At the beginning of April, the police accused Catfish's two salespeople, whom it identified only by the names He and Wang, of being part of the "world's largest" video game cheating ring, which authorities refer to as "Chicken Drumstick." The organization raked in $77 million from selling cheats, according to the cops. Wang owned luxury cars worth around $3 million—including a Ferrari and a Lamborghini—and a stash of Bitcoin worth around $4 million, despite the fact that his day job only paid him $462 a month, according to the police. The two were accused of being responsible for the finances and day-to-day operation of the organization, including distributing profits, collecting money, and communicating with Catfish, according to the authorities. But Catfish said he is the mind and the lead developer behind the video game cheating empire, and his story offers a rare glimpse into an otherwise secretive world—the quasi-illegal multi-million dollar industry of video game cheats.
"We were the best cheat for the most popular game"
Developing and selling cheats in China is considered a hacking crime. Last year, authorities sentenced five men to six-to-nine months in jail for developing and selling Peacekeeper Elite (the name for PUBG Mobile in China) cheats. Earlier this year, a man was sentenced to three years in prison and a fine of 100,000 Chinese Yuan (around $15,000) for developing and selling cheats for Knives Out, another mobile battle royale game. That man was charged with providing tools for intruding upon or illegally controlling a computer information system, according to local media. According to a recent report from Statista, there are more than 650 million people in China who play games on their phones such as PUBG Mobile, making it "the world's most lucrative gaming market." Tencent, a company worth around $890 billion, has made a point to publicly denounce and shame cheaters, and has worked with the authorities to round them up too. In an over the top promotional video last year, Rick Li, the producer of PUBG Mobile, said that "cheaters will always be punished."
Do you reverse engineer games or develop cheats for them? Or do you work on anti-cheat engines? We’d love to hear from you. Using a non-work phone or computer, you can contact Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai securely on Signal at +1 917 257 1382, lorenzofb on Wickr and Telegram, OTR chat at firstname.lastname@example.org, or email email@example.com
It would all come crashing down a few months later. On January 12, the Kunshan Police arrested Wang; then, on January 20 they arrested IIIIIIIII. On January 20, Catfish had no idea about the arrests, he said, but IIIIIIIII's behavior made him realize he was talking to someone else impersonating his colleague. The Kunshan police would later state that its agents used Wang's account to communicate with IIIIIIIII, whom they identified as He.In fact, Catfish said he spoke to the other team members and one of them said they got a bizarre message from IIIIIIII asking them to click on a link to buy something on Taobao, China's eBay. Then Catfish checked IIIIIIIII's login records on Cheat Ninja's forum, and saw that he had connected with an IP address in Jiangsu, a province near Shanghai. Catfish said he got suspicious, as his colleague always used a proxy. Also, some of their resellers had been arrested in Jiangsu a few months prior. "So I connected the dots," Catfish said. "I went through months of the chat log line by line making sure I didn't talk about anything I shouldn't talk about."
"I went through months of the chat log line by line making sure I didn't talk about anything I shouldn't talk about"