For Russian users, watching a TV series on the American streaming service Netflix or downloading a new online video game on Steam used to be a matter of a few clicks.
But an exodus of Western companies following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made access to hundreds of popular entertainment platforms much more difficult, spawning a web of middlemen, often overseas, to enable Russians to continue using their favorite online services.
The biggest problem for many has been the Withdrawal from Visa and Mastercard in the Russian market, which means they have no way of paying the subscription fee. PayPal payment service also suspended his services in Russia.
Netflix and other big streaming services like Spotify, AppleTV+, Megogo, and Amazon Prime, as well as other big platforms like porn provider Pornhub, all require monthly payments, as do gaming platforms like Battle.net, Steam, Xbox and PlayStation.
A popular solution is to use a subscription service owned by family or friends overseas.
If a non-Russian card is used to pay, Russians can continue to watch Netflix shows or stream Spotify – as long as they activate a VPN that masks their physical location.
A Moscow Times reporter used such a trick to access Netflix in Russia and was able to continue using the service after being added to the account of a friend based in India.
However, not all Russian users have a friend abroad who is ready to help.
For these people, there is a growing network of online intermediaries offering a place on common access accounts on entertainment platforms.
Hundreds of advertisement on the popular Russian online marketplace Avito offers access to “family” subscriptions on Netflix, Spotify, Xbox, PlayStation and other platforms. Before the war, a Netflix Premium subscription in Russia cost up to 999 rubles ($17) per month. Now it can be purchased for 390 rubles ($6) per month or less on Avito.
Similar schemes are used by Russian gamers who can no longer use Russian bank cards to make purchases on Western gaming platforms.
Sellers on online marketplaces like Avito and Plati.ru sell “keys” for video games that have been purchased in foreign countries – particularly Argentina, Armenia and Kazakhstan – where prices are further down, Cybersport games portal reported.
These keys cost up to $20, according to online advertisements reviewed by The Moscow Times. For example, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare online game can be downloaded for free from illegal Russian torrent websites and the key on Plati.ru can be acquired for $13.
But the risk of scam is high with such options.
“It’s worth checking the reliability of the seller – look at reviews and ratings,” warns one guide for online gamblers published by the Russian banking magazine Tinkoff Journal.
“In 99% of cases, these offers are fraudulent,” said Vladimir Makarov, an expert at IT security consulting firm T.Hunter. “In the remaining 1% of cases, we are talking about the purchase of a new subscription account or a stolen account.”
At the same time, there are still ways for Russians to conduct international financial transactions – albeit much more time-consuming.
Some companies offer top-ups for accounts registered in Russia on the popular gaming site Steam. MTS Bank, the fintech unit of Russia’s largest mobile operator MTS, provides such a service through its app, although it warns that the commission can be as high as 22%.
Kazakhstan recently firm a program by which foreigners could obtain an individual identification number (IIN) online, allowing them to open a Kazakh bank account as the number of IIN applications from foreigners would have multiplied by 16 since March.
Sergei, 27, who lives in St. Petersburg, said it was easy to find information about the rifts.
Before getting a Kazakh IIN and paying through a Kazakh bank account, Sergei said he used the Bankoff financial management app to make payments on Western sites. He transferred money to his account at Bankoff after buying cryptocurrency with rubles.
But this escape was firm in May after protests from Visa and Mastercard.
Russian payment service provider Qiwi can still be used to make payments on Western entertainment platforms. Sergei said that he and other Russian users were able purchase games on Steam by exchanging rubles for Kazakh tenge via Qiwi.
Sometimes the easiest way to access entertainment platforms is to hide your location using a VPN. A journalist from the Moscow Times was able to use a Spotify account by logging into the music streaming service with a VPN showing his location outside of Russia.
However, VPNs don’t always work, not least because an increasing number of entertainment services automatically block users with VPNs.
Although circumventing national rules is a breach of contract with Spotify and other western entertainment companies, it is allowed in Russia.
“From a legal point of view, the use of Tor or VPN does not fall under any article of the Criminal Code,” said expert Makarov.
Even for Russians living abroad, there are still access problems.
After Google blocked access to YouTube Premium and Netflix for all Google Accounts registered from Russian territory, Alexandra, a Russian citizen living in India who requested anonymity to speak freely, said she could not even not use his Indian bank card to make payments.
“It was very scary. All my data is in Google, it’s like my digital soul,” she said.
Many illegal schemes to access Western entertainment content are reminiscent of practices prevalent in the early 2000s, when users relied on torrents, said expert Marakov.
“We are now returning to a time when you had to go to a physical store to buy something or search the web for options without knowing if it was a scam or not. The other option is to use torrents – just download and watch,” Makarov said.