Surviving the Holiday Bot Security Surge

Bots can make security life interesting at any time. In the holiday shopping frenzy they're going to cause problems for retailers, wholesalers and anyone else touching the public Internet.

Michael Lynch, Chief Strategy Officer, InAuth

December 6, 2017

6 Min Read

Every holiday season, the use of automated bots to grab the hottest toys, electronics and other items en masse aggravates shoppers and retailers alike. These sophisticated bots are able to make legitimate purchases of high demand, limited quality items at superhuman speed. In turn, the items purchased are then resold for a premium (sometimes exorbitant) price on auction sites like eBay.

Even the most tech savvy online shoppers are no match for these sophisticated bots. They can outmaneuver humans in terms of speed and even outwit solutions like CAPTCHA, the technology designed to sift real humans from bots. Some retailers use blacklists in attempt to keep track of known bad devices, but this can be easily defeated if a bot shopper was trying to make the mass purchases look like they were coming from hundreds or even thousands of devices instead of just one.



The headaches caused by bots abound for retailers. They are hard to detect and shut down without sophisticated detection capabilities. And bots can slow down a website, a big motivator for retailers to block them. The holiday shopping season exacerbates the problem, since digital traffic naturally spikes on key shopping days such as Black Friday, Cyber Monday and the last few days before Christmas.

The good, the bad... and the annoying
The growth of bots on the net is well documented. A report by the security firm Imperva found that bots overall are responsible for 52 percent of web traffic. Consider that this is the first time that there are more bots than humans roaming the Internet.

Generally speaking, bots can fit into one of two basic categories: bad bots and good bots. The former type is used by fraudsters with malicious intent to harm or defraud. Some of the most egregious are deployed by fraudsters to take over users' personal accounts, something that is becoming widespread, in part, because of the high return on the fraudsters' investment. According to a 2016 report from Trend Micro, a compromised account is worth around three dollars on the black market, while a stolen credit card number is only valued at 22 cents.

Retailers may also be familiar with malicious bots that can be used at checkout to hoard popular items. This is where bots can put the season's hottest items in their shopping cart and let them sit there, never intending to finalize the purchases. Hoarding is designed to intentionally disrupt the retailers supply chain, and can bring a business' online shopping capabilities to a screeching halt by preventing them from seeing where they stand on inventory, sales, profits, etc.

On the other hand, so-called "good" bots, such as shopping bots, are used to automate the entire online buying process, enabling bot creators to buy up huge chunks of a retailer's available inventory for a popular item, such as the latest sneakers or electronic device.

Calling these bots "good" is potentially a misnomer. Annoying might be a better description. While these types of bots are not illegal, they can be extremely frustrating to online shoppers and retailers who want to serve their loyal customers and not allow a handful of people to usurp what should be a level purchasing playing field. It is therefore up to the individual retailer to decide whether or not they want to allow this activity or not.

To provide a better experience for consumers, many retailers and ecommerce platforms are working hard to mitigate these bots. They're building technology to identify bot activity before the checkout process has been completed.

There is one key market segment where it is illegal to use shopping bots: ticketing. Ticket bots have been used for years to scoop up tickets in bulk to coveted shows and events in order to resell at much higher prices-in other words, scalping. That came to an end last December, when the Better Online Ticket Sales (BOTS) Act of 2016 was passed and signed into law.

These abuses, in part, came to a head in 2013 when Ticketmaster, the largest online distributor of tickets in the US, estimated that bots were being used by scalpers to purchase about 60% of tickets to the hottest shows, seriously disappointing longstanding customers trying to secure tickets to high-profile events. The law was an effort to combat this widespread abuse.

Defenses to date
To detect and stop bots from interfering with your organization's lucrative holiday shopping season requires diligence surrounding security, a multi-layered approach to device intelligence and authentication-and the technology behind a "no bot" strategy.

One way to identify bots vs. humans lies in their pattern. The pattern behind bot attacks is their high rate of speed. Technology is available that can detect potential velocity attacks, a sign of bots. This would enable organizations to identify and screen them out. Such solutions work by flagging devices that are used to perform multiple unusual behaviors, typically at a high rate of speed. If a device performs multiple login attempts on multiple accounts over a short period of time, this could signal the use of a bot.

That said, many of these bot detection tools fall short of true identification because they rely on IP addresses or cookies in their model. This method of identification is easily thwarted by sophisticated bots that change their IP address continually or clear/disallow cookies. Sophisticated bots require more sophisticated screening technologies.

The next generation arsenal of bot-prevention tools includes device intelligence, device fingerprinting, malware detection, machine learning and behavioral analysis. This model relies more on identifying the bot at the device level or identifying behavior such as the fact that a mouse or keyboard isn't used, potential evidence of a "scripted" or automated session.

It is important to employ both static techniques, such as detecting the presence of malware on the device, and a more comprehensive behavioral analysis such as a high number of attempts, a high number of failures, unusual traffic patterns, unusual speed of access and access attempts, etc. This combination of techniques can be more accurate and not so easily fooled.

A multi-modal, layered approach to screen out the bots is a crucial factor if your organization wants to stop these practices and provide a more level playing field for your loyal customers to successfully interact with you. Bots are not going away anytime soon, so companies that do business online would be wise to invest in the necessary technology, infrastructure and security protocols that will help put the joy back into digital shopping during the holidays for both customers and businesses.

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Michael Lynch is InAuth's Chief Strategy Officer and is responsible for developing and leading the company's new products strategy, as well as developing key US and international partnerships.

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Michael Lynch

Chief Strategy Officer, InAuth

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