Picture this: the brand new PS5 launches, you click onto the Game website to pre-order, and all copies are out of stock within the first 10 minutes of being launched. You ask yourself: who could possibly be so quick and greedy to buy all the PS5s?
Also known as ‘scalping’, teenagers used bots to buy bulk amounts of PS5s at retail price, to be resold at a higher price to those who were outbought. The reason for their speed is that they monitor websites and immediately complete the ordering process as soon as stock becomes available. The difference in response times between bots is a matter of milliseconds, so if even bots are in competition with each other to buy up stock, what chance do humans have?
The retail price for a PS5 is currently £449.99; however, a search for second-hand ones shows some going for double the price. For PS5, Xbox, AMD and Nvidia products, the scalping market is estimated at around $82 million on eBay alone. Making tens of thousands of pounds tax-free in profits by pushing their way between Sony and their consumers, scalpers are giving themselves the unofficial and unnecessary role of middlemen.
The use of bots in buying out sought-after products is not a recent problem and does not exclusively affect the gaming world. Ticket scalpers use bots for UK festivals and gigs, while others use them to buy and sell designer trainers and gym equipment. However, unlike the latter two, ticket scalping was made illegal in 2018 following a campaign supported by Ed Sheeran and The Arctic Monkeys. Other types of scalping are still legal.
Fixing scalping is not an easy task. Although asking customers to spot how many pixelated bicycles there are in a series of images, or making out letters in what looks like Arabic and sounds like Parseltongue may be a deterrent against some bots, many websites selling limited products do not have these defences. According to MP Douglas Chapman, bot activity has increased during the pandemic, and “it is the consumers who suffer, made to pay over the odds for their desired goods, or to go without an eagerly anticipated next generation console.” There have been various petitions to call for the UK government to make scalping illegal, but so far none have reached their target to make the government listen.