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If you’ve ever tried to buy something online only to have it sell out and then appear moments later available on eBay, chances are you’ve been the victim of a bot — a computer script that automates tasks.

For years, this sort of behavior has plagued the world of event tickets, both online and off; outside any football game or high-profile concert are individuals moving up and down the ticket line, calling out offers for tickets at two and three times the original price.

Now, with retailers increasingly engaging with consumers online through hyped-up product releases, discounts, and deals, scalpers are using technological advancements to scale their operations. Scalpers can use bots to buy up the most sought-after goods and then resell them across the globe, quickly.

In a recent study, Michael Coates, director of product security at Shape Security, says he found a lot of high-demand sold-out products like Air Jordan 6 Retro sneakers, dolls from the Disney film Frozen, Skylanders for Nintendo Wii, and the latest version of Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, selling for well above their regular price on reseller markets like eBay. Coates said Urban Decay’s Naked Vault make-up set and apparel from H&M’s Alexander Wang collection were selling for five times their normal price on reseller marketplaces, after selling out at their original sites.

For retailers, this isn’t necessarily a problem. As long as sales are made, they have little reason to be concerned over whether a buyer is a bot or human — for now. But inflated product prices could drive consumers away and eventually put pressure on retailers to address the issue.

Dealing with bots, however, may prove difficult, says Coates.

“There used to be telltale signals that this was a bot,” he says. Bots would buy products in bulk, for instance — as many as 10,000 items from a single merchant. Newer bots are built to be more careful. They’re programmed to simulate human behavior, and their ability to do that is advancing, making it difficult to find them.

Some merchant websites have tried to hamper bots with limits on how many of a single item a consumer can buy and Captcha tests at checkout. But, Coates says, bots are overcoming those challenges.

Still, he says there are other ways to stop a bot dead in its tracks. He says polymorphic websites, which automatically alter the source code for each user, could prevent bots from making purchases. Bots are constructed to navigate websites based on their coding; if that code changes, the bot can’t perform its programmed task.

How likely are retailers to adopt this technology? It’s uncertain. In the meantime bots are only going to get better at mimicking human behavior, says Coates. What that means for consumers looking for high-demand items is that they can expect an expensive holiday season.


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