don’t let the grinch (bots) steal Christmas

December 21, 2019

Next week marks one of the most sacred times of the year when families across our nation gather to celebrate the season and exchange holiday greetings and gifts. This joyful time can also be a stressful one, as parents rush to purchase the toys on their children’s wish lists. More and more, shoppers are losing out to automated bots, software programs that can locate and purchase online inventory in a matter of seconds. These cyber bots are being used to buy up large quantities of the season's trending products and then selling them at grossly inflated prices that are unaffordable for many families.

Cyber bots have left many without the opportunity to buy popular toys.

  • Bots are self-running programs that track and buy inventory online. In a matter of seconds, third party vendors can use them to buy up trending items until they are out of stock:  
    • In previous years, popular toys such as Fingerlings that sold for around $15 sold out at major retail stores, allowing third-party vendors to corner the market and charge vastly more.
    • When the Super Nintendo NES Classic Edition went out of stock on most websites, it started to reappear on resale for nearly $13,000 by third-party sellers.
  • Retailors have tried instituting control measures, but rogue programmers continue to find ways to game the system and flip trending products or services at significantly marked-up prices.

Not only do parents and children lose out, these cyber bots are also damaging to small businesses, entrepreneurs and retailers. Last week, I visited G. Willikers Toys and Games in Saratoga Springs, a Capital Region small business frequented by many near and far for both holiday and year-round shopping, to hear more about the local impacts of this growing issue. As I walked through the aisles with owner Linda Ambrosino, I learned about the priority placed by Linda and her team on the intricacies of providing an extensive array of quality products to their customers by working closely with local vendors and thoughtfully purchasing inventory in order to provide a unique shopping experience.

Local businesses like G. Willikers and Capital Region families shouldn’t have to compete with a cyber bot for the holidays or any time of the year, which is why I introduced the Stopping Grinch Bots Act alongside U.S. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer and Senators Richard Blumenthal and Tom Udall.

This legislation will crack down on the use of digital “bot” technology by: 

  • Prohibiting manipulative work arounds that allow bad actors to use bots to circumvent control measures designed to protect real consumers;
  • Making it illegal to knowingly circumvent a security measure, access control system, or other technological control or measure on an Internet website or online service to maintain the integrity of posted online purchasing order rules for products or services, including toys;
  • Making it illegal to sell or offer to sell any product or service obtained in this manner; and
  • Allowing the Federal Trade Commission to treat these abusive workarounds as prohibited unfair or deceptive acts or practices and take action against the bad actors.

Cyber bots have been stealing sales from real consumers for years. In 2016, my colleagues and I introduced the Better Online Ticket Sales Act (BOTS Act), which was signed into law to ban “ticket bots” that intentionally bypass security measures on online ticketing websites to unfairly outprice individual fans. My Grinch Bots bill would apply the mechanism of the BOTS Act to e-commerce sites to ban bots bypassing security measures on online retail sites. A number of national consumer organizations, including Consumer Reports, Consumer Federation of America and the National Consumer League have voiced their support for this legislation.

Individuals and families work hard all year so they can afford to give loved ones gifts that will help to make for a memorable holiday season. This time should be spent celebrating with those we cherish most, not scouring the web and store shelves for an item that has been snatched up by an online bot.

I will continue to fight to protect our Capital Region businesses and consumers.

As always, thank you for reading. Wishing you and yours a Happy Holiday season!

Your friend,