The Nvidia RTX 3080 eBay Debacle Exposed a Scalper Bot Civil War

The Nvidia RTX 3080 eBay Debacle Exposed a Scalper Bot Civil War
Image: Jim Cooke/Gizmodo

Last week, RTX 3080 scalpers pissed off a lot of Nvidia GPU fans by buying up all the graphics cards and attempting to resell them for hundreds of dollars more than the actual MSRP. Unfortunately, this is a common scalper tactic: Buy up as many items of a single product as possible, create a false scarcity, and sell them at a higher price to make a huge profit. People did this at the beginning of the covid-19 pandemic with hand sanitizers and other disinfecting products, and it happens all the time with consoles and PC components, too. Scalpers may have created bots to snatch up all those cards, but it looks like bots aren’t just helping the scalpers. They’re also hurting them.

Now RTX 3080 GPUs are being listed on eBay with bids that exceed $US10,000 ($13,973). But those ridiculously high bids might be the result of bots created by fed-up potential buyers. After I wrote about who in the hell would buy a RTX 3080 for $US70,000 ($97,811), I quickly received dozens of messages from people pointing me to a post on the Nvidia forums where a user claimed that they wrote a bot to inflate scalper prices.

The post on Nvidia’s forums has since been removed, but I was able to connect with the post’s author. They confirmed they did not place that winning $US70,000 ($97,811) bid, but they claimed they modified the source code for a free eBay bidding bot and ran that code on 10 spoof accounts. They said they were also able to use the same phone number on all 10 of those accounts, and that number was fake as well.

If this person was doing that, how many other people were doing the same thing, and how far were they driving up RTX 3080 auction prices? We analysed 2,723 bids across 179 live auctions on Monday morning, Sept. 21, that totaled $US966,927 ($1,351,087) worth of bids, and came away with some interesting results.

Because of how eBay anonymises bidder names and treats bidder IDs as different from account IDs, it’s difficult to determine the total number of unique users that placed bids. But we did pinpoint 616 unique usernames with linked feedback scores, or seller ratings, which tells buyers how many people have left reviews of that seller. The higher the number, the more positively they have been rated and the more likely they are a real person and not a bot.

Among those 616 unique usernames, a little less than half of these unique bidders had a feedback score of under 10. These low-ranking users made up 55% of all the bids, suggesting that low-ranking users were disproportionately bidding on these graphic cards. The feedback system only applies to sellers, so it’s possible some of these accounts are long-time eBay buyers, yet this is one of the criteria we used to determine if a bid was placed by a bot. 

We paired this data with bidding frequency. Multiple bids coming in within milliseconds of each other are another indicator of a bot or the automatic bidding system eBay offers its users. And 23 unique usernames were able to bid more than 10 times in a single minute, amounting to $US135,124 ($188,809) and accounting for 14% of the total amount bids overall. These 23 usernames participated in 67 different auctions.

As an example, this auction was live Monday morning and had a total of seven unique bidders. At the time we pulled this data, the highest bid was $US50,100 ($70,005), and was the result of a few back-and-forth bidding wars between different bots — either automatic bids set by the user to raise the amount to a certain number using eBay’s built-in system, or a separate script that placed bids automatically, but tried to look as if they were placed manually.

So, bidder 2***5 placed 47 automatic bids, increasing from $US970 ($1,355) to $US10,000 ($13,973) at the same time, 7:30:03 p.m. PT. The second bidder, 3***2, placed 13 bids, increasing from $US1,075 ($1,502) to $US2,050 ($2,864). 2***5’s bids appear to be made at the same time, and 3***2 had their bids come in microseconds after 2***5. That’s faster than a human could ever bid, and certainly sounds like two bots at war.

But those weren’t the only usernames locked in a bidding war on this auction. 3***j placed 31 automatic bids within microseconds of each other over two minutes. l***5 and a***r went to war, placing 42 bids between them over 60 seconds, driving up the price to $US50,100 ($70,005). l***5 made the highest single bid out of all the usernames we looked at: $US33,100 ($46,251). That large of a jump tells me that someone running this account manually entered that amount, as the incremental pattern is totally different from how the account was behaving prior. During the course of writing this piece, l***5 rescinded their bids and the price of the card is now $US10,099 ($14,111). That is still 14 times higher than the MSRP of the card.

Without going through every single RTX 3080 auction, it’s hard to know how many automatic bids or bots are getting into bidding wars like this. And the way eBay presents bidding information sometimes makes it hard to parse through that information. But it’s clear there’s a huge chunk of people out there hoping to get these listings deleted and the sellers banned from eBay by inflating bid prices. eBay has a policy against price gouging, or “offering items at a price higher than is considered fair or reasonable,” and artificially inflating RTX 3080 auction prices seems to have grabbed eBay’s attention. It has started taking actions against some of these sellers.

One seller sent me a screenshot of an email they received from eBay saying their account, which they first activated in March 2014, has been suspended permanently.

“We have reviewed the activity we have seen connected to your account. As a result, your account has been suspended because we believe this activity presents a risk to our eBay community,” eBay’s email stated. “This suspension is permanent and means you will not be able to participate in any buying or selling activities on eBay. In addition, any other accounts that you own, or are associated with this account, will also be suspended.”

The suspended seller told me they received about 100 messages from other eBay users, ranging from, “You should be ashamed of yourself,” to,“Fucking kill yourself.” While the latter type of message is definitely abusive, anger directed toward scalpers trying to make a quick buck is not misplaced.

We reached out to eBay, but the company has yet to respond.

Nvidia has responded to the chaos by publishing a full FAQ about the steps it’s taking to prevent scalpers and bots from getting the jump on real customers in the future.

“We moved our Nvidia Store to a dedicated environment, with increased capacity and more bot protection,” Nvidia announced. “We updated the code to be more efficient on the server load. We integrated CAPTCHA to the checkout flow to help offset the use of bots. We implemented additional security protections to the store APIs. And more efforts are underway.”

The company confirmed that it manually cancelled hundreds of orders linked to malicious reseller accounts, and more cards will be available for purchase soon. Hopefully, both Nvidia and eBay take additional steps to address this issue before the launch of the RTX 3090 and RTX 3070.