Seven times in the past month, Benjamin Karmis, a 26-year-old priest from Wheaton, United States, tried unsuccessfully to buy the PlayStation 5 on retail sites like Walmart and the Facebook Marketplace.
He couldn’t buy the video game console recently launched by Sony. Not because someone else got ahead, but because they and other consumers were outdone by automated software used by resellers of high-demand products.
This year, this automated software known as “bots” also targeted products such as toilet paper and disinfectants. In England they even managed to occupy online shopping opportunities that were reserved for quarantined seniors.
Retailers are trying new tactics against the practice known as “scalper bot” after social isolation measures have taken online product resale to unprecedented levels, according to cybersecurity experts.
Some stores have promised to improve security. Others expanded the offer or only offered products to known customers.
“Given the constant evolution and rewrite of bot programming, we are constantly developing and updating our own robot detection tools that we can use to successfully block most of them,” said a Walmart spokesman.
“Online sales have already been at record levels this year due to Covid-19 and the introduction of new generation video games is creating volume and consumption patterns that we have never seen before.”
NOT FOR RESALE
Scalper bots first gained notoriety about a decade ago in ticket sales for limited shows and releases of tennis.
While US law prohibits ticket changers from trading, retailers do not have such protection.
“Is it a little absurd, but illegal? No,” said Edward Roberts, a cybersecurity expert at Imperva.
A primary target for product retailers, Nike has created creative ways to counter the money changer robots and given users of its app the ability to book sneakers to pick up from the company’s stores.
In 2018, Nike even offered the Air Jordan 1 sneaker labeled “NOT FOR RESALE”. The pair of the model now sell for nearly a thousand dollars on the StockX online marketplace.
At Walmart, most of the “significant traffic” in purchases of new video game consoles was generated by bots, the spokesman said. On November 25, the world’s largest retailer blocked more than 20 million bot purchase attempts in the first 30 minutes of PS5 sales.
Most product change robots reload pages at millisecond intervals to add items to the shopping cart. Some are programmed to disguise themselves as hundreds of different customers in different locations.
Sometimes money changers temporarily bring down a retailer’s website and distract security programs so that buying robots can infiltrate the security breaches, said Thomas Platt, director of e-commerce at Netacea, the digital security company.
These robots have become so popular that they can be easily found by searching for “Nike Bot” or “PS5 Bot” in search engines. It is possible to purchase temporary access to them for $ 10-20.
According to the UK’s CrepChiefNotify, a subscription service that teaches users how to use money changer robots and alerts them to the availability of high-demand products, its customers have purchased about 6,000 PS5 and Xbox consoles.