Londoners are set to spend a bumper £1.1 billion online over this Black Friday weekend.
It is an annual shopping bonanza everyone knows about. But there is lesser known, darker side to online shopping - its bots.
Many of the top deals on a PlayStation will most likely be snapped up and checked out by a horde of these online snafflers before you get a chance to click ‘add to basket’.
Retail bots are software programs that never sleep, and they are easy to buy.
They are exploited by people who make certain bots emulate a real customer and clear out out a large proportion of drops on items - such as limited edition Nikes - within milliseconds. These online bot-operators then re-sell the sought-after products on sites such as eBay at a massive mark-up.
This model of bot-buying and reselling alone is reportedly worth up to $2 billion a year.
It has long been a problem on Black Friday, and recently hit the PS5 and Xbox Series X launches, with gamers everywhere frustrated at their inability to check out on a dream Christmas purchase, despite having waited patiently for the drop.
The problem has only worsened during the pandemic as more and more people shop online.
But one London-based payments technology start-up believes it has the answer.
Vyne, a new account-to-account payment method, operates what it calls Open Banking.
Damien Cahill, the start-up’s co-founder and chief operating officer, explained to the Standard how bots are set up to scour the web for a drop, before operators attach a one-time use virtual card, attach the card details to the bot, and set them free to shop.
Cahill said that this is all possible because card payments “are rife with exploitative holes” and can be spoofed.
By contrast, the online payments expert claimed that if sites selling wares on Black Friday used vyne’s Open Banking payment method rather than a card, bots would not be able to sneak past real customers.
He said this is because vyne’s payments are sent directly from a consumer's account to a merchant account without any need for a card - and in order for a consumer to obtain a bank account they will have been verified. A bot can’t be verified by Barclays.
Each vyne payment also needs a real person needs to present a device and a biometric or other secret identifier.
Cahill said: “Cards were never ever designed for e-commerce, it’s 55-year-old tech that’s been smashed onto a whole load of gateways. It’s so open to attack, and once card details are out in the wild, they can be abused.
“We can’t be defrauded. If we are the checkout payment solution, then these bot attacks can’t happen.
Vyne chief executive Karl MacGregor is a former VP of Digital at Worldpay.
He said: "This [Black Friday bots] is a further example of how debit and credit cards fail to meet the needs of many retailers and consumers. “Cards are able to be compromised and exploited by opportunists and fraudsters because of their out-dated architecture and lack of protection, but there are other more secure payment options for people.”
Setting alerts for the latest deals, operating bots and reselling purchases at higher prices is technically not illegal. The UK has made it illegal to use such bots for ticket sales, but it is not explicitly against the law another retail sectors.
However, vyne are not the only people attempting to come up with a way to circumvent bots’ influence.
Currys PC World recently listed their new PS5 at £2,000 more than its real price to lure in the bots, while sending real consumers who had pre-ordered the item a discount code to bring the price back down to its actual level.