Bots have a bad reputation. Shady manipulators have used these automated computer programs on social media to spread conspiracy theories, spit out vitriol and rip people off. But when robots are programmed to do good, they can help us accomplish what seems impossible.

Take the purchase of a PlayStation 5. Since the release of the Sony console in November, it’s hard to find it in physical stores and online, in part because a global chip shortage has slowed the manufacturing of all kinds of technology products, from graphics cards to automobiles.

As a result, when the new PlayStation appears online on sites like Amazon, Target, and Best Buy, it sells out in minutes, sometimes seconds. Sony has said demand for the PlayStation 5 is unprecedented and supply constraints may continue until next year. This makes the chances of buying the console as random as winning the lottery.

Someone is buying them, however, and the lucky few I spoke to have relied on some form of automation.

“It’s really hard to get one without any bot,” said SV Yesvanth, an information security engineer who wrote a web script to automatically search for consoles available in online stores after his own struggles. buy one in Hyderabad, India. After successfully buying a PlayStation, he said, he logged his bot into a Twitter account and helped hundreds of other enthusiastic buyers.

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 multiple Twitter bots to send alerts to my phone when new consoles were stored, I managed to catch one within a week. It wasn’t easy – I failed the Best Buy website three times and ultimately succeeded with GameStop. But the bots gave me an edge needed to beat thousands of others by furiously updating their web browsers.

You can’t just pick just any bot and expect to land on the device. I’ve interviewed several makers of automated tools that have helped people tag PlayStations. They said there were pitfalls to be avoided, such as fraudulent bots pretending to sell consoles. There are also some hidden tips to speed up orders. Here’s what you need to know.

Dozens of bots online post to Twitter every time a retailer refreshes their inventory with more PlayStations. They all generally work the same way: They look in the web code of an online store for a signal – like an “Add to Cart” button – that the PlayStation is back in stock. As soon as they detect that the console is available, they post an alert on Twitter.

The first step is to follow trustworthy bots. Here are some reliable Twitter accounts that I checked:

  • @ PS5StockAlerts, which tweets when consoles are available at Best Buy, Sam’s Club, and Walmart, among others.

  • @mattswider, which initially relied on bot information for replenishment updates, but is now entirely curated by Matt Swider, the editor of the TechRadar blog. Mr Swider is receiving notice from sources at big box retailers and some independent stores before he refreshes PlayStation inventory, he said.

  • @ ps5_inde, the account managed by SV Yesvanth, has a small following focused on getting a PlayStation in India, where it was 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 the availability of PlayStation in Europe.

You can scan your Twitter feed for stock alerts from these accounts. But a more efficient route is to set up notifications to appear on your phone whenever accounts tweet. To do this, download the Twitter mobile app and allow it to send notifications to your phone. So follow Twitter instructions for setting up specific accounts to send notifications to your phone when they tweet.

Once you see that the consoles are back in stock, don’t hesitate: click on it and add the item to the cart ASAP.

The risky part of relying on bots is that more often than not you will come across scammers. The rule of thumb: Avoid Twitter accounts offering to sell you a PlayStation 5 directly. Once they have received your payment, you will probably not hear from them again.

So pay close attention to the Twitter accounts you follow. Some crooks use account names and avatars that closely resemble the names of legitimate accounts. It’s best to only follow accounts that link to trusted retailers.

“The scary thing is that there are so many fraudulent accounts trying to graft themselves onto legitimate accounts,” Mr. Swider said. “It’s hard to tell them apart. “

Other bots to avoid are automatic payment tools, like browser add-ons that refresh websites and try to order the PlayStation for you. Many retailer sites have systems that detect orders placed by non-humans, so using these tools could cause your order to fail, SV Yesvanth said.

Beyond tracking certain bots and setting up alerts for your phone, you can tip the scales in your favor with a few more steps:

  • On retail sites such as GameStop and Best Buy, create a member account and fill out your mailing address and credit card information in advance. This will speed up the payment by precious seconds, Mr Swider said.

  • In rare cases, PlayStation orders have failed in the middle of a credit card transaction. On some store sites, like Amazon, you can buy a gift credit for yourself, which allows you to skip the credit card verification process, said SV Yesvanth. (The downside is that this strategy requires you to try and buy the console from a specific retailer.)

  • Some online stores have quirks. On Best Buy, for example, you don’t have to refresh the website after clicking the “Add to Cart” button – it could cause you to lose your PlayStation. Mr. Swider regularly broadcasts live YouTube videos that walk people through the various payment processes, and SV Yesvanth and Mr. Hirczy host group chats on Discord where people discuss what works for them.

In the end, the massive effort to buy a product may seem like nonsense. But in an age when frenzied shoppers even quarrel over hand sanitizer and toilet paper, robots can lead the way to victory.

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