Anti-Terrorism, the DCFTA and… Bilbo Baggins

As a stranger in a strange land, one must accept some strange things. One comes to accept that you will get paid to do some strange things and that you will pay to do some even stranger things. Eventually strange becomes normal. For the better part of ten years, things in Ukraine were… normal.

Part of my day job involves making, selling or purchasing weapons, equipment, and occasionally hiring mercenaries. The arms dealers however, typically only accept payment in gold, diamonds and precious gems. Cash is always king, but credit cards are essential as most vendors are not yet taking BitCoin. It’s always a matter of getting the gear so you can get the gear. More often than not, it is normal to just “kill stuff” and take whatever it has to use or sell on the “open market” though some unscrupulous merchants do turn to the Black Market.

Some of you will know that I’m talking about things like +5 Holy Avengers and Rings of Invisibility looted from the likes of Little Green Men, Trolls, Evil Cultists and Mad Overlords. Well… there is that F-86A Sabre, the M60 Patton and the T62A.   I should probably add that I’m looking at getting a Des Moines Class cruiser.  Real life is stranger than fiction. I get paid to write about, play, and promote games; even do some design of my own. A drone strike on my coordinates is probably not necessary.

Really.  My account has been suspended.

After getting this several times, despite a 10 year account history, I resolved to call customer support. I was then informed that a block on all credit card payments and store purchases from Ukraine has gone into effect.

My half-orc barbarian did a silent /ragequit - because you can’t play Dungeons and Dragons online without some roleplaying.  Well, you can, but what fun is that?

I smiled knowingly and shook my head.  This might have a little something to do with “Little Green Men”… not necessarily tricksy hobbitses

There are a lot of games out there and if you have been paying attention, you will be familiar with stories like

The NSA tracks World of Warcraft and other online games for terrorist clues.

And other issues like,

Can the IRS tax virtual money?

Silly? Probably. Possible? Well, that depends. Let’s take a look at a few things.

Average wages in Ukraine are less than $300 monthly… provided you do have a job. While I know of no one engaging in the directions that will be elaborated upon, I have run a few tests and have tracked these specific issues over a decade to know that it is completely viable:

  • Power Leveling in WOW: $374 deliverable in 14.5 days
  • Top End Gear: $740 deliverable in 40 days
  • WOW Gold: $6.40 per 10k

This excludes other things like power leveling crafting, rare mounts, achievements, so on and so forth. It can also be said that these prices are quite low compared to when WOW Gold Farming was in its heyday about 6-8 years ago. Calculations for top-end raid gear alone then costed more than equipping a modern, professional soldier and rivaled the price of a REAL T-64 on Africa’s black market. A number of mechanisms have been implemented by Blizzard, and other companies, to tone that down and make it increasingly difficult for “Farmers” to do business.

However, that is a business that is very hard to completely secure. Security professionals are paid to keep out hackers. Hackers pride themselves on beating the crap out of paid security professionals – and they do, regularly. This is one case where they can get paid for doing so.

For one… WOW GOLD is likely to be more stable than the Russian Ruble and Ukrainian Hryvnia.

Presently, the exchange rate is roughly 90 WOW Gold = 1 Ukrainian Hryvnia.  As there are plenty of conspiracy theories that the amount of paper gold exceeds the amount of real, physical gold - leading to stories like Germany wanting to repatriate its gold - WOW GOLD could be more valuable than Real Gold. / end sense of humor.

Being in marketing, my interests include the demographics of end users. Many games now are “free to play” but variously include “pay to win” mechanics. Real life bears out Pareto’s Principle well enough. About 80% of people are simply content to play, for free. The other 20% are likely to be paying customers, but of these 4% are willing to pay more for “added conveniences” and there is usually a sub-1% segment that is willing to go all out. Not all of these are using the “Black Market” – for one, it’s not a sure thing. If you get caught buying or selling you get banned.

However, we are also talking about games with millions of users. For World of Warcraft, that’s roughly 8 million paying players – paying $10 monthly subscriptions. So, if only 1 in 1,000 people are willing to “pay to cheat” – we’re still taking about 80,000 people.  But, we’re not just talking about 8 million WOW players.  Each online game has a peak and valley relative to its expansion product cycle. One only need multiply that by the number of different “flavor of the day” games out there to see that it is a sizable market.

So, that’s a wide brush for painting the picture. But, some estimates in 2005-6, indicated there were as many as 100,000 gold farmers in China alone, sometimes involving “forced labor”.

Ukraine ranks 4th in the world for certified IT Professionals, just behind Russia, India and the United States.  Incidentally, the United States ranks #1 for both SPAM and Online Credit Card Fraud — just sayin’.   True enough, if Somali Pirates didn’t take it, Ukrainian pirates probably did… but that’s a different story for a different time.

Some of these IT Professionals are Black Hats, in some cases creating malware and viruses – and even producing software specifically to fix the malware they create. Aside from the nefarious Russian phreaks, it is not out of the question that there is some money laundering going on and maybe some of that is being used to help finance terrorism.

It is something that must be questioned – whatever the logic is behind shutting off online payments for all of Ukraine - or those who happen to be caught trying to pay for things in dollars from Ukraine using a credit card.

That question resides in one Acronym – The DCFTA.  Deep and Free Trade Agreement - For?

Maybe we can stack the deck against Ukrainians a little bit more? Let’s be creative about it.

  • Ukrainians can’t exactly travel freely to look at what is on the shelves of supermarkets in the European Union so they can design packaging that can compete.  What’s the hold up on the Visa regime?  Even now, illegal immigrants can hop, skip and jump their way into the United States, get free health care and even file Tax Returns for the years we aren’t even sure they were there….
  • Most Ukrainians don’t trust Ukrainian Banks enough to even keep their money in a Ukrainian bank. The mattress is far safer.  There are laws about selling used mattresses after all!  While Paypal is making an effort to be functional in Ukraine let’s encourage that by making it very difficult for anyone to use a credit card to actually buy anything online (denominated in dollars).

I could go on… and on.  But I won’t.  Instead, I’ve devised a plan to… turn in my US citizenship, fly to Mexico, cross the border as an Illegal Immigrant, establish a US residence, submit new tax returns for the past few years and get an unemployment check - forward all of that to a new Paypal account, and then return to Ukraine -  mask my IP address and play World of Warcraft so I could make enough money to buy large portions of Detroit.

On second thought - someone might want to proceed with that Drone Strike - before my army of 20th level wizards gets any really strange ideas…