The concept of scalpers is well known. If you’ve ever been to a live event, and you’ve seen people trying to sell tickets outside the venue, you’ve seen a scalper in action.
Scalpers are people who buy up in-demand products—in the above example, tickets to a live event—and then sell them on for considerably higher rates than the market value. They are able to do this because of the high demand and low availability of the thing in question.
Scalper bots are the digital extension of this behavior.
What are Scalper Bots?
Scalper bots are essentially a digital and automated version of those people buying and selling tickets outside of venues. And, like most digital automated alternatives to human labor, they are far more efficient than their flesh counterparts.
Whenever a high-demand product with limited availability goes on sale, there will invariably be a period of heavy traffic to the websites selling that product as the people wanting to buy it all try to get there at once. It is not uncommon for venue tickets and limited-run products to sell out within minutes of going on sale.
Scalper bots, being digital entities, can operate much faster than a human being with a keyboard or touchscreen, and buy up large quantities of the product before any human even gets as far as entering their payment details. The owners of the scalper bots can then sell these products at a much higher price.
This behavior made a lot of news recently during the launch of Sony’s PlayStation 5, when scalpers were able to scoop up thousands of the in-demand console, with some soon appearing on auction sites for almost four times the retail cost of the console.
Is Scalping Illegal?
Scalping is not currently illegal, as a law against it would be difficult to enforce without potentially targeting innocent consumers. The scalpers are buying a product that is on sale and paying the requested costs.
The fact that they are buying large quantities of the product with the intention of selling them at high prices is not against the law, just as selling a vintage comic book for hundreds of times what you paid for it is not against the law.
Individual retailers can look to implement ways to stop scalper bots from succeeding, but the scalpers are not actually breaking any laws if they succeed at buying a product.
Is Scalping Unethical?
The question of ethics is always a little tenuous when talking about capitalism, as it arguably has no place in a discussion about a straight transaction. That being said, it could be argued that scalper bots are unethical for the simple reason that they create the situation that allows them to thrive.
Scalpers can only succeed with products that have a high demand in relation to their supply. Nobody will pay $1,800 for a gaming console from a scalper when there are still plenty of $500 consoles available from reputable retailers. It is the fact that the supply of gaming consoles has run out that allows scalpers to charge so much money.
The ethical problem lies with the fact that the scalper bots are partially responsible for the very demand they benefit from. Granted, any product that scalpers can successfully sell will likely have sold out without their interference, but the scalper bots taking more of the product off the market benefits only them, and not the consumer.
Why Are Scalper Bots Hard to Stop?
Some very basic bots can be stopped by measures like CAPTCHA verification, which would expose the “buyer” as a scalper bot, but there are more advanced scalper bots that can fool these kinds of measures.
Unfortunately, there is only so much a retailer can do to stop scalper bots before their actions begin to inconvenience legitimate customers, which is arguably worse for business than the scalper bots themselves.
The good news is that there are more ways to detect a scalper bot than just their behavior at the point of sale. For example, a sudden burst of customer traffic in a very short space of time (in machine terms), all targeting a specific product, can be reliably identified as a scalper bot attack, and blocked without ever letting them get to the checkout page, let alone successfully make a purchase.
Methods like this are typically delivered as a service, and require very little work on the part of the retailer.
Increasing Server Capacity
It is often proposed that increasing server capacity could be a solution to scalper bots, as it would prevent the scalper bot traffic from clogging up the system and allow legitimate customers to get to the checkout. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case.
The very same traffic congestion that prevents customers from being able to load product and checkout pages apply to the scalper bots, as well. It is likely that the scalper bots could scoop up far more of the product they are scalping if they had more server bandwidth to play with, which would result in the same frustration from the customers, but even less stock going to legitimate buyers.
It would also be incredibly expensive for the retailer, which, as it likely wouldn’t improve the situation at all, would be a significant waste of money.
Scalper bots are a tricky prospect from a retailer's point of view, as they represent a perfectly legal sale of a product.
One could argue that retailers might prefer to have their products snapped up immediately by scalper bots and make easy sales, but the sour taste it leaves in legitimate customer’s mouths ensures that it is still beneficial to tackle this problem.
Fortunately, the increasing capabilities of cloud-based services not only make it a problem that can be tackled, but one that requires very little effort on the part of retailers to do so.
There may not be any legal solution to scalper bots, but it is certainly within the power of retailers to deal with this problem.