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If you’ve been searching for a PS5 these past months – convinced that the solution to the ennui of lockdown life lies in next-gen gaming – it’s likely that you’ve also made a new, hated enemy: retail bots.
For many, attempts to buy the console have followed the same sad pattern. A store, like Argos, Currys PC World or GAME, announces it has new stock. Customers descend on the site – more than 160,000 at once, in the case of Currys – crashing it. When the virtual dust settles, the consoles are gone. Almost instantly, hundreds begin to appear on eBay for double the price. The culprits? Scalpers and their weapon of choice – retail bots. And the pandemic has created an ideal hunting ground.
There are three kinds of bots at work, explains Thomas Platt, head of ecommerce at Netacea, a cybersecurity company. The first, and most notorious, is called an AIO bot, or all-in-one bot. These move at an inhuman rate, scanning hundreds of websites every second to check if the PS5 is in stock. The instant an item drops the bot will buy it and checkout, faster than a human could ever type their details. These bots, explains Platt, will have multiple accounts loaded with multiple credit cards, so they can pick up large quantities of PS5s.
The two other common types of bot are similar – one will check to see if an item becomes available then send the bot’s owner a text or notification; the other lets you pay a fee to get a checkout slot. “Or they’re pausing and holding that stock in rotation until they sell it,” says Platt. “That’s something we saw a lot in the ticket industry a while ago, and we see a lot in the airline industry, where you might hold the item, put it up for retail on another site, and as soon as you get a bid on it, you automatically purchase it.”
Scalping bots aren’t new. Online ticket scalping was outlawed in the UK in 2018, and “sneakerbots” drive a secondary retail market for rare trainers worth $2 billion. It’s been typical to see bots target big shopping events like Black Friday. Before the pandemic, they were growing in popularity as a result of the retail industry’s increasing reliance on hype and limited stocks. “We are seeing more and more hard sales recently, with limited stock,” says Benjamin Fabre, CTO of DataDome, a cybersecurity company.
But the pandemic has kicked these bots into overdrive, and it’s not just the result of more aggressive sales events and shopping being pushed online (you can’t, obviously, have a retail bot camp out in front of your local GAME store). Damaged supply chains have limited the stock of usually plentiful items, creating scarcity, and scarcity is what scalpers prey on. “We used to see niche groups of people targeting niche groups of things,” says Platt. “And now what we realise is they can target things that aren’t so niche, and they can make a lot of money. And that’s that’s the real switch for us.”
From gym equipment to hot tubs to Magic the Gathering trading cards, the net has widened for these groups, which have grown into huge communities. “It’s spreading across the board,” says Jason Kent at Cequence Security, a cybersecurity software company. “The guys that worked on buying the most desirable shoes have realised that they can spread their knowledge, ability and concepts to whatever.”
Data provided by Netacea showed that a botnet which used 300 compromised machines made one million attempts to buy PS5s over six hours, and that “cook communities” of would-be scalpers can reach up to 20,000 people. When Google searches for PS5 spike, so do those for scalper bots.
Scalpers are aware of this change, too. PC Gamer spoke to numerous scalpers who reported that their business had taken off since the pandemic began, while bot sellers like Carnage Bot have taken to Twitter to brag about picking up more than 2,000 PS5s. The people behind Carnage Bot did not respond to a request for comment.
If these figures are true, explains Platt, this represents around a £1 million worth of investment, with profits likely double that. “Before this was a small niche community,” says Platt. “It wasn’t something being advertised on Facebook saying, ‘hey you can make £200 a month by buying what we tell you to buy.’ That’s the real shift. These have turned into commercial businesses, with marketing plans, with investment, with budget, getting as much PR coverage as we are.”
Not only do these businesses have huge buying power, buying and selling stock all around the world, they sell on their bots to amateurs. These can be worth up to $27,500, and often sell out, says Platt. Casual users of bots have grown accordingly. “They’ll buy two or three pairs of shoes, recover their money, get their shoes, and they’re done,” says Kent.
So should we be stopping scalpers? From the perspective of a seller, scalping is a disaster, explains Fabre. It damages the brand, overloading websites that cannot handle volumes of bot traffic, infuriating customers who cannot buy products for reasonable prices, and generating fraud – bot creators often use fraudulent credit cards.
Retailers have different options for stopping scalping. They can be smarter with their launch, for instance, not informing customers weeks in advance and giving scalpers time to set up their bots. They can hire third party security firms to check pre orders manually or place security filters in front of their sites. Or they can come up with novel workarounds: Currys put the price of the Xbox Series X up to £2,000, then handed out vouchers for £2,005, in an attempt to confuse bots. (Several retailers were contacted for comment but did not respond in time for publication, or declined to comment.)
Government legislation has been mooted. At the end of last year Douglas Chapman, the MP for Dunfermline and West Fife, brought forward a motion at Westminster to prevent unfair scalping in the games console and computer marketplace. Officials at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport are reportedly discussing this issue with the trade association for the video games industry.
“We proposed examining the principles behind Secondary Selling of Tickets legislation drafted to tackle unfair ticket touting as a possible route to prevent scalping,” says Chapman. “Given that experts in the cyber industry now predict the issue of scalping to grow across other important goods and services this year, we are looking at presenting a Bill in Parliament on this matter so that we can further explore legislative options to protect consumers from this unfair practice.”
This chimes with most people’s perception – retail bots aren’t fair. “It is not even or equal for anyone,” says Platt. “And that’s why the government should be pushing legislation, like they did with ticketing.”
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