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You Could Be Competing With Bots to Buy Gifts This Christmas

As shortages of sneakers and other goods persist, the digital cat-and-mouse game between retailers and resellers is intensifying.

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Jason Kent, a self-described “hacker in residence” at Cequence Security Inc., sat down in front of a pair of computer monitors at his home in Hilliard, Ohio. On them he watched as one of his clients sold off millions of dollars in assets in thousands of transactions conducted across mere minutes. Kent was acting as a digital sentry, guarding not against theft but against arbitrage, in this case of limited-edition sneakers that a sports apparel retailer was releasing for sale on its website: Nike SB Dunks, the latest Yeezys, and some Air Jordans.

Kent was there to make sure ordinary people had an honest shot at buying these sought-after shoes. Standing in his way, on this particular day last March, was an army he describes as “15-year-old kids sitting in a basement somewhere making $200,000 a year reselling sneakers.” To siphon up shoes, they deploy automated shopping software, or “bot” programs, such as Cybersole, GaneshBot, and Kodai, which have roiled the sneaker market and spawned a bot economy that some experts fear could wreak havoc on a number of retail categories during a holiday shopping season that’s already been upended by supply chain drama.