PlayStation 5, Xbox hard to find? You could be battling a bot

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When Microsoft rolled out its Xbox Series X|S and Sony debuted the PlayStation 5 in mid-November, gamers were ready with their credit cards. But the devices sold out within minutes, leaving many consumers disappointed and dismayed. 

About two weeks later, shoppers got another chance to lay their hands on a PlayStation 5 when Walmart restocked the new console the night before Thanksgiving, ahead of the Black Friday and Cyber Monday shopping events. But that inventory also sold out within minutes. 

“I’ve been trying to purchase it for my little brother. I’m pissed and confused as to how at exactly 9:00 it’s going out of stock,” one person complained in a tweet to Walmart.

 The answer, tech experts says, boils down to one word: bots. 

These software programs are coded to purchase in-demand products as soon as they go on sale, completing the transaction far faster than is physically possible for a human. Bots have long been prevalent in the sneaker industry, given the high resale value of coveted shoe releases, but programmers have been expanding to target other products and services. That includes tech releases and even grocery delivery slots for services like Instacart — a serious issue given the surge in demand for food deliveries amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

“What they do is basically look at any high-demand item, and they look at how you purchase them and then develop a bot to do that,” Cequence Security “hacker-in-residence” Jason Kent told CBS Moneywatch. “Then they go to their ‘market’ and say, ‘I have a bot that will go buy PS5s — it’s $300 if you want to buy [the bot].'”

He added, “You get a whole bunch of people who want their PS5. They can buy two and sell one and recover their money” from investing in the bot. 

It’s difficult for humans to compete against bots that are “inventory grabbers’ — programs that swarm to buy a hot product — according to Patrick Sullivan, chief technology officer, security strategy at Akamai.

“It’s like playing the lottery when the jackpot grows really high,” Sullivan said. “You could win the lottery by purchasing one number, but you are at a disadvantage compared to a consortium of investors who pool their money and buy a huge number of tickets in an attempt to win a very large jackpot.”

Bots fighting bots

Software programmers can also earn money selling access to bots to consumers who don’t have the expertise to build their own inventory grabbers. The programmers themselves may not have any interest in the products being purchased, such as game consoles or sneakers, but they can still make a buck by sniffing out the items that likely to be most in demand. 

For instance, one Twitter account called @Table_of_Chefs sells memberships to participate in bot purchases of PS5s and other popular products. @Table_of_Chefs didn’t immediately return a request for comment.

There are even bots designed to give consumers a leg up on the inventory-grabbing bots, with one tracking restocks of PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X consoles. A Twitch channel live stream shows the results of the bot’s pinging of retailers — including Amazon, Best Buy and Walmart. On Monday, however, the bot showed a steady stream of red “OUT OF STOCK” messages. The channel’s creator, Cam Ritz, told Polygon that he designed the program “to help others out.”

“Growing in sophistication”

So far, it’s not illegal for bots to swoop in and purchase products. Lawmakers last year introduced a bill that would have made it illegal for bots to bypass a website’s security measures to purchase items that are then resold. That bill, called the Stopping Grinch Bots Act of 2019, was introduced in the House but hasn’t progressed, according to Congress.gov.

That leaves the issue in the hands of retailers, who are stuck playing a game of whack-a-mole against wily programmers who tweak their bots as soon as new security protocols are introduced, noted Kent, whose company works with retailers on detecting bot activity. 

“Many retailers are working very hard to allow their loyal customers to buy these limited inventory items as opposed to have bot operators hoover them all up and resell on third-party marketplaces,” Sullivan of Akamai added. 

Walmart told CBS MoneyWatch earlier this month that it’s working to prevent bot activity to ensure customers can buy the new gaming consoles. “It’s not unusual to see bot activity, especially on hot items like the PS5,” a spokeswoman said.

Retailers and manufacturers say they’re working on getting more inventory in stock before the holidays, but bots are likely to swoop in again when the devices are released. “It’s growing in sophistication,” Kent said about the bot software. “You are going to see more of it.”





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