Because it’s the most popular platform for buying PC games, it’s no surprise Steam accounts are stolen every day. In 2015, Valve said roughly 77,000 accounts are “hijacked” each month, a combination of hacking, passwords compromised by data breaches, or insidious tricks. Brian had his account stolen, too, but not the way you think. Brian’s father stole his account, one they shared together, after getting in his car, driving off, and leaving his family.
“I figured if there was one person I could trust with my account it was my own father,” Brian told me recently.
He was 19 years old when his father left. That was two years ago. Brian is 21 now.
(Brian is not his real name. It has been changed in order to protect the family’s privacy.)
Brian was at a friend’s house when he figured out something was up. After pulling out his laptop to play a game, Steam announced he’d put in the wrong password. Figuring he might have changed it without remembering, he asked for a recovery email, only to discover the email associated with the account had suddenly changed to something he didn’t recognize.
Then, it all clicked into place. Brian’s father had started a private email server for the family, and most of Brian’s accounts were tied up with that email. Not only did his father have full access to his email, Brian had specifically handed over his Steam information because his father wanted to play The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim while recovering from an injury. Not only had the password been changed, but the email server was gone. Everything was gone.
“He wasn't always such a scumbag,” he said. “He actually used to be a really good father.”
Games had long been part of their relationship. When Brian was younger, he’d sit and watch his father play games, and specifically remembers spending hours with The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Brian and his friends would gather around the TV, watching him explore around Cyrodiil.
“It was fun because he had a unique way of playing,” he said.
Everything changed four years ago, when his father broke several fingers in a mishap with a snowblower’s impeller. While in physical therapy, he was on disability, which eventually ran out. This was around the time he could have started looking for another job, but according to Brian, there was always some excuse often involving his hand—a hand he was using to play video games around the house all day. iPad clicker games one day, Skyrim the next.
Around this time, Brian was preparing to attend college on the other side of the country, a trip his father had promised to come on. While their relationship wasn’t in a good place, Brian was looking forward to his father coming along for this big moment, and help him move in.
That’s when one of Brian’s friends noticed his Steam account showed 1,200 hours playing Skyrim. The friend sent a message ribbing him about it, and Brian sent back a snarky reply.
“So I respond something along the lines of ‘Oh, that's my father, he's a loser. All he does is stay home and play video games all day,’” said Brian. “Me, being an idiot and not realizing he's on the same account as me, he could see the message. [laughs] After that, he freaked out on me. ‘Why would you say things about that about me?’”
Brian made the trip to college by himself.
“He wasn't always such a scumbag. He actually used to be a really good father.”
And though he was now separated from his father by distance, it didn’t make the situation at home any better. While he was gone, his sister moved back home, and there was fighting.
As his junior year approached, a combination of circumstances prompted Brian to move back home and finish schooling at a community college. That’s when he got an unexpected call from his mother, revealing his father had decided to leave. (I spoke with Brian’s mother to confirm details of this story, but she understandably had no interest in being quoted here.)
“I wish I knew why he left,” he said.
His father changed his cell phone number, and deleted the family’s emails, including his own.
That was two years ago. On and off, Brian would think about trying to regain access to his Steam account—a mixture of wanting his old games and plain old spite—but didn’t have a way to plausibly prove the account was his. Steam has an official process to regain access to a compromised account, but it wasn’t helpful. The account email had been changed, and because purchases had been made on a card that wasn’t his, he didn’t have receipts.
“They need proof that I am the oldest owner of the account,” he said. “That account is nine years old now or something? I got it at a IT tech camp when I was like 12. It's like summer camp but you don't go outside, it's kinda funny. [laughs] I was learning how to do mods on the Source engine at camp. It was really cool. I was making maps for Half-Life. That was the first time I even knew what Steam was.”
As it turns out, his mother’s card had been used to make certain purchases, and every once and a while, she would dig around and try to find something from Steam. Eventually, she did.
This was the evidence Steam needed, and soon after, Brian was working to get his account back. There was a slight hiccup along the way, though. While trying to remove his father’s phone number, he accidentally sent a verification code to the number—at two in the morning.
“I had to submit another support ticket trying to get his phone number removed,” he said, “before he woke up and saw that I was trying to get back on the account.”
Outside of some letters in the mail, this was the closest Brian had been to two his father in two years. They weren’t speaking to one another, but digitally, they were across the room. Steam doesn’t list full phone numbers in profiles, so Brian couldn’t have written down his father’s number if he wanted to, but I wondered if that were different, if he’d have grabbed a pen.
“I might have written it down,” he said, “but I'm sure he's probably changed it, paranoid that I know his phone number now, honestly. He's that...crazy about it. [deep breath]”
The account was his again. His father had wiped the friends list, preventing anyone from contacting him, but some things were familiar: he’d played eight hours of Skyrim.
All of this happened in early May. I’d intended to write about this story sooner, but between E3 and a family vacation, I didn’t get around to it. Then, a few weeks ago, I reached out to Brian, wondering how things were, and asking if he could answer another set of questions. That’s when Brian revealed his father had, somehow, managed to get the account back.
“Apparently he was able to convince Steam he was the rightful owner,” said Brian.
Given how much access Brian’s father had to the personal information driving the account, it’s not surprising he could make a convincing case. All Brian had was a receipt from 2010.
Valve declined to comment on the specifics of Brian’s case, instead pointing towards Steam’s support team, who could “look into this further and do whatever they can to help.”
My attempts to find a way to contact Brian's father, through Steam or otherwise, were unsuccessful.
At this point, Brian has given up. He has a new account, where he’s buying new games.
“I honestly don't care about the account enough to fight him for it,” he said. “I'm just happy I was able to sneak a good jab in.”
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