What Is GPU Scalping and Why Is It So Bad?

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If you’ve tried to buy a graphics card recently, you know how difficult it is to find one that isn’t astronomically priced—if you aren’t met with “out of stock” labels. While there are a few reasons why products like GPUs can go out of stock just seconds after sales begin, a bulk of it comes down to the rise of GPU scalpers.

GPU scalping involves using bots to buy up stock from companies like NVIDIA as soon as they’re available. Scalpers resell the products at prices inflated by more than 200% compared to the original cost. This approach is so bad because it makes securing GPUs harder for legitimate end-users.

This article will look at GPU scalping and everything you need to know. We’ll also explain some of the ways businesses and other consumers are combating the problem.

graphics card scalper with a graphics card with price tag on it

GPU Scalpers meaning

GPU scalpers are resellers that use bots to attack the websites of popular graphics card manufacturers on launch dates to snap up as many of the products as possible.

After buying up the stock, they take it to auction websites like StockX and eBay to resell with heavy markups.

GPU scalpers have become more popular today because the current global climate has caused an increased demand for these products.

With more people looking for new ways to earn income online, it’s only natural that there’s an uptick in the number of people that need computers with powerful graphics cards. 

The rise of the cryptocurrency market has also contributed to the popularity of these systems. PC gamers are also a massive market for GPU manufacturers.

Unfortunately, the advancements we’ve seen in this area are yet to be appreciated by many average users who cannot buy the cards at these borderline extortionate prices.

The scalpers are selling products at more than double the recommended selling price—which wasn’t very cheap to start with.

The GPU scalper problem may have gained more visibility over the last year, but they’ve been around for a long time.

The menace continues to bedevil online shopping, from the electronics niche down to the toilet paper and masks (at the start of the first worldwide lockdowns).

The product is available, but a few people have bought up everything to make extreme profits by reselling to desperate buyers.

Let’s go into more detail about what GPU scalping is and how bots come into the picture.

Bad bots in retail    

Scalping is just one example of how bad bots affect how goods and services are sold on the internet.

These bits of software are currently responsible for around 26% of web traffic. Other ways scalpers use these bots include the following:

  • Denial of inventory attacks: adding items to a shopping cart to artificially lower supply.
  • Sniping: overwhelming online auctions at the last minute to outbid humans.
  • Content scraping: gathering data from sites of interest.
  • Price scraping: gathering prices from multiple sites.

Most of the above uses aren’t illegal in many jurisdictions. However, bad bots are used in worse scenarios—all of which security companies are fighting over the last few years.

These include fake account creation to run scams, credential stuffing or account take over attacks, gift card balance attacks, and bogus advert clicks.

In the past, bad bot operators made money from sporting events and concert tickets.

With the pandemic grounding of most of such activities, they’ve since turned their attention to GPUs, gaming consoles, and other tech products.

How do scalping bots work?

Scalping bots are automated software agents designed to mimic human action as closely as possible.

These bots can visit a website via standard browsers like Chrome or Firefox and show all the typical mannerisms of a web visitor, including scrolling and hesitation before clicks.  

Most of the bad bot creators operate communities that allow them to share ideas on how to beat security setups and make their bots more effective, making them harder to handle.

How popular are they?

The popularity of scalping bots hasn’t changed a great deal over the last few years. Between 2014 and 2020, the volume of traffic attributed to bad bots only moved from 22.8% to 25.6%.

However, their spread to more sectors of the e-commerce world is the problem. Scalpers were more active in the ticketing niche a few years ago instead of camping around top graphic card manufacturers’ websites.

graphics card with reserved label

Buying GPU from scalper: Is it a good idea?

Buying a GPU from scalpers may seem like a good idea, especially if you have a pressing need for the gear and you don’t mind paying the excessive fees.

However, this may not be a good idea in the long run. Remember, when you buy from a scalper, you’re trusting that they’ll send you a product that’s exactly like what’s listed on the manufacturer’s website.

There’s no guarantee that the graphics card hasn’t sustained damage.

If the scalper sells a faulty GPU, how do you intend to fight the problem and get a refund or replacement?

Some manufacturers also only offer warranties to the original buyer of a product. So, buying your GPU from a scalper may leave you in a situation where you can’t take advantage of a warranty policy.

Think of buying a GPU from a scalper as a second-hand purchase and see if it still sounds appealing to you.

Of course, there’s also the fact that buying from GPU scalpers means you’re giving them the encouragement they need to keep up with the behavior.

If more people ignore scalpers, they’ll be forced to sell off their stock at a reasonable price and think about other ways to make money. 

Is scalping GPU illegal?

Scalping GPU is currently not illegal. More people are pushing for legislation on this front, but it remains to be seen if we’ll get one or not.

One reason why legislation is hard in this area is that the internet’s borderless nature means that legislation in one country won’t stop scalpers from launching bots from another country. 

So, as long as it’s a moral debate and not a legal one, GPU scalping is bound to remain a problem plaguing the industry—at least until the major players find a way to deal with it.

How are retailers fighting scalpers?

sold out label on black background

Sometimes, it feels as though retailers are as powerless as their customers when handling scalpers.

In September 2020, NVIDIA apologized to customers who couldn’t get the RTX 3080 graphics card on the day it launched.

Some customers posted videos showing how quickly the page changed to “Out of Stock” due to scalpers.

To fight the problem, the company started verifying orders manually (in addition to making more products available).

Other approaches adopted by retailers in this space include limiting the number of orders from one card or bank account, limiting the number of orders per household, using CAPTCHAs during checkout, and more.

However, the sophistication of modern scalpers means that they’re already navigating ways around these security measures. One of such methods no longer as effective as before is CAPTCHAs.

These don’t work these days anymore due to the rise of solutions that can solve them automatically.

There are many automated technologies, extensions, and plug-ins that allow attackers to bypass or solve a CAPTCHA challenge. Some of them include the following:

  • Generative Adversarial Network (GAN): Built by a group of researchers from three universities, this solution can create an accurate and fast CAPTCHA solver.
  • Free online CAPTCHA libraries and solving services: These solutions rely on deep-learning technologies like NeuralTalk, Clarifai, Alchemy, and GRIS. Many studies show that these systems based on deep learning approaches have a high level of accuracy in solving CAPTCHA challenges.
  • DeCaptcher: This is a CAPTCHA solver that allows API integration with apps. It’s based on an optical character recognition system and can provide metadata on all challenges solved.
  • Browser Extensions and Open Source Tools: UnCaptcha and Buster are two examples of these solutions. They use audio recognition included in Captcha tests for visually impaired users to bypass puzzles automatically.

Away from the automated tech solutions, human-assisted solving services can solve thousands of CAPTCHAs in minutes for less than $3.

The services are easy to find on Google, making them readily available companions for bot scalpers.

These are just some of the reasons why CAPTCHAs are no longer enough to stop them.

How to stop GPU scalping

man with a serious look on his face with hand extended out expressing a stop gesture

Retailers and customers are both trying to put an end to GPU scalping. Here are a few strategies they’ve tried thus far:

Working with third-party security firms

Retailers have to seek out more experienced security firms that can help shore up defenses, sniff out scalper bot activity, and make it harder for them to navigate a website without ruining the user experience for real customers.

Shining more light on scalpers

GPU scalpers are everyday people like the rest of us. One of the best ways to make their business less lucrative is to shine more light on what they do continually.

With more public outcry against the activity, they’ll be less comfortable with the business. We’ll likely see sob stories like this one, but all it means is that the pressure is getting to them. 

There’s also a higher chance of legislators acting if the outcry against scalpers of all kinds gains more traction. There’s some action in the UK in this regard.

With more countries across the world taking action, scalping can become punishable by law.

Discouraging scalper activity

Some scalpers run ads via Google searches. Others meet in groups to discuss code and techniques adopted to beat the defenses of popular retailers.

Social networks and search engines have to do a lot more to make it harder for these meetings to hold and for desperate customers to find the products where they’re listed.

Keeping launch dates secret

One method which retailers are yet to explore (for reasons best known to them) is making launch dates a secret. 

Announcing launch dates for hotly anticipated GPUs weeks in advance gives bad bot operators enough time to perfect their craft as they get ready for the date.

This means that on the actual date, the average user stands very little chance.

With launch dates not marketed heavily, the company can give more legitimate customers a shot at buying what they need.

Using pre-orders only

Retailers can do more for their legitimate customers by ensuring that the bulk of GPUs produced sells on pre-order.

Of course, this presents other challenges, such as preventing mass pre-orders from the same individuals. 

However, basic deterrents like limiting the number of orders per customer or household and requesting upfront payments can work well.

Only offering pre-orders to long-term active subscribers to a newsletter is also a good approach to use here.

How customers are fighting back against GPU scalpers

angry woman with fists resting on a computer keyboard

While some customers are resigned to fate and buying stock from scalpers, others have created their own bots to act when new stock is available.

The bots either help them buy from the manufacturers or place bids on auction sites.

What’s even more interesting is that some customers have turned to vigilantes against GPU scalpers.

Many of them use the old trick of false-listings to make scalpers pay for duds instead of the real thing.

Granted, this is only likely to work with auction websites instead of the manufacturer’s site.

False listings often feature physical photos of products or just empty boxes instead of the real thing.

Savvy buyers know to read descriptions and listings before making a purchase, but bots (and real unsuspecting buyers) may not differentiate quickly before buying.

The listing owners are legally required to indicate that they aren’t selling the real product to claim plausible deniability.

So, they bury the information in description boxes, several pages down.

Some people have expressed concerns that the vigilantes may still end up tricking legitimate users unknowingly with this approach.

Still, as we’ve seen in recent examples, many of the vigilantes make the warnings clear and refund humans that inadvertently buy one of these fake products.

It remains to be seen if this approach is impactful enough to make GPU scalping unattractive.

Another group of vigilantes is using bots to knock down listings with outrageous bids.

They also use DDoS attacks to take down private e-commerce websites where the scalped products are listed.

How to buy a scarce GPU without paying scalpers

add to cart button shopping using web browser

Many people looking for GPUs today are looking to build a new PC. It’s typically cheaper to build your PC from the ground up instead of choosing a pre-built option.

However, this is assuming that you’ll get the parts at the recommended retail price.

Unfortunately, as we’ve seen thus far, you’re unlikely to be one of the few people to pick up parts such as a graphics card immediately when it goes on sale thanks to scalpers.

A model like the Nvidia GeForce RTX 3080 is currently selling for more than three times the launch price of $699 across many of the main aftermarket sources—and there aren’t many of those around now.

Such prices make parts that were deemed affordable on launch become too expensive quickly.

Although a new card like the RTX 3080 delivers a generational leap in performance, there’s no way to justify paying almost $2000 for it. 

So, what’s the solution? Buy a new system with the graphics card built-in, an especially good value if you can benefit from upgrading your entire system.

Many PCs on the market are equipped with high-quality graphics cards like the RTX 3080, and they’re currently going for prices similar to what scalpers are quoting for the GPU alone!

For example, an Alienware Aurora R11 costs around $2,500, and it comes with the RTX 3080 and a 10th-generation Intel Core processor. 

Mind you, Alienware has a reputation as one of the most expensive brands of PCs, and even they’re quoting prices that make perfect sense compared to the scalper asking price from a GPU.

If you’re looking to get an RTX 3000 graphics card, you’ll find lots of PCs on the market that come with it.

Of course, buying a completely new PC just to make sure you’ve got the latest graphics cards isn’t ideal.

Many people would love to just buy the graphics card and slot it into the system without worrying about running a fresh setup. 

However, in the GPU scalper environment, buying a new system allows you to upgrade everything, get the latest GPU and make sure you’re not contributing to the scalper economy.

Conclusion

GPU scalping is why we have many people wondering when the latest cards will be in stock again, if ever.

Many of them end up choosing just to pay the exorbitant rates quoted by scalpers through gritted teeth just to end the wait.

This is why scalping is bad. It robs legitimate users of a chance to pay for a product they desperately need without paying three to four times the original price.

As more attention goes towards the activities of scalpers, you need to do your bit to ensure you are making the practice less lucrative and perhaps get it to become illegal in your country.