A common rule in life is that “if something seems too good to be true, that’s because it is.” That rule goes double for the internet. Very few YouTubers have demonstrated this principle more than professional online grifters Jake Paul and Bryan “RiceGum” Le, who recently promoted a deceptive gambling site to their millions of subscribers — many of who are underage — promising visitors untold prizes and profits the site’s administrators openly admitted they don’t actually own. It was an outright con-job.
Mystery Brand, a controversial loot box website offering users literally unbelievable gifts, was exposed last weekend by highly acclaimed YouTubers H3H3 and PewDiePie who questioned the ethics of online creators guiding their young and impressionable audiences towards shady businesses, along with the enabling of such behavior by YouTube. The con was simple, teasing users with the prospect that from anywhere between $12.99 to $250, their “mystery box” could contain lavish riches such as iPhones, iPads, MacBook Pros, Nike Air sneakers, a Lamborghini and even a $250 million mansion credited as “the most expensive Los Angeles realty.”
In their advertisements, Paul and RiceGum are shown investing their thousands of dollars into the website in exchange for these randomized digital prizes. The videos begin showing humble items nobody really wants such as fidget spinners, USB sticks, a Nutella chocolate hoodie, icicles, anything at all to pad the competition with unnecessary garbage, all to make the actual riches appear all the more valuable. It’s the standard risk vs reward practice intended to hook gamblers. By the end the stars had won loads of tech and apparel, where they were shown supposedly able to either order the merchandise to their houses or sell it back to the site for profit.
This rags to riches narrative structure, of course, is by design. As reported by both The Daily Beast and The Verge on Wednesday, Tim Perk, a representative for the company, addressing numerous consumer complaints admitted that the prizes listed on their website are sometimes entirely fake, including the luxurious cars and the mansion the publications found was only valued at $188 million and can still be found for sale at Zillow.com. Since this exposure, the prizes have been entirely removed from the website, though the controversy is far from over.
“I received a fake Supreme x North Face Baltoro mountain jacket from Stockx earlier this year,” a Reddit user said. “It’s actually so frustrating to see a multi-million dollar company do well despite numerous incidents of fake items slipping through the authentication process. Their lack of customer support is also a joke.”
This is especially concerning considering the target audience of these YouTube personalities. From a simple scan of the website’s terms and conditions, it appears that Mystery Brand is an operation being conducted in Poland, meaning all behavior is “interpreted and subject to the jurisdiction and the laws” of that particular nation. Thanks to the lawmakers of Central Europe, the website is “strictly prohibited for persons under 13 or persons not reached the age of majority,” meaning anyone who actually won prizes may not even be eligible to receive them, with no news of refunds being conducted by administrators.
This is in addition to other Mystery Brand problems customers have exposed across multiple Reddit threads. Examples showcasing the deceptive racket, such as customers being coerced into paying an additional $40 dollars for shipping without guarantees of a refund, and entirely faulty tracking numbers and packages which hadn’t been shipped for months (assuming they’ll even be received at all). Perk later told The Verge that the delivery of these unspecified “fake winnings,” as well as the failure to deliver anything to their customers, is “completely untrue” and would be “unjustified” if that’s the case, passing some of the blame onto so-called affiliates such as StockX, a popular reselling platform for shoes. A StockX representative, however, denied any relationship with Mystery Brand when The Verge asked, going as far as to say they didn’t know the company existed.
It’s all currently a he-said, she-said of illegality.
Even if we discard the evidence here and look at this from the best case scenario, where the site runs smoothly, customers aren’t being scammed and the admins are entirely good faith actors, it still explicitly violates YouTube’s strict gambling policies imposing a ban on R&G promotion to minors, which both Paul and RiceGum have openly admitted is not only their target audience but also that of prior affiliates of the brand too. These associates include Zane Hijazi (a crewmember of vlogger David Dobrik), Morgz, Reaction Zoom and Guava Juice, a creator knowing for making YouTube videos centred around slime. Adult content, clearly.
All these creators, however, have removed their promotions following these revelations. Paul and RiceGum, however, still maintain the videos on their platform, which remain monetized by the YouTube platform with all the inappropriate links to the website. YouTube even had the gall to make sure these videos were on their trending page, which has jokingly been referred to as the “staff’s picks” section due to suggestions of big tech curation. The platform released their statement to Vox showing more concern that the videos were labeled “sponsored” than the illegal conduct they contained.
“YouTube believes that creators should be transparent with their audiences if their content includes paid promotion of any kind,” an anonymous representative said, refusing to have their name on the record. “Our policies make it clear that YouTube creators are responsible for ensuring their content complies with local laws, regulations and YouTube Community Guidelines. If the content is found to violate these policies, we take action to ensure the integrity of our platform, which can include removing content.”
There’s no word on whether the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the government department responsible for overseeing regulations in regard to both online sponsored content and advertising, has any intention of investigating the promotion of gambling to minors by YouTube and their highest stars. According to Vox, the only response received was “an automatic reply that the organization was closed due to the partial government shutdown,” which is underway since President Donald Trump’s recent demands for funding of the wall across the southern border. Whether action will be taken after the shutdown is unclear, though don’t expect big tech to get their morals together anytime soon without some principled resistance.