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updated 4/15/2013 3:46:41 PM ET 2013-04-15T19:46:41

Cheaters have it rough: They never win, they never prosper and their computers are probably chock-full of malware. Gamers who download unauthorized hacks, modifications or even entire games have a 90 percent chance of encountering some potentially nasty software, a study has found.

Czech antivirus-software developer AVG recently ran a study involving five of the most popular PC games on the market: "World of Warcraft," "League of Legends," "RuneScape," "World of Tanks" and "Minecraft." Anyone who has played these games knows it takes a great deal of time, effort and sometimes additional money to excel.

Instead of advancing through hard work or persistence, gamers can download hacks, which can alter game parameters to grant additional in-game experience points, gold or status in the rankings. In multiplayer games, this is obviously problematic — and, in some cases, a violation of the end-user license agreement — as it gives cheating players an unfair advantage over legitimate ones.

Even if cheaters' consciences don't dole out punishment, the Internet might: AVG surveyed a large number of hacks from file search engines FilesTube and FileCrop, and found that more than 90 percent of them could potentially compromise a user's system.

AVG added the sales figures from the five titles together and estimated — conservatively, in its opinion — that 0.1 percent of players would seek out hacks. That would put approximately 330,000 gamers at risk of contracting malware.

In reality, these numbers could be either higher or lower. More than 0.1 percent of gamers may look for hacks, but any gamer seeking out hacks is likely to possess a modicum of tech knowledge already, and may be more vigilant about potentially unsafe downloads. [See also: 10 Great Games You're Missing ]

Malware attached to game hacks can take a variety of forms. In addition to rendering a game unplayable, a malicious hack could easily steal login information. All five games can store user billing information, which means a hack could expose credit card information and users’ addresses. Malware need not be game-specific, either: A well-placed exploit can draft a gaming PC into a botnet, and install ransomware that locks up programs or lurks in a browser until a user logs in to a bank account.

Avoiding game hacks is relatively simple: Don't go out looking for them. AVG recommends avoiding not only hacks, but also cracks (which allow users to play CD/DVD-ROM games without keeping the disc in their PCs) and unofficial patches.

The rest is common sense: Use a different (hard-to-guess) password for each game, use a game's official site for updates and modifications and run regular antivirus scans.

Not every unofficial patch or modification is dangerous; in fact, when it comes to older games, unofficial patches and mods often come from displaced developers or passionate fan communities. Just exercise good judgment: There's a big difference between an unofficial high-resolution texture package and a code for infinite gold.

Follow Marshall Honorof @marshallhonorof. Follow us @TechNewsDaily, on  Facebook  or Google+.

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