Are “Grey Market” Software Key Sites Trustworthy?

If you’ve been on the hunt for software, you’ve probably turned to PC stores and digital sites for CDs and downloads. Some software, however, will require a software key to unlock the full version, such as Windows operating systems. As such, it’s possible to shop for software by buying a key instead of a CD or download.

If you take a brief look online, you can find legitimate stores such as Amazon that sells CD keys. You don’t have to scroll too far, however, to find sites that are advertising CD keys and seem a bit suspicious. Not only are they not being sold through official retailers, but they offer key prices at a shockingly low price.

This is the case of an Internet “grey market,” a site which sells software keys without getting the permission of the key’s publisher. They’re typically sold by individual users in a market-based system and often sport ridiculously low prices. They seem too good to be true, and in some cases, they are! So, what could go wrong with buying a key from a grey market?

The Keys Can Be Fake, Used, or Incompatible with Your Region


Some sites allow users to sell their keys individually. In this instance it becomes a hit-or-miss chance on whether or not the key is real. (And if it is, if it’s been used already or not.) Some CD key sites offer extra protection against these scams, usually for an additional cost on top of the price of the key. Even if the key is legitimate and works, there may be an issue that arises when you come to use it: for example, a region lock that keeps the software from being activated outside of the original market.

The Keys Might Be Stolen


It’s weird to think that CD keys can be “stolen,” but they can be gained using shady methods. This can be done in one of two ways: either from an in-store box or card with the key on it, or bought from a store using illegal funds.

For the former, the key you’re buying may be from a stolen software suite that had an activation code within. This may have been a customer stealing codes from the store or an employee helping themselves to a little bit of the store’s product. Once they have the keys, they can sell them in marketplaces to make extra money.

For the latter, software keys are a useful way for credit card thieves to raise funds. When spending money from a stolen credit card, there’s always the risk of the credit card being discovered and revoked by the bank. By purchasing keys and selling them on grey market sites, it doesn’t matter if the card is discovered once the purchases are done; the keys are already being sold, with the sale money being wired directly to the thief’s bank account.

The Keys Can Be Revoked


There was a situation three years ago where game CD keys sold by grey market site Kinguin and redeemed on Ubisoft’s Uplay were revoked by the publisher due to being bought with stolen funds. People who thought they were getting a legitimate key for a game suddenly had access revoked with zero warning. This, of course, angered a lot of people!

If you buy a key purchased from a stolen credit card, and the key successfully unlocks the product you entered it into, you’re still running the risk of seeing it invalidated later on down the line. If you’d rather have the assurance that your software’s license won’t evaporate overnight, it’s worth investing in more legitimate methods.

Can a Key from the Grey Market Be Legitimate?

Sure! Some keys you’ll find online will be sold by someone fair and square. Someone may have received the game in a bundle of other games and decided to sell the keys of the games they weren’t interested in. Perhaps someone had been given software as a present, and they’ve decided to resell it. Just because shady key selling is present, it doesn’t mean every key seller is a criminal!

Unfortunately, even someone selling keys with good intentions may be walking a dangerous path. Some companies that sell software bundles, as well as the developers who agreed to have their software in said bundle, may disagree with people selling their keys. If they catch wind of keys being put up for sale, they may take steps to invalidate those keys, even if the original seller didn’t intend to fleece anyone.

Where Can I Get Legitimate Keys?

If you’d rather not gamble with these sites and want something more trustworthy, look for sites that are validated retailers of software. These companies will be selling keys with the permission of the developer. They will also ensure each key is legitimate and will work on your computer.

You can sometimes find keys on the developer’s official site or links to where you can buy keys. You can also find keys on well-known retailer sites such as Amazon. There are sites that have been approved by the publishers to sell keys, so be sure to double-check the site you’re shopping on before you buy any keys from it.

Key Points

Grey market key-selling sites have incredible prices, but they’re not always trustworthy. While sellers on grey market sites aren’t always scam artists, even well-meaning merchants can find their keys under the scrutiny of the people who gave them the keys in the first place.

What do you think of grey market sites? Untrustworthy or an easy way to save money? Let us know below.

Simon Batt
Simon Batt

Simon Batt is a Computer Science graduate with a passion for cybersecurity.

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