Families face bitter disappointment this Christmas as an army of computer bots snap up popular presents to sell on at eye-watering prices.
Online shopping robots, known as ‘retail bots’ or ‘scalper bots’, can be programmed to buy items the moment they go on sale — before ordinary customers can get a look in.
Bot owners then list their loot on websites such as eBay at double or even triple the price — cashing in on parents desperate not to let down their children.
Some families even buy the software for as little as £19 to ensure they do not miss out when sought-after items, such as new Lego sets, are launched.
The practice of ‘scalping’ tickets for concerts and events was finally outlawed in 2018 after fury that loyal fans had to pay thousands to watch their favourite performers. But there is no such protection in place for online shoppers.
And today, any items that are in high demand but low in supply are a target.
Gifts at risk
Lego sets are already being pounced on by bots ahead of Christmas, according to cybersecurity company Netacea.
The bot detection and prevention firm tracks what online groups, which operate the bots, are discussing.
It also keeps an eye on marketplaces where the bought-up items are resold, and checks with legitimate retailers if they have stock available.
The firm says it has seen the Lego Creator Winter Village Cottage set, which typically retails at £89.99, being resold for £310 — a 244 pc mark-up.
Money Mail found the same item on eBay for a hefty £394.95.
Matt Gracey-McMinn, head of threat research at Netacea, says other Lego sets, such as the new Titanic model, are also likely to be targeted. Meanwhile, the limited edition Kaws’ Sesame Street Uniqlo Elmo Plush Toy, which should cost £20, is reportedly being sold online for £71.
Luxury advent calendars are also a prime target. The Harrods Beauty Advent Calendar, which is out of stock, costs £250 and contains £1,166 of beauty products. But these are resold for between £400 and £600 on sites such as eBay, Amazon and Facebook Marketplace.
Games consoles, such as Sony Playstations and Xboxes, are also repeatedly preyed upon. In January, the anticipated Playstation 5, which retails between £349.99 and £449.99, appeared on eBay shortly after going on sale with a 170 pc mark-up.
Limited edition clothes and trainers are also at risk. When the Air Jordan Retro 1s trainers were released, they were initially priced at $110 (£82) but were sold on for $848 (£632), according to Netacea.
Behind the bots
There are three types of individuals behind the bots causing shoppers misery. The first involves elite teams of skilled people with large pots of cash.
These typically target high-value items. One gang spent £3 million buying 70 of only 100 special-edition BMW cars, according to Mr Gracey-McMinn.
The second group are amateurs — there was a rise over lockdown as individuals used computer software to snap up popular items to sell on at a profit.
He adds: ‘They are likely to have wanted the designer trainers or Playstation themselves initially then realised they could make money reselling them.’
The third group includes experienced developers who run forums that charge investors a monthly subscription for tips and advice.
They identify profitable items, provide the bot software needed to snatch them up and explain the best resale pricing strategy.
Mr Gracey-McMinn says: ‘We know of one group that has become so successful they have now “gone professional” and registered as a company with Companies House.’ Some of these forums have tens of thousands of members. The largest found by Netacea had 26,000.
When I visit Netacea’s office in Manchester, I find a bright, quiet space and a handful of cybersecurity experts who work with firms to protect them against bot attacks.
Part of their job is to monitor forums where the groups operate. They show me some posts which typically include the release date of highly desired items, the retail price and potential resale value. Users advise whether to ‘cop’ or ‘drop’ — buy or leave — an item.
Members of a chatroom on community forum Discord were advised by group admins to buy Nike SB Dunk Low Mummy trainers, which went on sale on October 28. One post said that while they cost £100 to buy, they could be sold on for more than £300.
However, another post said the limited edition £180 Billie Eilish x Air Jordan trainers, also released on October 28, could be loss-making and advised users not to invest. In some cases, the individuals behind the bots even try to create artificial demand by targeting mass-produced items that may be sought after — such as gym equipment over lockdown.
There are also people who are purchasing bots to ensure they get the items they want and have no intention of selling them on.
Mr Gracey-McMinn says some items are so in demand it would be impossible to buy them without using a bot.
Anyone can purchase one via specialist websites, such as BotBroker, which connects sellers and buyers. BotBroker currently lists 30 different types of software, each with customer testimonials.
And the firm is active on social media, with 31,200 Twitter followers and 29,600 on Instagram. The top three bots are priced between $25 (£19) and $3,000 (£2,230). The most expensive costs $7,900 (£5,872).
You download the software onto your computer and input the item you want to buy. As soon as it becomes available it will then add it to your online shopping basket and check out using the card details you’ve told it to use.
High street retailers admit they are concerned about bots buying their stock before genuine customers get a chance.
Currys says its website was targeted when the Playstation 5 went on sale in January. To prevent customers losing out, the retailer introduced a priority pass that meant shoppers had to register in advance before they could buy one.
When items are in high demand, the shop may also only permit one purchase per customer.
Last year, online retailer Very cancelled more than 1,000 suspicious orders for the new Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 consoles.
Douglas Chapman, SNP MP for Dunfermline and West Fife, wants legislation to protect shoppers and a government spokesman said it was in talks with trade associations.
Graham Wynn, from the British Retail Consortium, says: ‘Manufacturers should work to ensure unscrupulous vendors cannot use bots to circumvent normal commercial practices to the detriment of consumers and other retailers.’
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