Data provided by Netacea showed that a botnet which used 300 compromised machines made 1 million attempts to buy PS5s over six hours, and that “cook communities” of would-be scalpers can reach up to 20,000 people. When Google searches for PS5 spike, so do those for scalper bots.
Scalpers are aware of this change, too. PC Gamer spoke to numerous scalpers who reported that their business had taken off since the pandemic began, while bot sellers like Carnage Bot have taken to Twitter to brag about picking up more than 2,000 PS5s. The people behind Carnage Bot did not respond to a request for comment.
If these figures are true, explains Platt, this represents around £1 million worth of investment, with profits likely double that. “Before, this was a small niche community,” says Platt. “It wasn’t something being advertised on Facebook saying, ‘Hey, you can make £200 a month by buying what we tell you to buy.’ That’s the real shift. These have turned into commercial businesses with marketing plans, with investment, with budget, getting as much PR coverage as we are.”
Not only do these businesses have huge buying power, buying and selling stock all around the world, they also sell their bots to amateurs. These can be worth up to $27,500, and they often sell out, says Platt. Casual users of bots have grown accordingly. “They’ll buy two or three pairs of shoes, recover their money, get their shoes, and they’re done,” says Kent.
So should we be stopping scalpers? From the perspective of a seller, scalping is a disaster, explains Fabre. It damages the brand, overloading websites that cannot handle volumes of bot traffic, infuriating customers who cannot buy products for reasonable prices, and generating fraud—bot creators often use fraudulent credit cards.
Retailers have different options for stopping scalping. They can be smarter with their launch, for instance, not informing customers weeks in advance and giving scalpers time to set up their bots. They can hire third-party security firms to check preorders manually or place security filters in front of their sites. Or they can come up with novel workarounds: Currys put the price of the Xbox Series X up to £2,000, then handed out vouchers for £2,005, in an attempt to confuse bots. (Several retailers were contacted for comment but did not respond in time for publication, or declined to comment.)
Government legislation has been mooted. At the end of last year Douglas Chapman, the MP for Dunfermline and West Fife, brought forward a motion at Westminster to prevent unfair scalping in the game console and computer marketplace. Officials at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport are reportedly discussing this issue with the trade association for the video games industry.
“We proposed examining the principles behind Secondary Selling of Tickets legislation drafted to tackle unfair ticket touting as a possible route to prevent scalping,” says Chapman. “Given that experts in the cyber industry now predict the issue of scalping to grow across other important goods and services this year, we are looking at presenting a bill in Parliament on this matter so that we can further explore legislative options to protect consumers from this unfair practice.”
This chimes with most people’s perception—retail bots aren’t fair. “It is not even or equal for anyone,” says Platt. “And that’s why the government should be pushing legislation, like they did with ticketing.”
This story originally appeared on WIRED UK.
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