SAN ANTONIO – It is a dilemma many parents have experienced: not being able to get that popular new toy on their child’s wish list.
But what many might not realize – is that it is not just high demand making these items scarce. High-speed software robots snatch up the "it" toys before parents can get them in their shopping cart.
Last year, Mindy McDonald hunted for a Hatchimal a few weeks before the holiday.
"I found there was nothing in the stores, nothing online. Everything was sold out,” she said. “I went everywhere I could think of."
The toy was her daughter's big Christmas wish, so McDonald cracked under pressure and found one on eBay.
"(It cost) $120, which, I think, is almost double retail what it was going for back then," she said.
The great Hatchimal shortage was due in part to the use of scalper bots, which are short for robots specifically designed to buy mass quantities of a particular item in a matter of moments.
"This is their sole purpose,” said Bree Fowler, a security and privacy expert for Consumer Reports. “They are created for speed and you're just not going to beat them."
Once the bots buy up as many items as they can, the people behind them turn around and sell them on the secondary market at a premium.
The technology is not new. Scalpers have been using this technology for years, to snatch up tickets to concerts or sporting events.
The BOTS Act, or Better Online Tickets Sales Act of 2016, tried to end the practice. Unfortunately, the new law only applies to tickets, leaving scalpers to move on to trendy toys or clothing.
It's not illegal, but it is frustrating to shoppers.
"I feel like people are taking advantage of other people's desperation," McDonald said.
So how can someone get the must-have toy without getting played? Well, people can’t beat the bots. So Consumer Reports recommends people shop early, sign up for preorders when they're available and try to get in before the hype.