How Grinch bots almost stole Christmas

By Alma Fabiani

Updated Jan 10, 2022 at 01:13 PM

Reading time: 2 minutes

In 2017, Fingerlings—cute monkey toys—retailed for $14.99, but were snapped up and resold for up to $1,000, as first reported by NPR. The culprit? ‘Grinch bots’, also known as ‘Cyber Grinches’. Their goal? To steal Christmas. How exactly? Grinch bots mop up all the hottest toys on the market before human customers can get them. The demand drives up the resale price, allowing scalpers—people who buy large quantities of in-demand items—to make a pretty penny off desperate shoppers on third-party websites like eBay and Amazon.

While the demand for the hottest toys is particularly high this time of year, shoppers are competing against a growing army of bots. For years, scalpers have taken advantage of software robots to scoop up event tickets, but now scammers are employing the same tactics to cheat Christmas shoppers, explained MSNBC anchor and economics correspondent Ali Velshi back in 2017.

How do Grinch bots work?

Bots are frequently used on in-demand commodities including trendy trainers and the latest gaming consoles. Using sophisticated software algorithms, they scrape retail websites for a particular item, then zip through checkout faster than any human ever could. Some can even get around CAPTCHAs, which are the tools used to differentiate between real users and automated users, such as bots.

In 2016, the Better Online Ticket Sales Act, also called the BOTS Act, outlawed using bots for ticket scalping. In 2021, the US federal government announced settlements with three alleged violators totalling around $3.7 million. One thing was clear, Grinch bots had still somehow managed to avoid the measures intended to stop them from buying all the good stuff before actual human beings.

But in 2021, things started to go south for the cyber Whoville haters.

The Stopping Grinch Bots Act

During the last week of November 2021, lawmakers introduced the Stopping Grinch Bots Act, which would expand on the 2016 BOTS Act and extend to e-commerce, banning bots from bypassing digital retailers’ security measures. The bill in itself isn’t new—lawmakers previously proposed it in November 2018 and 2019, but it died in the US Congress both times.

Speaking to The Hustle, Chuck Bell, advocacy programs director for Consumer Reports explained it’s not uncommon for consumer protection legislation to move slowly due to power disparities between industry trade groups and consumer organisations. “If other interest groups are indifferent or opposed, it often takes us longer to get our bills over the finish line,” he said.

“This bill seeks to stop Cyber Grinch greed from ruining kids’ holidays,” Senator Richard Blumenthal (who introduced the legislation along with fellow Senator Chuck Schumer) said in a statement. “New tools are needed to block cyber scammers who snap up supplies of popular toys and resell them at astronomical prices. Price gouging hot toys by Grinch bots should have zero tolerance.”

However, with Congress facing urgent deadlines to avoid a federal government shutdown and a debt limit default, the bill didn’t get enough time to save this year’s Christmas. Oh well, I guess there’s always next year.

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