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Telfar Enlists Captcha Tests to Fend Off Bots


If the clock was ticking and you were tasked with picking out the biggest cat from a series of thumbnail photos of felines, could you do it?

What if a Telfar bag was on the line?

Last week, the fashion brand, helmed by the breakout designer Telfar Clemens, released a limited number of new bags in what is known as a “drop.” When this happens, chaos often ensues and the bags sell out in a matter of minutes. This time was no exception.

Usually, other Telfar fans and finger dexterity are the greatest obstacles standing in the way of securing one of these sought-after bags. Consumers have to be quick to purchase them online.

This time, though, Telfar hopefuls found themselves bewildered by — and stuck on — the Captcha tests, which are used on websites to determine whether a visitor (often a consumer) is human or not. They are meant to deter hackers and software programs that run automated tasks (better known as retail bots).

The Captchas seemed very specific — and perhaps even harder than usual. One was a fill-in-the-blank: It asked users to complete the phrase “Not for you — for ___.” (The answer was the Telfar slogan: “Not for you — for everyone.”). Another prompted the buyer to assess multiple photos of different cats and to draw a box around the biggest one.

Frustrated consumers flooded Twitter with jokes and pleas for help solving the puzzles.

“While humans were answering captcha questions, bots were getting the bags! They’re actually annoying!!!” wrote Rae Foston, 19, who had tried to purchase a small red Telfar shopping bag, in a direct message. “It’s not that they’re difficult, and I get the point of having them but are they really serving their purpose?”

Jayshawn Williams, 33, also had trouble trying to crack the code. Mr. Williams, who was trying to buy a medium shopping bag, said it took him about five minutes to answer his Captcha question.

“Once I figured out the answer I laughed to myself and had a bit of a ‘duh’ moment,” he wrote. (Mr. Williams also wasn’t able to secure a bag.)

But there was a method to this madness. Telfar, like many coveted brands that release inventory in this manner, has dealt with automated bots buying up stock in the past. The original Captcha puzzles were an attempt to deceive them — not the humans.

“The truth is the reason people aren’t getting the bag is not because they have to draw a box around the cat,” wrote Babak Radboy, Mr. Clemens’s business partner, in a statement to The New York Times. “That is actually making it so more people and less bots get bags. The reason people can’t get the bag is because any given minute there are tens of thousands more people who want bags than there are bags to get.”

He defended the new security measures: “It takes time to do things right. Our thinking is long term.”

In recent years, bots have become increasingly good at cracking the codes traditionally used in these safety systems. According to Jason Polakis, a researcher and faculty member at the University of Illinois in Chicago, simple Captchas, especially text-based ones, have become trivial to bypass.

“As machine learning continues to advance at a rapid rate, certain tasks that used to be very difficult for machines (e.g., identify which images are showing a glass of wine) are now within their capabilities. In fact, for certain tasks machines are probably better than average users,” Mr. Polakis wrote in an email. “As a result, captcha services have made their challenges increasingly harder in an attempt to mitigate the effectiveness of automated solvers.”

These automated solvers, or bots, hike up the value of items. Telfar’s shopping bags often end up on resale sites like StockX, Poshmark and Grailed, sometimes at the hands of collectives like Hypernova Group, which claimed to have purchased more than 60 percent of Telfar’s stock in a bag drop last summer. The sweep prompted a response from the brand on Instagram: “Telfar is for the people. Not the bots.”

Although many shoppers are wistful for easier Captchas, some were still able to find the humor in it all despite coming out of this drop empty-handed.

“I will say that I had never run into that cat captcha before and I was taken aback. It was kinda funny,” Ms. Foston wrote. Although the humor came later — “not at the time because it’s an intense 2 mins trying to buy a telfar,” she wrote.


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