Instacart shoppers are battling order-grabbing bots


Lisa Marsh’s job shopping and delivering groceries for Instacart during the past three years has been unforgiving. Company tipping policies cut into earnings while boycotts and other labor strife created confusion, she said.

Then the global pandemic hit, transforming once mundane trips to Los Angeles grocery stores where she lives into a palpable health risk.

In recent weeks, another problem has emerged: bots that snatch the largest, most lucrative orders out of the hands of other shoppers.

Here’s how it works. Instacart pays contract workers to shop for groceries and deliver them to customers. Normally, the shoppers open the Instacart shopping app and, as orders flash by, click on the ones they want to fulfill. But in order to gain an edge, some shoppers are paying software developers who have created bots—in the form of third-party apps—that run alongside the legitimate Instacart app and claim the best orders for clients.

In this way, the app tilts competition between shoppers but is invisible to customers and doesn’t take business away from Instacart either. The cost of the third-party apps ranges from $250 to $600 in cryptocurrency or bank deposits, according to the darkweb research firm, DarkOwl.

When Marsh opens her Instacart shopping app, she sees promising orders disappear before she can act. “No human can click that fast,” she said. “Instacart needs to fix this. These bots are literally taking the food off my kids’ table.”

While bots aren’t a new problem for Instacart, the recent deluge is different because it comes at a time of white-knuckled expansion for the San Francisco-based startup. The company said customer demand for grocery delivery has surged more than 500% during the pandemic, notching growth its investors didn’t expect until 2025. This makes the platform, which hasn’t expanded its team as fast as its revenue, an attractive target for hustlers.

A spokeswoman for Instacart Inc. said the bots affect just a sliver of its more than 500,000 shoppers and that the company has already taken measures to address the issue.

“We take the integrity of the Instacart platform very seriously and have a trust and security team dedicated to monitoring the unauthorized use of the platform which includes all efforts to prevent illicit and fraudulent third-party apps from violating our terms of service,” said Natalia Montalvo, Instacart’s director of shopper engagement and communications.

Instacart said it’s combating bots by cranking up pressure against app makers and banning violators when they find them. The company said it deactivated 150 shoppers found to be misusing the platform and shut down a half dozen sites claiming to sell batches to Instacart shoppers including Instashopper.app, Sushopper, Ninja Hours and Acrobatshopper.

The developers of those apps couldn’t be located for comment.

Instacart also recently introduced new procedures such as prompting shoppers to verify their identity with a selfie and not permitting shoppers to switch devices in the middle of an order. Shoppers using the updated app can also choose to review a single order for 30 seconds before claiming it or passing it to another shopper.

“As a result of these measures, we’ve seen a dramatic reduction in the use of unauthorized third-party apps because of the hard work and dedication by our security and legal teams to protect the shopper experience,” Montalvo said. Instacart also this month enlisted the help of security platform HackerOne to battle bots by offering a bounty program, she said.

But as security experts at Amazon.com Inc. and other sites have discovered, battling rogue apps is a lot like playing whack-a-mole. As soon as a company thwarts one bot program, a new version of it emerges, usually with a new name.

“If Instacart cared—if it was losing money—they could devote resources to make the jobs of these automatic snipers much harder,” Bruce Schneier, a cybersecurity expert, author and lecturer at Harvard University, who said there are ways for companies to detect such bots. “This is a problem that any company that makes money from automation is likely being forced to deal with. Some handle it well. Others don’t.”

In recent months, different Instacart shopper-related apps have come and gone, sometimes using slightly varied titles, such as Ninja Hours, Ninja Shoppers and Ninja Shopper. DarkOwl discovered nearly a dozen active platforms in mid-May advertising openly on YouTube and social media platforms, including Reddit. Digital breadcrumbs linked these sites back to users spanning the U.S., including New York, Savannah, Georgia and Northern California’s wine country, according to DarkOwl. Others linked to an apparent Brazilian app developer syndicate that leans heavily on YouTube ads narrated in Portuguese, the research firm concluded.

The developer of those apps couldn’t be located for comment.

Some of the apps work, others are scams, according to DarkOwl. The Bitcoin wallet linked to the site of Ninja Shoppers indicates its owners have received 76 deposits—about $20,000—including many from Instacart shoppers desperate to jumpstart their stalled shopping careers.

The apps are typically available on websites published by their developers. In the case of Ninja Shoppers, the app is free to download, but users must be ‘’activated in a private group” in order to be granted permission to pay for a user authentication token, according to their website, which is published in English and Portuguese. Once logged-in, the program prompts the user to find Instacart sales available near their location, according to a YouTube video viewed more than 13,000 times since May 9.

Despite Instacart’s efforts to crack down, finding a permanent solution may be difficult. Earlier this month, one man using the Instacart shopping app, who said he’s been using a bot since March, offered to install it on another shopper’s phone for $250, plus a $130 weekly recurring fee, according to screen shots of a conversation in late July seen by Bloomberg. When reached by phone earlier this week, the man spoke first in Portuguese and then in English, confirming to Bloomberg he was selling a bot for those amounts. He declined to answer additional questions after learning that the information would likely be publicized.

Fear of getting deactivated or scammed out of money has stopped some shoppers from spending money on the apps. Others like Santa Cruz-area grandmother Ginger Colgate said she refuses to do so on moral grounds.

“It’s just not right. It’s against the rules,” said Colgate, complaining that her earnings dropped from $1,800 a week to $300 because the bots have siphoned the best work. Colgate said she still sometimes drives to Costco and opens the Instacart app, hoping for work.

“So many times I sit with tears in my eyes in the parking lot just waiting and hoping to get an order,” she said. “I’ve basically given up.”

More must-read retail coverage from Fortune:



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Melbourne shoppers cram stores as lockdown looms


Shoppers have been filmed lining up at a Melbourne market as the city – and the whole state of Victoria – awaits news on tough new restrictions.

It comes as Premier Daniel Andrews prepares to detail a stage 4 lockdown for the capital and new measures through regional communities, with more than 650 new cases of COVID-19 to be announced.

It’s understood that today will mark a new record number of deaths.

Racing.com editor in chief Paul Tatnell shared incredible vision on Twitter on Sunday of South Melbourne Market.

“Lockdown panic is well and truly alive,” he said. “Shortage of meat and staples already. One shop likened it to the Christmas rush.”

RELATED: Follow our latest coronavirus updates

Supermarkets across the city have seen long queues of people today as news of the imminent lockdown spread.

While details are not yet confirmed, it’s believed that most retail stores and businesses will be forced to close within coming days under the new measures.

Supermarkets, considered essential services, will remain open but under strict social distancing and health rules.

More to come …



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Woolworths wants many shoppers wearing face masks — here’s what you need to know


If you’re a Woolworths shopper in New South Wales, the ACT or parts of Queensland, you’re being “strongly encouraged” to wear face coverings.

If you’ve got questions about just how strongly you’re being encouraged, or what supermarkets in Queensland are affected, or whether Coles will be following suit, you’re not alone — here are some answers.

Who is covered by the announcement and when does it start?

Woolworths says the advice applies to staff and customers at all of the company’s stores in NSW and the ACT from Monday.

In the case of what Woolworths called “hotspot” areas of Queensland, it said customers and staff would be encouraged to wear face coverings from tomorrow.

The announcement doesn’t just apply to Woolworths supermarkets either, with the company’s other businesses also affected, including:

  • Dan Murphy’s
  • Big W
  • BWS
  • ALH Group hotels

Woolworths chief executive Brad Banducci said the announcement was a response to the current situation around COVID-19.

Does ‘strongly encouraged’ mean I can still shop without a mask?

Yes, it’s not a mandatory requirement, and Mr Banducci has stressed this point.

However, he said if customers don’t wear masks, they are still asked to do other things — for instance, making use of hand sanitiser dispensers at the front of stores and keeping 1.5 metres away from other customers and staff.

How does this announcement compare to the official advice?

Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.
Deputy CMO says Australians should consider widespread face mask use

Professor Michael Kidd, Australia’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer, addressed the issue on ABC News Breakfast this morning.

He also referred to Woolworths’ decision, saying going to the supermarket was one situation in which people may get closer to you than 1.5 metres.

This is the current state-by-state advice:

  • In New South Wales, the Federal Department of Health says people should wear face masks in situations where they cannot practice social distancing. On Wednesday, Premier Gladys Berejiklian also said it was “good policy” for staff to be encouraged to wear masks at hospitality venues
  • In Queensland, this is the advice on mask use on the State Government’s website: “You don’t need to wear a face mask unless your doctor has told you to or you are caring for someone who might have COVID-19.”
  • In the ACT, this is the advice: “In general, if you are healthy you do not need to wear a mask. This is especially true given there is no evidence of community transmission in the ACT.”

Victoria wasn’t a focus of Woolworths’ announcement because mask use will already be mandatory for every Victorian outside their home from 11:59pm Sunday (this is already the case for Melbourne and Mitchell Shire).

Did Woolworths discuss any of this with health officials?

Mr Banducci was asked on AM if he had sought the opinion of Australia’s Chief Medical Officer.

He responded by saying the company followed all national and state-based health advice, and that it also had its own medical advisory board.

What are the Queensland hotspots and do we know which stores are affected?

In a statement, Woolworths said the Queensland supermarkets affected included:

  • Brookwater
  • Browns Plains
  • Browns Plains Westpoint  
  • Chatswood Hills 
  • Park Ridge
  • Springfield
  • Springwood
  • Sunnybank  

A Queensland Health contact tracing and testing response has focused on Logan and Brisbane’s southside after two women who returned to Queensland from Melbourne tested positive to COVID-19.

How has Coles responded?

In a statement, a Coles spokesperson said the company would continue to take the advice of state governments on mask use in stores.

However, the spokesperson also said that “in addition to wearing a mask while shopping”, Coles asked that shoppers continue to shop safely by following measures including:

  • Using provided hand sanitiser
  • Social distancing
  • Shopping alone (if possible)
  • Using tap-and-go payment

Coles said the company had masks available for workers in NSW and Queensland, but said their use was not mandatory.

Where can I get more information about where to get a face mask and how to use it?

Woman wearing blue mask at sewing machine
You don’t have to buy a mask — you can make your own.(Reuters: David W Cerny)

We’ve put together this handy guide on where to get masks — including making your own — as well as how to wear them.



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Neighbourhood malls flourish as shoppers stay local


“These positive numbers were also reflected across the Colliers retail management portfolio here in Australia. In May, retail sales had a massive 16.9 per cent rebound and together with the preliminary June numbers meant that the level of sales were now 7 per cent above pre-virus data,” Mr Bate said.

“The big category winners continued to be supermarkets and takeaway food services, which included cafes and restaurants. This was supported with lockdown laws being relaxed further at the end of May and throughout June as more and more people emerged from the virus hibernation.”

Australian Unity has seen this rise in demand and is committing $85 million in further development works across its neighbourhood shopping centre portfolio in the coming months. One is at its Blackburn Centre in Melbourne’s east.

Through its Diversified Property Fund, Australian Unity owns supermarket-anchored neighbourhood shopping centres in Victoria and Western Australia with 72 per cent of its retail portfolios income coming from essential services and supermarkets.

Fund manager Nikki Panagopoulos said she has witnessed only nominal income disruption to the Fund’s distributable income, across the portfolio, which stems from requests for rent relief from businesses adversely affected by government measures in response to COVID-19.

“Footfall in neighbourhood and sub-regional assets has not deteriorated as much as destination assets,” Ms Panagopoulos said.

The fund’s portfolio was re-valued during April and May. This resulted in a 2 per cent increase on prior independent valuations for 80 per cent of the overall portfolio.

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Jacob Swan, JLL’s joint head of retail investments (Australia), said investors and landlords have seen a steady rise in interest in food-anchored assets since the pandemic took hold.

“Anecdotally, some neighbourhood and sub-regional shopping centre portfolios collected up to 85 per ent of rent over April and May, which was a very positive outcome. Some of the outstanding rent will be collected by deferral and remaining portion will be waived under the code,” Mr Swan said.

“Importantly, the foot-traffic rebound in these centres has been fast and effective, as workers remain at home in the suburbs frequenting their local neighbourhood or sub-regional centre as opposed to the major CBD and regional centres.”

JLL’s joint head of retail investments (Australia) Sam Hatcher added that many food and beverage retailers managed to adapt quickly to the new operating environment with many “pivoting their business models to cater for greater online deliveries and takeaway”.

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Westfield shoppers near pre-virus levels


Shoppers seem to be flocking back to stores, with the owner of Westfield centres in Australia saying customer visits are at 86 per cent of the level at the same time a year ago.

Visitor numbers have been helped by 92 per cent of stores trading at the Australian centres, following temporary closures.

Owner Scentre Group says more stores will reopen next month, following the relaxation in coronavirus restrictions.

It said cinemas, gyms and more dining outlets would reopen in July when more social distancing restrictions are eased.

At Westfield centres in New Zealand, 94 per cent of stores are trading. Social distancing restrictions are no longer required as the virus has been eliminated there.

Scentre Group director customer experience Phil McAveety said shoppers’ spending habits were consistent with earlier in the pandemic.

Supermarkets were performing well and spending on fashion and beauty had bounced back, he said.



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Woolworths urges for calm as shoppers resume panic buying


Supermarkets are pleading with shoppers not to repeat the return to panic buying after reports of shelves being stripped in Melbourne.

Woolworths urged its customers to “only buy what they need” following an increased demand for toilet paper in small number of Melbourne stores.

The fresh fears over the essential item comes after the Victorian Government singled out the city as being at a heightened risk of coronavirus transmission.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews confirmed yesterday that there were 17 new cases of coronavirus in the state, many of which were located in Melbourne.

“We saw elevated demand for toilet roll in a small number of Melbourne stores yesterday,” a Woolies spokesperson told news.com.au.

“We have plenty of stock to draw on in our distribution centres and will replenish shelves in those stores quickly.

“We’ll continue to keep a close eye on stock levels in the coming days, and ask customers to buy only what they need.”

RELATED: Second wave of panic buying hits

Coles said yesterday it had not seen a spike in customer purchases but was keeping a close eye on stock levels.

Despite warnings, concerned shoppers issued public pleas of their own to both Woolies and Coles, asking for the retailers to step in and start restricting the number of essential items people can buy.

One shopper slammed those buying up big, calling it an act of “stupidity” to not learn from the last time. While many branded it “selfish”.

Strict buying limits were introduced back in March when Australia was caught in the grip of extreme grocery shortages when The World Health Organisation declared COVID-19 a pandemic.

Last month Coles and Woolworths both revealed all buying limits had been lifted as shopping habits finally returned to normal.

Continue the conversation @RebekahScanlan | rebekah.scanlan@news.com.au





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Shoppers flock to Pitt St Mall as coronavirus restrictions eased


Hundreds of people were seen packed into Sydney’s CBD yesterday after the NSW government eased social distancing restrictions over the weekend.

The keen shoppers filled the city’s shopping district, which has been largely deserted in recent months as retail and hospitality businesses were closed by the coronavirus pandemic.

The NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard has warned residents of the state to continue to practice social distancing, saying the coronavirus remains “extremely dangerous” and we are “sitting ducks”.

RELATED: Follow the latest coronavirus updates

Pitt St Mall in central Sydney was packed with hundreds of people on Sunday as some of the social distancing restrictions were eased by the state government on Friday.

Keen shoppers were out and about in the Sydney retail precinct, where streets have been largely deserted in recent months as the country was gripped by the pandemic.

The NSW government relaxed some of its restrictions on Friday, allowing many previously shuttered businesses to reopen over the weekend, including pubs, bars and restaurants.

However, Mr Hazzard has warned residents of NSW against becoming complacent, saying they need to continue practising social distancing.

RELATED: Coronavirus Australia live updates

“It’s fair to say that there has been, in a sense, a great NSW bust-out – people (are) rewarding themselves for many weeks of sacrifice, having themselves locked inside,” Mr Hazzard said on Sunday.

“But I also do want to remind people this virus is extremely dangerous and we are all – every one of us – sitting ducks for this virus. We don’t know where this virus might break out.”

“We all deserve it, we’ve all worked very hard at it. So I don’t want to dissuade people from enjoying what is a fantastic state, and at the moment, fantastic weather for this time of the year,” Mr Hazzard continued. “But I also do want to remind people that this virus is extremely dangerous, and we are all – every one of us – sitting ducks for this virus.”

The government is still urging business to encourage social distancing and to allow employees to work from home where possible.

One new case of COVID-19 was recorded in the 24 hours to 8pm on Saturday, with eight cases recorded in the proceeding 24 hours.

More than 10,100 people were tested in the reporting period, compared with 9892 people in the previous 24 hours.

—with AAP



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