Christmas Bots Allow Consumers (And Scalpers) to Snatch Up Hot Gifts

Brigham Larson, Reporter

The Christmas season has, for years, brought shortages of popular gifts and sent parents clamoring and going to great extremes to get their hands on that toy their child wants more than anything. For many years, parents often fought through long lines or even resorted to buying from scalpers to secure these presents. But this year, parents have a new trick up their sleeves: bots.

Bots that snag hot gifts have been around for years and have been the cause of many controversies, which led to the ultimately unsuccessful “Stopping Grinch Bots Act of 2019” in the House of Representatives. Until recently, these bots have only been usable by the highly tech-savvy. However, in recent years, more consumer-friendly bots have sprung onto the market. Many of the earliest were sneaker bots such as AIO Bot, introduced in 2016, which are specifically designed to purchase limited-edition sneakers before they sold out. Bots that expand the concept to any item, not just shoes, have seen increased downloads, with one of the most popular, SnailBot, claiming that their service has purchased over $75,000,000 worth of items, with over 126,000 checkouts in total.

These bots have become increasingly popular over the last year, particularly following the introduction of ninth-generation video game consoles such as the PlayStation 5 and the Xbox Series X. Both consoles have experienced serious issues with people buying the bots and reselling them at much higher prices, a practice known as scalping. SnailBot advertises itself largely based on its ability to procure such consoles, as they are directly referenced on the website’s homepage.

Such bots often only provide their services at a high price. SnailBot costs $99 a month for its Pro tier, although it recently introduced an invite-only Lite tier that restricts users to purchasing consoles. The Lite tier is also less expensive. SlapX is more affordable at $29.99 a month (plus a $39.99 setup fee).

Although these bots have increased in popularity, they are not without controversy. Despite the fact that many users of such bots simply use them to get quickly-selling consoles and trading cards for personal reasons, these bots are still frequently used by amateur scalpers with little knowledge of complicated technology and a desire to turn a profit off of desperate buyers. Additionally, many argue that botting gives some shoppers advantages over others. To this, bot enthusiasts point out that these bots are available to everyone with money and a little bit of time on their hands.

Although legislation designed to prevent these practices has crashed on takeoff, companies have taken matters into their own hands. A Wall Street Journal article entitled “Shoppers Try Bots To Locate Gifts In Short Supply” states that “E-commerce stores have fought back with their own bot-busting measures such as requiring online shoppers to type out randomly generated sequences of letters or solve puzzles before they can complete a sale.” The article also points out that bot attacks have increased dramatically over the past two years, and that these techniques are attempts to level the playing field for regular consumers.

The creators of these bots have figured out ways to bypass these roadblocks. Many retailers require shoppers to pass a Captcha “I am not a robot” test to complete transactions. A 2019 Verge article notes that such tests grow more difficult each year, and that AI has been taught to easily pass these challenges, in some cases more accurately and quicker than humans. Additionally, newer bots completely automate the process of operating multiple Internet addresses, an essential step to make sure that users don’t get banned from shopping websites.

With knowledge of the complex inner workings of technology no longer required to operate sale bots, controversy and scalping are on the rise. Sale websites are being attacked by mobs of desperate parents and resellers, sometimes going so far as to overload servers to their breaking point. This only proves what essayist and cyberpunk writer William Gibson once said: “[…] technologies are morally neutral until we apply them. It’s only when we use them for good or for evil that they become good or evil.”