Consumer Reports: The bots that stole Christmas

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Many parents know how it feels to miss out on the hot toy of the holiday season - but it may not be other parents who grab them before you can. (WLS)

Many parents know how it feels to miss out on the hot toy of the holiday season - but it may not be other parents who grab them before you can.

According to Consumer Reports, it's actually high-speed software robots that snatch sought-after toys before shoppers can get to them.

Last year, Mindy MacDonald hunted for a Hatchimal a few weeks before the holidays.

"I found there was nothing in the stores, nothing online," MacDonald said. "Everything was sold out. I went everywhere I could think of."

Since it was her daughter's big Christmas wish, MacDonald found one on eBay for $120, which she said was almost double the retail price at the time.

The Hatchimal shortage partly caused by scalper bots - short for robots - specifically designed to buy mass quantities of a particular item in a matter of moments.

"This is their sole purpose," said Consumer Reports Security and Privacy Expert Bree Fowler. "They are created for speed and you're just not going to beat them."

Once the bots buy up as many of an item as they can, they sell the items on the secondary market at a premium. Fowler said these prices can be anywhere from twice to four times the prices consumers see in stores.

Scalpers have used this technology for years to get tickets to concerts or sporting events. The BOTS Act -- or Better Online Ticket Sales Act of 2016 -- tried to end to that practice, but the law only applies to tickets, leaving scalpers to move on to things like toys or sneakers.

The practice isn't illegal, but it is frustrating to consumers like MacDonald.

"I feel like people are taking advantage of other people's desperation," MacDonald said.

So how do parents get the must-have toy without getting played? Fowler said you won't beat the bots, so try to get ahead of the trend instead.

"When there are pre-orders for things like the Nintendo systems, you can get online and try your best," Fowler said. "It also pays to shop early. Get in before the hype."

Consumer Reports also recommends finding out what the actual retail price is so you won't be gouged by a reseller.

All Consumer Reports material Copyright 2017 Consumer Reports, Inc. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Consumer Reports is a not-for-profit organization which accepts no advertising. It has no commercial relationship with any advertiser or sponsor on this site. For more information visit consumerreports.org

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