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Tonko pushes bill to counter "Grinch bots"

Steve Duckett, the Grinch, Rep. Paul Tonko, and Mark Eagan at Heroes Hideout
Lucas Willard
Steve Duckett, the Grinch, Rep. Paul Tonko, and Mark Eagan at Heroes Hideout

Capital Region Congressman Paul Tonko is pushing legislation that would crack down on Grinch Bots – computer programs that automatically buy up popular products including the hottest holiday toys.

The Stopping Grinch Bots act – named after Dr. Seuss’s notorious Christmas-stealing character — is designed to halt the programs that can drive up the prices of hard to find toys each December.

Congressman Paul Tonko stumped for the bill at Heroes Hideout, a collector’s store at the Colonie Center mall in Colonie.

“You know this manipulative effort to drive the prices upward and consume all the maximum numbers that they can is very hurtful to the consumer and certainly hurtful to business,” said Tonko.

The legislation is modeled after a law passed in 2016 to crack down on similar price gouging on concert tickets.

The Democrat from New York’s 20th District is on the Energy and Commerce Committee. He says the new bill would apply to more than just holiday presents.

“The pandemic showed that bots can be quickly adapted to exploit any market inefficiency, with products including N95 masks and hand sanitizer being popular targets of bot attacks when supplies were low,” said Tonko.

Grinch Bots can make things difficult for retailers, especially those who stock collectible goods.

Surrounded by rows of action figures, plush toys, and thousands of Funko! Pop bobbleheads that resemble everything from Huckleberry Hound to Snoop Dogg, Heroes Hideout owner Steve Duckett said his business relies on collectors selling or trading their toys.

“I have direct accounts with everybody, so Funko, Hasbro, Mattel, everybody. Then what we do is we buy collections from customers who are looking to sell off their collections. That’s really where we get affected, is because they paid a higher premium for an item that really probably wasn’t worth that much, so they expect that return when they come to us,” said Duckett.

According to Duckett, Grinch Bots can affect customers’ expectations and hurt his businesses’ reputation.

“Grinch bots aren’t taking everything, but they’re taking a lot. So unfortunately, if we have that item that they couldn’t get, they think we participated even though we didn’t. So that’s one thing we deal with,” said Duckett. “And then, it’s an easy excuse, too, for the customer. So, like, they’ll say, if something goes online and they can’t get it, ‘Oh, it was a bot.’”

Mark Eagan, President of the Capital Region Chamber of Commerce, appeared alongside Duckett in support of the legislation.

“This Christmas, vendors that use the Grinch Bots, should receive nothing other than coal in their stockings,” said Eagan.

The bill has support in the Senate, too, including from Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York.

In the meantime, Tonko has already written to the chair of the Federal Trade Commission asking it to take additional steps to protect consumers from Grinch Bots and to provide feedback to help inform members of Congress on ways to finetune the legislation.

“Look, let’s have a happy holiday season and let’s make certain the Grinch doesn’t spoil any of that season and that when children write that letter to Santa, that Santa can deliver,” said Tonko.

Lucas Willard is a news reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011. He produces and hosts The Best of Our Knowledge and WAMC Listening Party.