INDIANAPOLIS — People trying to snag a new Xbox Series X or a PlayStation 5 this holiday season are having a hard time buying one.
The stock seems to sell out as soon as it’s released.
Experts say you may not be losing out to another person at all, but a “Grinch bot.”
“It’s a computer program basically designed to buy up all the product, so that it’s not available, and whoever has it, can sell it for much greater profit,” explains Doug Kouns, a former FBI Agent who now owns the private investigation firm Veracity IIR. “What I’m most familiar with in this concept is ticket sales. Back before CAPTCHAs, people could set up programs that could go onto Ticketmaster, Live Nation, whatever it is, and buy up all the tickets, and they scalp them for multiples of what they are actually worth.”
The BOTS Act in 2016 banned the use of bots for scalping but did not mention any halt in the e-commerce arena. Companies did get smarter about the purchasing process by adding what is called a CAPTCHA. You may recognize them as a word or code graphic you have to input before purchasing.
CAPTCHAs also come in the form of a grid of a pictures, where a few of the squares may have a common image like a bridge, sign, or vehicle. The user must identify which blocks have the correct image to prove they are indeed human.
An anti-Grinch bot bill has been proposed, but has stalled in Congress. The hold up continues to allow programmers to develop bots to foil the average consumer when they are buying hot holiday products, or limited edition releases.
Grinch bots are commonly used in the sneaker collection world. When a limited edition pair is released by a company online, these bots can pick them up faster than a human can work their computer.
“To us is it’s sold out, but the program is buying as much up as it can at a rate we can’t keep up with,” explains internet attorney Andrew Rossow. “On one hand, it seems advantageous to the company, as the bot itself is buying the product, but at the same time it’s eliminating an entirely separate demographic. It would appear advantageous, but I don’t think it is.”
In addition to buying up products for higher value resales, programmers also sell the bots themselves to the average consumers. Rossow says they can be found fairly easily online. An eager-to-please parent may even try to use the bot to buy two of the item, and then sell the second one at a higher price online to recoup the money lost from buying the bot. While this may seem like a great idea, Rossow says it’s buyer beware.
“Think of it as a subscription service, or often a licensing deal. My first advice is do so at your own risk, and be very, very careful” cautions Rossow. “They are not hard to find, these pieces of software you can find online, but the problem is understanding and distinguishing legitimate bot software from counterfeit, or software designed to steal your information. What have you just done? You’ve given these individuals a brand-new Christmas gift.”
If you are shopping online this year, be wary of where you store your personal information. Experts say to make sure the websites are legitimate locations before typing in your credit card information.