Seven times in the past month, Benjamin Karmis, a 26-year-old priest from Wheaton, Illinois, failed to acquire the latest Sony PlayStation 5 video game console from retail sites including Walmart and Facebook Marketplace.
But it wasn’t because someone else beat him to buy.
Instead, Carmis and other shoppers were outgrowing the so-called “Scalbot”, which sellers use to snatch products online and later re-list them at big bucks on eBay and Amazon Marketplace.
The Coronavirus pandemic that has kept millions of shoppers at home has also encouraged these sellers, whose high-tech budget – legal in most countries – is causing shoppers grief every day.
“There is no way I could be more prepared to have one, and I failed every time,” Karmis said.
This year, robots have also targeted pandemic-era staples, including P&G’s Charmin toilet paper and Reckitt Benckiser Lysol. In Britain, robots have hijacked even grocery deliveries for the elderly.
Cybersecurity consultants and experts have said retailers are trying new tactics as the pandemic has expanded robotic resale to new product categories and expanded the resale appeal at a time when many people are losing their jobs.
Some stores have pledged to ramp up cybersecurity measures. Others have distributed availability or offered products to only a handful of known customers.
A Walmart spokesperson told Reuters: “As robotic scripts are constantly evolving and being rewritten, we have built, deployed and continuously updated our robotic detection tools that allow us to successfully block the vast majority of robots.”
“The volume on the Internet has been already high this year due to COVID, and the launch of the next generation of consoles is creating traffic volumes and patterns never seen before,” he added.
Some customers said the company’s website crashed when they tried to purchase one of their new consoles. Walmart said that despite the heavy traffic, its website remained.
‘not for sale’
Scalper robots first gained prominence in the concert ticket markets and limited-edition sneaker markets about a decade ago, with vendors trimming to the front of the online queue.
Although US law prohibits ticket sales under the Federal Best Online Ticket Sales (BOTS) Act 2016, there is no such protection for retailers.
“It’s kind of outrageous, but is it illegal?” Said Edward Roberts, an application security specialist at cybersecurity firm Imperva.
Nike Inc, a major target of sellers, has come up with innovative ways to fight robots, such as giving established members of the SNKRS app the opportunity to reserve shoes they can get from the Nike Store.
In 2018, Nike went so far as to introduce a pair of red Air Jordan 1 sneakers stamped “NOT FOR RESALE” on the sole. They now go for nearly $ 1,000 on the StockX online resale marketplace.
“It’s a big problem, but at the same time I think retailers are now exploring ways to combat robots with better firewalls and by making consumers more reactive to things like in-store withdrawals,” said Jay Somerville, a former Nike clothing buyer.
At Walmart, most of the “significantly higher” traffic for new video game consoles came from robots, a company spokesperson said. On November 25, the world’s largest retailer blocked more than 20 million bot attempts within the first 30 minutes of the PS5 sales event that day, among other preventive measures.
The company also conducts after-sales audits, canceling orders from robots and making those products available to regular consumers.
Target Corp and GameStop Corp also said they have high-tech bot protection software on their websites, declining to provide further details.
But as the use of robots expanded across regions and product categories, programmers remained one step ahead of corporate security officials.
Most scalper robots reload web pages every few milliseconds to gain an advantage in adding products to their shopping carts. Some try to masquerade as hundreds of different clients from different sites.
Sometimes, distributors shut down a retailer’s website temporarily, distracting security software to allow the exploit’s bots to slip through the vulnerabilities, said Thomas Platt, head of e-commerce at Netacea, a bot security company.
Resale robots can be worth as much as $ 5,000 apiece in online marketplaces, or through curated episodes on social media. Scalper robots are becoming increasingly popular, and they can be found easily by entering phrases like “nike bot” or “PS5 bot” into internet search engines. People can purchase limited-time access to them for as little as $ 10 to $ 20.
“There’s big money in this, and the PS5 is a great example,” Platt said. Netacea identified one episode to resell the console, for example, which made about $ 1 million to $ 1.5 million in the last two weeks of November.
UK-based CrepChiefNotify, a subscription service that teaches members how to use bots and alerts them to the availability of hot items, and claims its customers have purchased around 6,000 PS5 and Xbox consoles.
The company said it has doubled its membership to 4,000 since the start of the pandemic, when many of its members lost their jobs. It says its customers made around £ 400 ($ 534.40) on average per game console when they were resold.
“These are companies,” Roberts said. “People pay off their mortgage and they do.” “They have a goal and are financially motivated, so they are not going away.”
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