Schumer takes aim at Grinchly cyber ‘bots’

Published Dec 5, 2017 at 4:00pm

Sen. Charles E. Schumer wants retailers to ban “Grinch bots” that are scooping up popular holiday toys and jacking up prices. Cyber scalpers have migrated to in-demand holiday toys, scooping up popular holiday gifts, from dolls to gaming equipment, for resell on other websites at “outrageous prices,” said Sen. Schumer, D-NY.

For instance, popular Fingerlings — which typically sell for $14.99 — are now being sold on secondary websites for as much as $1,000, the senator noted. In years past, bots were used to primarily purchase popular concert tickets. As a result, Congress passed Schumer’s BOTS Act in order to increase fairness for consumers in the ticket-purchasing industry. However, the law does not apply to other consumer products. So, Schumer called on the National Retail Federation and the Retail Industry Leaders Association to block the bots and lead the charge against future efforts to prevent customers from buying toys at fair retail prices.

“Grinch bots cannot be allowed to steal Christmas, or dollars, from the wallets of New Yorkers,” said Schumer. “Middle class folks save up — a little here, a little there — working to afford the hottest gifts of the season for their kids but ever-changing technology and its challenges are making that very difficult. It’s time we help restore an even playing field by blocking the bots. When it comes to purchasing products online, major retailers should put forth policies that will help prevent future Grinch bots from stealing the season’s hottest toys.”

“Consumer Reports urges retailers and policymakers to work together to develop solutions, so that consumers will be able to shop for toys and other gifts on a level playing field,” said Chuck Bell, Programs Director of Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization arms of Consumer Reports.

According to Consumer Reports, bots are now being used to buy and sell popular holiday gifts like toys, gaming equipment and high-end sneakers. According to the report, bots subvert typical consumers through complex programming that guesses a product’s ID and locates the product page, which is typically launched just a few hours before the product goes on sale. While consumers must choose their size, shipping, and payment details manually, bots can automatically fill out these pages in fractions of a second, allowing them to easily purchase items in demand. As a result, regular consumers cannot compete with the speed of bots, forcing many to purchase these popular items on secondary resale sites at prices far above the original retail price.

Schumer said there is no fair way for consumers to purchase their holiday gifts online if they have to compete with bots that are capable of navigating through websites in a matter of seconds.

Schumer’s office searched online for some of the year’s top holiday toys. Super Nintendo entertainment system NES Classic Edition, which sells for $79.99, was out of stock online at BestBuy, Game Stop and Target. However, the item was available on Amazon and eBay for as much as $13,000. L.O.L. Surprise! Doll, which sells for $9.99, was out of stock online at Toys “R” Us, Target and Walmart. However, the item was available on Amazon and eBay for as much as $500. Barbie Hello Dreamhouse, which sells for $300, was out of stock online at Toys “R” Us but on sale on eBay for as much as $1,500.

Schumer is asking two retail trade associations – the National Retail Federation and the Retail Industry Leaders Association – to investigate the prevalence of bots on their members’ websites and help their members institute best practices to subvert these sophisticated computer programs. By staying one step ahead of the bots, retailers can protect their consumers from “abusive sales practices.”