Democratic lawmakers want to get serious about a particularly frustrating scourge of the holiday season: the “Grinch” bot.
For those who don’t know, “Grinch” bots (also called “shopping bots”) are essentially automated programs that bad actors use to buy-up online inventory, thus allowing them to corner the market on specific products and then resell them for higher prices on third-party sites like eBay and Amazon.
Bots, which are able to fool most e-commerce sites’ identity-verification systems, scan and buy-up inventory at alarming rates, often out-competing everyday human shoppers during buying “rush” periods, like Cyber Monday.
Understandably, the net effect of this can be pretty frustrating. That in-demand game system or pair of sneakers you want could end up going for double its retail price — a trend that can make it especially hard for families to buy toys at reasonable rates for their kids.
To counteract this clearly skeezy practice, a cadre of Democratic lawmakers, including US Rep. Paul Tonko (NY) and Chuck Schumer (D-NY), have introduced the “Stopping Grinch Bots Act,” which would make it illegal to circumvent the “posted online purchasing order rules for products or services” of e-commerce sites, essentially making bulk, automated buying illegal.
The law would also apparently empower the Federal Trade Commission to treat these behaviours as “prohibited unfair or deceptive acts or practices and take action against the bad actors.”
The legislation has garnered the support of numerous consumer support groups, like the Consumer Federation of America and Consumer Reports, who see it as a common-sense solution to protect everyday shoppers.
While that all sounds pretty good, it should be pointed out that this isn’t the first time Congress has tried (and failed) to pass legislation aimed at this particular problem. Actually, the same set of Congressmen have introduced this bill about three times. There was the Stopping Grinch Bots Act of 2018, as well as an identically titled one in 2019. Both of these failed for some reason (likely just forgotten), and now we’re going for another round.
But this time really could be different. The supply chain crisis, increased reliance on web-based shopping, and subsequent explosion of bot activity have put this issue front and centre in the minds of consumers crawling over each other to acquire the most coveted Christmas presents of the season.
Hope springs eternal. US Representative Paul Tonko, one of the primary sponsors of this year’s bill (and of previous iterations), says that it’s time to finally put a stop to the dreaded digital grinch.
“Allowing grinch bots to rig prices and squeeze consumers during the holiday season hurts American families, small business owners, product makers and entrepreneurs,” said Tonko, in a statement related to the newest legislation. “We will not allow this market manipulation to go unchecked.”
Sounds good Paul, though we’ll believe it when we see it.