Bots have a bad rep. Shady manipulators have used these automated computer programs on social networks to spread conspiracy theories, fake and scam people. But when bots are programmed to do good, they can help us accomplish the impossible.
Buy the PlayStation 5. Since the Sony console was released in November, it has been difficult to find in physical and online stores, partly because global chip shortages have slowed the process. manufactures all kinds of technology products, from graphics cards to cars.
So when the new PlayStation comes online on sites like Amazon, Target, and Best Buy, it sells out in minutes — sometimes seconds. Sony has said that demand for the PlayStation 5 is unprecedented and that supply constraints could continue into next year. That makes the odds of buying the dashboard feel as random as winning the lottery.
However, someone is buying them, and the lucky few I spoke to rely on some form of automation.
SV Yesvanth, an information security engineer who wrote a web script to automatically scan online stores for available consoles after struggling to buy one in Hyderabad, India. After successfully buying a PlayStation, he said, he connected his bot to his Twitter account and helped hundreds of other eager shoppers.
This month, I joined the club. I volunteered to help a friend who had been trying to buy a PlayStation for six months. After setting up several Twitter bots to broadcast alerts to my phone when new consoles were stocked, I managed to catch one within a week. It wasn’t easy – I failed three times on Best Buy’s website and finally succeeded with GameStop. But the bots gave me the edge I needed to beat the thousands of other people who were furiously refreshing their web browsers.
You can’t just pick any bot and expect to land the device. I interviewed several people who created automated tools that helped people score PlayStations. They say there are traps to avoid, like scam bots that intentionally sell consoles. There are also some hidden tricks to speed up orders. Here’s what you need to know.
Bots can be your friends…
Dozens of online bots publish a post on Twitter whenever the retailer refreshes its inventory with more PlayStations. They all usually work the same way: They search an online store’s web code for a signal – like an “add to cart” button – that indicates that the PlayStation is back in stock. As soon as they found out that the console was available, they published an alert on Twitter.
The first step is to track down trusted bots. Here are some trusted Twitter accounts I’ve checked:
@PS5StockAlerts, tweets when the console is available at Best Buy, Sam’s Club, and Walmart, among others.
@mattswider, which initially relied on information from bots to rollback updates but is now fully managed by Matt Swider, editor-in-chief of the TechRadar blog. Swider got information from sources at big box retailers and some independent stores before they refreshed PlayStation inventory, he said.
@ ps5_india, an account run by SV Yesvanth, has a small section focused on buying a PlayStation in India, where it’s particularly difficult to buy the console.
@ iloveps_5, a bot hosted by Kevin Hirczy, a software developer in Austria. Mr. Hirczy’s bot focuses on PlayStation availability in Europe.
You can scan your Twitter feed for stock alerts from these accounts. But a more effective way is to set up notifications to show up on your phone whenever accounts tweet. To do that, download the Twitter mobile app and allow it to push notifications to your phone. Then follow ‘s Twitter instructions to set specific accounts to send notifications into your phone when they tweet.
When you see the dashboard is back in stock, don’t hesitate: Click through and add the item to your cart as quickly as possible.
… But most bots should be avoided
The risky part of relying on bots is that you will often run into scammers. General rule: Avoid Twitter accounts that offer PlayStation 5 directly to you. After they receive your payment, you may not hear from them anymore.
So be very careful about which Twitter accounts you follow. Some scammers use account names and profile pictures that closely resemble the names of legitimate accounts. It’s best to only follow accounts that post links to trusted retailers.
“The scary thing is there are a lot of scam accounts trying to get legitimate accounts back,” Mr. Swider said. “It’s hard to tell them apart.”
Other bots to avoid are automated testing tools, like browser add-ons that refresh websites and try to order PlayStation for you. Many retail sites have systems in place to detect orders from people who don’t have employees, so using these tools can cause your order to fail, SV Yesvanth says.
There are hidden tricks
In addition to tracking some bots and setting up phone alerts, you can tilt the odds in your favor with a few more steps:
On retail sites like GameStop and Best Buy, create a membership account and fill in your mailing address and credit card information ahead of time. This will speed up the checkout process by every valuable second, Mr. Swider said.
In rare cases, PlayStation orders have failed while a credit card transaction is in progress. On some store sites, like Amazon, you can buy gift credits for yourself, which allows you to bypass the credit card verification process, SV Yesvanth said. (The downside is that this strategy forces you to try to buy the console from a particular retailer.)
Some online stores have quirks. For example, on Best Buy, you shouldn’t refresh the website after clicking the “add to cart” button – this could cost you your PlayStation. Mr. Swider regularly streams YouTube videos that walk people through the different checkout processes, and SV Yesvanth and Mr. Hirczy host a Discord chat show where people discuss what works. with them.
At the end of the day, the sheer amount of effort to buy a product sounds ridiculous. But in an age where frantic shoppers compete for even hand sanitizer and toilet paper, bots can lead the way to victory.