Consumers are being warned of a surge in the use of computer software that lets internet profiteers snap up in-demand items in bulk – from games consoles to home exercise equipment – at the expense of genuine shoppers.
Amid warnings that problems with automated retail bots will continue to grow in 2021, calls are intensifying for the UK government to ban this activity, as it did with event tickets in 2018.
For years, computer software has been used to harvest “hot-ticket” items, which are then typically resold at inflated prices, but the focus tended to be on niche and collectible goods such as limited-edition trainers and luxury handbags.
But cybersecurity firms say retail bots are increasingly being used to snap up mass-market consumer technology products such as the recently launched PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X and Series S consoles, as well as Apple AirPods Max headphones. Armies of bots are sometimes picking the online shelves clean before genuine customers have a chance to press “add to basket”.
The pandemic has intensified the problem, with lockdowns forcing retailers to shut stores, thereby preventing them from making people queue in person to buy one item per customer.
This week reports emerged that a UK-based “scalper” bot called Carnage had been used to hoard more than 2,000 PlayStation 5 consoles that had just gone on sale. In a tweet on Tuesday, Carnage boasted: “Over 2,000 checkouts successfully logged for today’s Ga restock on the PS5 … Just keeps getting easier every time.”
In November, many gamers were angry when several retailers sold out of PlayStation 5s within minutes – only for thousands of the £449 consoles to quickly turn up on eBay and other sites for far more the list price, with some sellers asking for more than £1,000.
Some UK retailers appear to be reluctant to publicly discuss retail bots in depth, though in the US, Walmart last month acknowledged the challenges posed by what it called “grinch bots” – named after the Dr Seuss character the Grinch. It revealed that in the run-up to Black Friday in November, as it was about to put its PS5s on sale, it blocked more than 20m bot attempts within 30 minutes.
According to the cybersecurity firm Imperva, the bot problem will continue to grow in 2021 and beyond, while Thomas Platt, the head of e-commerce at the bot management firm Netacea, said: “As long as physical shops are shut, we can expect to see a rise in this, particularly with more general items.”
Platt said his firm had seen spikes in retail bot activity targeting unexpected items including home exercise and gym equipment and cars.
Meanwhile, growing numbers of people turn to this technology to help them get an advantage over other buyers. “We’ve seen a lot of bots become a lot more available to the public,” Platt said. “We’ve seen a huge trend in people in the UK searching for bots [online].”
Retail bots are “quite easy to buy … You can Google them,” he added. A basic retail bot can be picked up for £10, while some cost hundreds or even thousands of pounds.
Netacea recently came across the most expensive retail bot it had ever encountered, which was selling for $27,500 (£20,000). “That is a very specific bot that will target numerous things,” Platt said.
Now calls are growing for similar action on retail bots. Last month a group of Scottish MSPs tabled an early day motion calling on the government to bring forward proposed legislation that would make the resale of goods bought using an automated bot an illegal activity.
The motion, which focused on games consoles and computer components, said a ban would “deny unscrupulous vendors the chance to make themselves vast profits at the expense of genuine gamers and computer users”.
However, Platt said he did not think a ban would stop the bots completely because some groups were operating across borders. “There’s so much money being made,” he said.
In the meantime, retailers are finding ways to strike back in an attempt to short-circuit the bots. One such tactic that UK consumers may start to see more frequently is where a retailer increases the online advertised price of an in-demand item in an attempt to trick the bots, then sends genuine buyers a discount code so they can purchase it for the correct price.
That is what happened in the UK in October, when Currys PC World customers who had pre-ordered an Xbox Series X or S received a mysterious email saying it had increased the upfront cost of the console by £2,000.
It added: “But don’t worry. This won’t change how much you pay!” It then emailed these people a discount code to the value of £2,005 (covering the £2,000 rise plus the £5 deposit they had paid), which they could use when they paid for the item online.
Following the reports of the incident involving Carnage, Game was quoted as saying it would be checking pre-orders to ensure only one PS5 was sold per customer.
Platt said many of the companies Netacea had worked with were passionate about getting their products in the hands of consumers. But he added: “On the flipside, hype is the new market … For some of those businesses, they also recognise that if their product does not sell out in an hour or two hours, there is a risk that it might not be seen as the hot product any more.”