand why, what happened when I got hacked,” says Tavion.
Callum, 14, had a collection of digital outfits on Roblox that he was very proud of. One outfit, dragon-style armor, was worth 1,000 Robux, equivalent to between $3.50 and $12.50.
After his collection was stolen by a hacker, he found it tiring to start from scratch and earn everything back.
“Of course you have to play a lot. And when you play a lot in a game, you burn out, says Callum.
Dunlap notes that children who refer to burnout are not being hyperbolic. Despite the fact that games are for fun, kids can be exhausted when they recover from a hack.
Why would someone hack a kid’s game?
Mike Jones is a security researcher who has worked with the hacker collective Anonymous. He now focuses on working with children who have had problems with online games.
“Most of the time, kids have their parent’s credit or debit card linked to the account,” says Jones.
“What they don’t understand is that there are people in that game looking for those purchases and they’re making money from that and they’re trading with those accounts and they’re selling those accounts or they’re selling items on that account,” he explains.
Hackers can translate the digital currency children have into funds in their bank accounts.
With real money at stake, organized crime groups have become involved in hacking these games.
“Children are often more vulnerable to these types of social engineering attacks. They have almost no experience of how people would exploit them,” says Christian Funk, head of the German research and analysis team at Kaspersky.
“Although losing an in-game item you’ve worked so hard for can be very traumatic. At the same time, it actually teaches you a very important lesson in life, adds Funk.
Callum has changed his passwords since the hack. And Tavion has started storing its digital assets across multiple accounts.
But Jones also believes that the industry itself has a lot to answer for by allowing children to be in danger.
“The gaming companies and the gaming industry need to take more responsibility when it comes to the effects it has on children,” he says.