If the present you’re trying to buy is sold out everywhere online this year, there’s a chance some nefarious bots might be to blame. Automated software has been snapping up and reselling popular items like Fingerlings as soon as they’re available, making the $15 toy sell for as much as $5,000 on eBay.
Snagging popular holiday toys before they sell out has always been a challenge, but the New York Times reports that shoppers are facing significant, inhuman competition from bots that constantly trawl websites for new sales. The bots buy up items en masse as soon as they’re available and check out far faster than a human could, leaving shoppers in the dust. After being purchased, those hot stocking stuffers like Fingerlings then quickly reappear on sites such as eBay or Amazon, where sellers offer them for double, triple, and quadruple their original price. While shopping bots aren’t exactly a new phenomenon, they’re particularly frustrating around the holiday season. Even for those who subscribe to online alerts about the latest sale or product, it’s virtually impossible to beat bots to the punch.
Among the popular toys that these bots are snatching up are the aforementioned Fingerlings, the Barbie Hello Dreamhouse, the L.O.L. Surprise! Doll, and the Super NES Classic, all of which appear to sell out online but then reappear on Amazon and eBay advertised at prices several times higher than retail.
The Times reports that Amazon monitors bot buying activity and attempts to limit the purchase of high-demand products. Similarly, when reached for comment, Toys “R” Us referred to a statement affirming a commitment “to taking precautions to mitigate fraud and illegal transactions.” However, these precautions haven’t mitigated headaches for one blogger who told the Times that $15 Fingerlings will sometimes last as long as only 25 minutes online.
The Better Online Ticket Sales Act, or BOTS Act, signed into law last December, makes it illegal to bypass ticketing website security measures. However, that law is focused on targeting ticket scalpers, and hasn’t gone far enough to help online gift shoppers, some of whom add items to their cart only to find that it’s already sold out by the time they’re ready to check out. Until online security is beefed up, it looks like average buyers will have to continue moving very, very fast to fulfill their holiday shopping.