Remote school gave teens plenty of time to explore automated bots and make thousands scalping in-demand products. But it's much harder to snap up PS5s and GPUs during an in-person class.
It turns out school reopenings are disrupting the cash flow of industrious teenagers who spent the pandemic scooping up in-demand products via bots and reselling them for a hefty profit.
“Yes, I am back in school. Yea, it’s very annoying,” said one US high school student named Dillon, who regularly buys video game consoles and graphics cards with automated bots.
“I am sitting in math class and drawing class with my computer open, and I get told to shut it down during a [product] drop sometimes,” he told PCMag in an interview.
Dillon may be young, but he’s among the legion of online scalpers who spent the pandemic at home buying and reselling the tech world’s most-wanted products. “I would say around $10,000 to $12,500 average a month,” he told PCMag. “Some months it would be exponentially higher, some would be lower.”
Using automated bots he purchased and installed on his computer, and intel from other online resellers, Dillon scooped up products like the PlayStation 5 ahead of other consumers and sold them off at inflated pricing.
But lately, Dillon’s reselling hit a snag. After months away from high school because of the pandemic, he’s now back in the classroom, where computer use can be strictly controlled.
“When everything closed [during the pandemic], I could do whatever I wanted because I was doing my school from home,” he said. But with the return of in-classroom teaching, Dillon says his profits have now fallen by about 25%.
Dillon isn’t alone. The pandemic inspired people of all ages who were stuck at home to try reselling products online, according to a reseller who goes by the name Atlas. “The government is sending you money. You’re not leaving your house. You own a computer. Things definitely a hundred percent blew up during COVID,” Atlas said, noting he now makes more money reselling than he did as a mechanical engineer.
However, botting from teenagers seems to be on the decline. Resellers often chat online through so-called “cook groups,” where they share tips and information about bots and when retailers will restock goods. Atlas is the founder of one such cook group called Drip, and he’s noticed a decrease in user activity since schools began to reopen in August and September.
“School has had a huge impact on the space,” he said. “A lot of the small groups have died out, or [they’re] too busy with their studies.”
You can see this reflected in the chatrooms for Drip and other cook groups. “Chat dead. Guess everyone in school now. Summer over,” wrote one user earlier this month.
“Drop times are always in my AP classes,” wrote another.
“This summer there would be new cook groups every day,” Atlas added. “It’s now going the other direction. Small groups cannot afford to keep the [botting] software in their servers or their members are no longer paying due to school.”
However, teenage scalpers only make up one part of the entire reselling ecosystem; many other resellers are college students or adults. For example, another cook group called House of Carts told PCMag its membership is mainly made up of 20- to 40-year-olds, so it hasn’t seen a major drop in activity. In fact, group membership is up, a representative for the group said.
Others like EasyRentals, a site that lets you lease automated bots, anticipates teenagers will dive back into online scalping once the holiday shopping season kicks in.
“It’s been slowing down a bit for the last month due to not enough [new product] releases, and school could be a small factor,” said Astrit Llabjani, the founder of EasyRentals. “But now since we are getting closer to holidays, it will pick back up. Most of the students have laptops where they remotely access their home computers or cloud servers where they run these bots.”
EasyRentals says it currently has over 10,000 users, up from 2,500 users in September 2019, when the site first started. “From time to time, I do talk to parents who let their kids use their credit cards to rent bots,” Llabjani added, citing support tickets he’s received in a handful of cases. (He also stressed he dislikes the word “scalper” and prefers the terminology “reseller” or “sneakerhead,” a reference to people who use bots to buy limited-edition sports shoes.)
Indeed, teen reseller Dillon told PCMag he continues to buy products, including the PS5 and Xbox Series X while at school, thanks to his bots. The automated software is sold online for hundreds of dollars from various developers. Once set up, the bots can continually check retailers, such as Walmart, for products restocks, and then buy them the moment they become available.
Dillon said he’d ideally like to monitor his bots while at school to make sure they’re working properly. “One time I had an incident where [the bot] checked out the wrong product,” he said. Another time, the retailer changed the Stock Keeping Unit (SKU) for a product, which prevented his bot from placing an order.
Dillon, who began scalping after eighth grade and prior to the pandemic, didn’t provide his full name. But he did show PCMag a screenshot of his internet account for his school’s network and a redacted version of his student ID to prove he’s still in high school. He plans on using the profits from his reselling to pay for college.
In addition to botting for electronics, Dillon also buys and resells sneakers, sports cards, and even swimming pools, which have been in demand during the pandemic. He’ll also try to exploit pricing errors on retail websites, where products can be snapped up for $0. For example, one pricing error allowed him to acquire numerous desks without paying a dime. He then resold them for a $14,000 profit.
But don’t expect Dillon to feel morally conflicted with his side job. He dismissed ethical concerns that his botting was taking away products from consumers and driving up prices.
Critics “are babies and overreacting,” Dillon said. “This is simply supply and demand.”
“Why not get mad at wood and gas prices skyrocketing? Wood prices skyrocketed due to a shortage of wood. Same idea when console and GPU prices skyrocketed when there was a shortage. Supply and demand,” he added.
Others point out that even if all teenagers were to stop botting for products, adult resellers would simply fill the void. Plus, “as more people begin to realize that homework is more important, the devs (developers) of these bots get smarter and smarter so the competition only gets harder even with a lot less people running,” another teenager scalper told PCMag on Twitter.
How many resellers are involved in botting for products is hard to say. But a site called Bot Mart has over 178,000 registered members in its Discord chat room.
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Michael has been a PCMag reporter since October 2017. He covers a wide variety of news topics, including consumer devices, the PC industry, cybersecurity, online communities, and gaming. Please send him tips.
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