Are crypto miners feeding the GPU scalper bot frenzy?

By Alex McConnell / 03rd Jun 2021

PC gamers have long been frustrated by the rising cost of top-performing graphics cards, fueled in part by GPU-hungry cryptocurrency miners. It’s a dream scenario for scalpers, but can it be stopped?

As experts in malicious bot activity, we talk a lot about scalpers at Netacea. Our Head of Threat Research Matthew Gracey-McMinn has even appeared on US news channels to talk on the subject.

We have mostly focused our interest on the most obvious targets – those low-supply, high-demand items like PS5s that scalpers love to snatch up for resale milliseconds after they hit the virtual shelves.

We’ve also noted that GPUs, in particular the NVIDIA GeForce RTX 30 series, are a major target for scalpers. Gamers needing the latest graphics cards to play the latest graphic-intensive games are now forced to hand their cash over to scalpers on secondary markets, sometimes for double the recommended retail price.

But why is there so much demand and so little supply for NVIDIA GPUs like the GeForce RTX 3060, RTX 3070, RTX 3080 and RTX 3090?

Even without worrying about scalpers, electronics manufacturers are fighting to manufacture enough components to meet demand. The pandemic has created bottlenecks in the supply chain that has been felt across the whole tech hardware industry. Sony has even hinted that the PS5 may remain in limited supply until 2022.

But it’s not just demand from gamers making NVIDIA GPUs so attractive to scalpers. Demand from GPU-hungry crypto miners, who often clash with gamers online, exacerbates the supply chain issues.

Mine, mine, all mine

Crypto mining involves using computing power to solve complex cryptographic equations, with the reward being cryptocurrency like Bitcoin or Ethereum. The rate at which these equations can be solved, and thus cryptocurrency can be mined, depends on the hash rate of the computer, which is in turn influenced by how much power the GPU has.

As a result, cryptocurrency miners build computer rigs containing multiple graphics cards. The more powerful the cards, the faster the hash rate and the quicker a profit can be made.

So, unlike gamers, crypto miners commonly buy multiple GPUs at a time, dwindling stock levels even more.

Does crypto mining decrease GPU lifespan?

Intensive mining can decrease the lifespan of GPUs more than average gaming use. Cryptocurrency mining is usually run 24/7 at the maximum power output for the card, increasing the heat generated by the components and keeping their cooling fans at top speed constantly. Aside from the wear and tear of electrical components, it is often the mechanical element of the fans that gives out first.

For this reason, it’s likely miners will need to replenish their stock of GPUs more often than gamers, adding more pressure to the supply chain.

Scalpers know this and subsequently target high-end graphics cards, playing gamers and cryptocurrency miners off one another to drive up resale prices.

Being more technically savvy than most people, both gamers and crypto miners also use bots to beat the scalpers at their own game, either written by themselves or acquired from bot groups, which are becoming increasingly professionalized. This adds even more bot traffic onto retailer websites when additional stock becomes available. But is there an end in sight to this vicious cycle?

Hash rate limiting to help gamers get graphics cards

In February 2021, NVIDIA announced measures to limit the usefulness of its entry level GeForce RTX 30 card, the RTX 3060, to cryptocurrency miners on the hunt for faster Bitcoin and Ethereum generation. By halving the hash rate speed of the RTX 3060, NVIDIA hoped to make it less appealing to miners so that more gamers could access sales of the card, especially as miners often buy more than one card to mine Bitcoin, Ethereum et al.

However, this only served to make the unrestricted and more powerful cards in the range more desirable to cryptocurrency miners and thus even more elusive and expensive to gamers. In response, NVIDIA subsequently announced that more cards in the RTX 30 range would begin to ship to customers with this limitation built in.

However, a crypto miner posted a workaround on Korean forum Quasar Zone that re-enables full rate mining on the RTX 3060, using an official NVIDIA firmware update and tricking multiple cards in a mining build to lift their hash rate limit with cheaply bought HDMI dummy dongles.

Easier exploits and workaround to the imposed limit on the RTX 30 series’ mining capabilities are expected, and manufacturing delays are unlikely to catch up to demand for some time, even without cryptocurrency miners taking the lion’s share.

Still, we will be interested to see how this development will affect the scalpers’ appetite for high-end GPUs.

Stopping scalpers the old fashioned way

In an attempt to cut out online scalpers entirely, Best Buy has limited sales of the NVIDIA GeForce RTX 3080 Ti FE to in-store only. Customers can join a queue at the store and be handed tickets allotting them one available graphics card each. While this does prevent scalpers from automating purchases online, it is less than ideal for gamers who don’t live near to one of the selected Best Buy stores. A similar fair strategy can be implemented online using virtual waiting room systems like TrafficDefender.

Stopping NVIDIA graphics cards scalpers with AI

Netacea is a recognized market leader in bot management solutions. We analyze the behavior of every request, using advanced AI and machine learning to detect automated threats like scalper bots and account takeover attempts in real time.

Find out more about scalper bots or calculate the cost of scalpers to your gaming business with Netacea’s bot calculator.