Person with bots

Beware freebie bots looking for Christmas pricing miracles

We’re slowly creeping up to the festive season, and with it comes the promise of the usual sales, discounts, and incorrectly priced bargains. Wait, did I write incorrectly priced bargains?

You had better believe it. We’ve all seen something too good to be true on a legitimate site at some point, and the news cycle is never short of a wrongly priced item bonanza. It turns out that there are other threats to online retailers outside of angry buyers who may or may not receive the item in question. So called “freebie bots” are now on the march, with the aim of sniffing out those error laden prices and costing retailers of all sizes a potential fortune.

Smash and grab your way to profit

Reports warn that freebie bots are gearing up to target retail businesses by cutting into pricing errors in a major way. These bots scan seller’s websites to find the mispriced items, buying them in bulk where possible. The bots work in tandem with “freebie communities”, where users compare their accidental deals. For affected organisations, the impacts can include loss of revenue; a website under high load from endless scanning and checking; and a hit to their reputation if they run out of popular products or the refuse to honour wrongly-priced purchases.

One Freebie community made its way through 100,000 products in just one month. Elsewhere, it’s estimated that some sellers were making a profit of “over $100,000” with a Freebie Bot outlay of around $800. That’s quite the profit, and at someone else’s expense.

Bots and buying: Forever a pain

If there’s one thing people hate where buying is concerned, it’s bots (unless the bots are their own). Bid sniping bots on sites such as eBay and other auction portals have been a pain for years. Interestingly, eBay allows the use of these bots, but points out that there’s no guarantee they’ll grant you an advantage. Additional tools for buyers such as automatic bidding means that the playing field is a little more level, for eBay users at least. It’s not quite the same thing here, where retailers are simply left at a disadvantage.

Grinches and freebies, oh my

The Freebie Bots are a scaling up of the threat of the infamous Grinch Bots, which simply tried to grab stock of popular items in large bulk purchases.

There are some solutions to problems like this. I know one site owner who has a pricing range for specific, high price items, with a fixed floor price beyond which it’s impossible to go, to prevent egregious pricing mistakes.

It’s also worth noting that the claim of retailers being compelled to fulfil pricing errors may be dependent on location. Wording on certain pages, agreeing to contracts, and more besides can swing the issue back in favour of the retailer.

If you’re worried about pricing errors leading to bots popping open the half price champagne in celebration, look at ways to have your site double check for ludicrously low prices on entry. Dig into those rules for honouring online sales in your local area, especially when you see a blast of 100 items suddenly bought for a dollar or less. You may have a little bit more protection than you think.

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Christopher Boyd

Former Director of Research at FaceTime Security Labs. He has a very particular set of skills. Skills that make him a nightmare for threats like you.