Beware when buying used PC games on eBay

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What you need to know

You can save lots of money buying video games used instead of new, but you need to be careful when buying online, especially on sites like eBay. If you aren’t careful, you might end up buying an illegal copy of a game instead of the real thing. I’ve found that these kinds of illegal sales are rampant on eBay, and there’s just not that much they can do to stop them. That means you, the consumer, need to be smarter about what you buy.

Selling pirated games is nothing new, but it seems to be especially worse when it comes to PC games, since they are much easier to copy than console games. Piracy is a big part of the blame for why the PC gaming market has steadily been shrinking. I think it definitely has had some impact, especially when ‘free’ games are so easy to come by.

Let’s say you go on eBay to find a used copy of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare for the Windows PC. It’s an extremely popular game right now and well over 100 copies of the game are for sale as of this writing (July 7, 2008). Some folks say that a low price is the first thing to watch out for, but rarely is that the case. Many people start the bidding off low so that more people will bid early on, because those bidders have a tendency to latch onto an auction and bid higher so long as there are more bidders. However, if an auction is almost over and the price is still much lower than average, there’s probably a good reason why.

The first thing you should watch out for is someone selling just the CD Key. This is the serial number used to unlock the game, and usually is printed on a sticker on the back of the CD Case or the game’s instruction manual. If somebody is selling just the CD Key, I almost certainly guarantee you that they are using some kind of number generator instead of selling the real thing. Otherwise, they’d at least include the game. While the key may actually work for the game, it is still illegal. Right now, there is somebody in the UK selling then for $12.99 each. In no way is this legit.

The way most CD Key or serial numbers work is that they are generated using a complex mathematical equation that is programmed into the game. Some very smart but unscrupulous hackers get enough legit serial numbers to figure out the proper sequence, then program a generator of their own to create their own serial numbers to basically cheat the game. Google ‘serial number generator’ or ‘game crack code’ and you’ll get hundreds of thousands of hits. The ‘game crack code’ search will also give you a warning about the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act, so watch out.

Another thing to watch out for is any auction that comes from an Asian country. The reason is because parts of Asia, especially China, are rampant with software piracy problems. Many of these auctions will say they are selling just the game CD/DVD and the Key, but won’t be giving you the box or instructions. This is a dead giveaway that what they are selling is most likely a copy of the game and not the real thing. I’m not saying that all auctions from Asian countries are fakes, but I personally would not risk buying from one of them.

As always, be sure to check the feedback rating of the seller on eBay. Be wary of new sellers with a very low number of feedbacks, plus make sure their high numbers aren’t from selling a bunch of cheap stuff like individual baseball cards or stamps. Some sellers will pad their ratings with a slew of cheap auctions before they start pushing the fraudulent stuff. My brother got burned on a Star Wars Halloween costume one time by someone who did that.

You can find some great deals on used PC Games on eBay, but just make sure you’re buying the real deal and not something that violates a copyright.