When Grand Theft Auto Online launched, I used to grind the bicycle race "American Cycle" for hours on end. You might know where it is—players ride in a big loop near the high-rise construction in downtown Los Santos. I have a condo there now, right next to the headquarters of my illegitimate corporation, Whole Cannoli Enterprises. It's nice to be rich beyond my wildest imagination, never having to make those left turns again.
Before I had a nine-figure bank account, my partners in crime formulated that "American Cycle" would give us the best dollar-per-hour income in all of GTAO. So, rather than rob stores or create criminal empires, we would ride our bikes, making about $5,000 every three minutes (loading times included). It was the only way we could keep ourselves supplied with lap dances and bullets. Our crew would be bored, but at least we'd all have well-toned calves.
Nowadays, such exertion is a thing of the past. It's a memory that surfaces every so often while I'm relaxing on my gold-plated yacht, or drinking champagne and surfing the internet in the back of one of my many helicopters.
This isn't because I dropped a small fortune on Shark Cards, Rockstar's GTA V micro-transaction cash generator. The money that's financed this virtual lifestyle literally rained down on my head one night, while I was sniping random people on the Del Perro Pier. In just seconds I became a millionaire thanks to a hacker named "Crip".
Having bags of currency pour into your bank is a hell of a conversation starter, so when it happened, I ran up to my benefactor, a tall blonde woman wearing a smart business getup, and started asking questions.
"I decided to see how easy it would be to add money to my online character. It turns out that it's super easy." – GTA Online player "Crip"
Crip's a modder who fell into a rut like so many wannabe digital crime lords. She wanted to be playing the GTA Online that was hyped before launch: a crime simulator, not a bicycling marathon. Crip was tired of buying Shark Cards to enjoy the game and have freedom. So now she's a money dropper, a "GTA giver", providing in-game cash to other players for a fraction of the regular cost.
"I noticed myself no longer playing for fun or even having a good time," she tells me while conjuring a neon sports car. "I would play the highest-paying jobs over and over again, grinding for a week to make a million bucks. But I know this game and its engine extremely well. So I decided to see how easy it would be to add money to my online character. It turns out that it's super easy."
The bags stop dropping on my head. "Get in," she says, motioning to the just-manifested sports car. "I'll make it worth your while." My bank account has grown by about $50 million in the last two minutes. I get in.
The car lifts up off the ground and soon we're flying across the map to another beach where about a half-dozen other players are waiting patiently in a semicircle. Once we land, Crip quickly gets down to business.
"Okay, do not bank this money. Spend slow, like $10-15 million a day, tops." Her high heels dig into the sand as she slowly walks through the crowd, carrying a battle-ax. "Is everyone ready?" A smattering of affirmations and we're off: more money from the sky.
I keep her talking as she slowly makes laps around the newly baptized millionaires. Why was she doing this? Was I wrapped up in a sales pitch? First taste free?
"Pretty much. Sometimes I drop on random people because I get bored, but the business proper came about when I noticed so many people complaining about how the game was a grind-fest, so I decided to see what I could do."
The cash rain stops again, and the group groans. My bank account is now at about $90 million. This would've taken days of "American Cycle".
"I have been fighting depression my whole life and giving away cash was the best antidepressant ever. People are so thankful and happy." — "Crip"
"If you want more, reach out to me and we can set up $100 million drops for $10 over PayPal," Crip announces. Half the group thanks her and runs off into town, ready to spend. Some of them are glued to their phones, buying property and excitedly talking amongst themselves about their new riches. I tell her that I don't need cash—I just wanted to know more about this whole operation.
After booting a few people from the lobby, she invites the next players in from the queue and the bags drop again. Even on me, a non-paying customer. The whole operation is impressively smooth and oddly altruistic. Could she really be a digital Robin Hood, as a full-time job?
"A few months ago my significant other was changing jobs and we were going to be short on cash for that month. People always offered to donate to me but I always refused. But, we needed money so I decided to make a post on Reddit offering $100 million in the game for a $10 donation." She makes her way to the edge of the water. Behind her, customers dance as the money washes over them.
"At the time, people selling (in-game) money wanted $40-60 for $100 million, so I quickly got a ton of business," Crip explains. "Way more than I expected. It just exploded. I got a partner in the UK to join so we could basically drop 24 hours a day. I created an organizational system to control it all and it went smooth as hell. Been doing it ever since."
Eventually, the money dries up and Crip swaps her customers out once again. All business, she continues her tale in surprisingly open fashion.
"I have been fighting depression my whole life and giving away cash was the best antidepressant ever. People are so thankful and happy. It made me feel awesome to be able to remove the grind and unlock the game for people."
I ask her if she feels bad about undercutting Rockstar, who created the game she enjoys so much in the first place. "They made over half a billion on Shark Cards, so I do not feel bad about stealing sales from them. Most that pay me never intended to pay $100 for an in-game $8 million. That's just insane. I do $100 million for $10, and that'd be $1,250 in Shark Cards!"
I ask some of the new millionaires why they've taken this route to an online life of more excess for less effort, or expenditure. Most of them seem young. They don't have credit cards, they say. One guy tells me how difficult it is to buy a Shark Card outside the US, before he's cut down by a hail of bullets.
Multiple avatars are downed as gunfire breaks out around us. Some blindly return fire as the bags pile onto the beach. This makes sense, I think, as my skull catches a bullet: With all this cash flying around, rival gangs and lone wolves will look to get a piece of whatever they can without paying the money dropper. There are bags worth $39,999 scattered all around the beach, and the bandits scoop them up.
Crip absorbs about 50 shots straight to the chest until the firing stops. "Okay, I kicked them," she announces. Blood covers the front of her blouse. There's a pause in our dialogue as the just-murdered respawn and reassemble, then we're teleported down south, near the pier, and the bags start dropping again.
I ask her if these attacks happen often.
"I have been DDoSed and Smurf-attacked in the past by what I assume to be rival sellers or very bored people. When someone fucks me over, or attacks me in some way or just pisses me off in general, the first thing I do is research. Everyone lives online these days. In just a few hours I know their entire life story. Often it's a sad story.
"More times than not, during the research phase, I get to know them so well and see them for the person they actually are, that I decide to just stop there and let it be. I find people have a shit family life or are super depressed or whatever it may be. They become more human to me rather than just the small interaction we had that pissed me off, ya know? It never makes me feel good. When I'm mad I'd rather hop on r/gtagivers and give away a shit ton of money, ya know? Always picks me up."
So, you're the good guy?
"Yeah. Everyone is too busy grinding away to get that car or office, they lose sight of what the game should be. I like to bring that back and unlock the fun for people. I like the feeling of giving to people, and I needed a few extra bucks."
She laughs. Then, as quickly as they began, the bags stop falling for a final time, and Crip rides into town on the back of a deer. I pull out my phone and buy some property. Might have a cheeky look at helicopters while I'm here, too.