If you haven’t gotten started on your Christmas shopping, don’t feel too bad about it. Neither have the bots. But once they get going, look out.
Bots are clever little programs that automate various online tasks, such as buying stuff. In the wrong hands, shopping bots can be ordered to swoop down on popular online stores and scoop up all the hottest toys and gadgets before mere humans have even launched their browsers. The bot operators aren’t shopping for friends and family. They resell their purchases on eBay or other sites, while slapping desperate shoppers with eye-watering, price-gouging markups.
Shopping bots ran wild last year, leading to shortages of popular toys at major online retailers like Target, Walmart, and the now-defunct Toys “R” Us.
For instance, those popular Fingerlings dolls, which were supposed to sell for $15, were priced as high as $5,000 apiece by one ambitious eBay reseller. No idea whether he got any takers.
It’s all perfectly legal. For now. On Monday, a band of Democratic members of Congress unveiled a bill to outlaw the practice. It’s far too late for this holiday season, and it’s far from obvious that the measure would even be enforceable. A similar 2016 law to ban bot purchases of concert and theater tickets has yet to be enforced by the Federal Trade Commission. Still, you can’t blame lawmakers for trying.
So far this holiday season, the bot operators seem to be taking it easy.
“As of a week ago, we didn’t have any concrete examples,” said Chuck Bell, programs director for advocacy at Consumer Reports, which monitored last year’s bot buying binge.
Why are they laying low? Bell says it’s still early in the season. Because bots can buy items with dazzling speed, they can afford to hold off. Meanwhile, they can track news reports and the best-seller lists posted by Amazon and other online retailers, to identify the hottest products. Those are what they’ll put on their shopping lists — the items they can resell for the fattest possible profits.
All of this is old news to fans of collectable footwear, mostly athletic shoes that sell for hundreds of dollars and can be resold for thousands. The hardest of hardcore shoe traders use software like AIObot, a $325 product that runs on Windows, Mac, and Linux computers and calls itself “the best way to cop limited release sneakers automatically, fast, efficient and user friendly.”
These bots can search multiple retail sites for the latest Nike Air or Adidas Yeezy shoe. A user can buy up multiple pairs in just a few seconds and have them shipped to the address of his or her choice.
Of course, shoemakers and retailers hate this because the speed of the bots leaves most buyers in the dust, and hopping mad when their screen flashes “sold out.” So the sellers work with companies like Akamai Technologies in Cambridge to devise ways to detect and block the bots. Bot makers reply with innovations of their own, in a never-ending arms race.
Stephanie Martz, general counsel at the National Retail Federation, concedes that bot buying is legal but said many participants are far from clean. “Our chief concern, of course, is when these products are snapped up by criminal enterprises.” For instance, a bot shopper can pay for purchases with stolen credit card numbers, for sale by the millions in the criminal underground. Those items can then be resold to a law-abiding citizen in a handy form of money laundering.
Martz’s group and Consumer Reports hailed the proposed “Stopping Grinch Bots Act,” which would make the use of aggressive shopping bots an unfair trade practice subject to civil action by the Federal Trade Commission. It would not ban bots outright, just the kind that circumvent limits on the number of items each customer can buy. Say an online store sets a limit of five items per customer. In that case, a bot that tries to buy three or four LOL Surprise! dolls would be just fine, while a program that seeks to buy 100 of them would be out of bounds.
It’s not a bad idea for a law, but good luck enforcing it. In 2016, outrage over online ticket scalping led to enactment of the Better Online Ticket Sales, or BOTS, Act. But Elizabeth Benton, a spokeswoman for Democratic US Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, said the FTC hasn’t lifted a finger against any online scalpers. “Aggressive enforcement by the FTC will be required before fans can see full relief,” Benton said.
Expect the same lack of results if the feds pass the Grinch act, said Lance Cottrell, chief scientist at the Virginia network security company Ntrepid LLC. “I like the idea,” Cottrell said, “but it seems to me really unlikely that the law will have substantial impact.”
For one thing, bot buying won’t be a high priority for law enforcement officials. For another, many bot buyers operate overseas, beyond the reach of US law.
So if you want to make sure you’ll be able to score that special gift, don’t wait for federal help. Don’t wait at all. Place your orders early. And if you’re really desperate, try shopping at brick-and-mortar retailers. After all, bots can’t drive.Hiawatha Bray can be reached at email@example.com.