RealTime IT News

Wal-Mart Targets Re-Coding in Bar Scan Scam

Wal-Mart Stores has sent a cease and desist letter to the operators of a satirical Web site that hosted a service where visitors can re-print Universal Product Codes (UPC) bar codes onto labels to discount goods sold in stores.

"It's theft and deception," said Tom Williams, a spokesman for the Bentonville, Ark.-based retailing giant. "It's theft. It's as simple as that."

However, one of Re-code.com's operators told internetnews.com that the site was only meant as satire. The site was launched on March 20 by members of a high tech art group that call themselves "Hactivist." The group has been active since 1997. Traffic to the site quickly swelled through word-of-mouth after Weblog sites around the world linked to it.

"UPC databases have existed on the Internet and so have pricing services. All we are doing is adding a layer of satire over it," said one operator who would only identify himself as "Nathan," a mid-20s prankster based in upstate New York.

Unfortunately for Hactivists, Wal-Mart failed to see the humor in it. On April 2, Wal-Mart's lawyers issued a cease and desist order. The operators received the certified letter from Wal-Mart's attorneys on Tuesday, April 7, according to a note posted on Re-code.com's introductory page. On Thursday, April 10, Domains by Proxy terminated Re-code.com's domain name masking service. Site operators also posted the following note:

"Re-Code.com is designed to stimulate discussion about the prices of products and goods as they might relate to corporate and governmental agendas. Re-Code.com does not advocate relabeling items in stores. Re-Code.com servers do not store any barcode images only the data entered by our customers which is not verified by re-code.com to be accurate. Any image of a barcode you see on your screen is generated and visible only to you the user on your local machine. The video commercial on Re-Code.com's site is a dramatization and we have been assured by the anonymous videographers that no actual items were mislabeled or mispriced during the taping of the commercial. We have received several suggestions for conceptual options for tactical shopping and re-coding. The options are discussed below."

However, that statement apparently contradicts content posted on Re-code.com's main home page, which not only advocates re-labeling but also offers a satirical "how-to-" video guide on how the UPC re-labeling service works.

"Re-Code.com is built on two unique concepts known as Preshopping and Postshopping," according to the Web site's "About" section. "Preshopping refers to visiting the Re-code.com website first finding a store in your area with prices that you want to pay. Many of our codes are from generic items which could easily be used to re-code brand name items. At stores which rely heavily on the barcode for your bill total, printed bar code stickers from this site could be used to relabel and re-code expensive products with cheaper prices. Rather than our competitors that allow you to compare apples to apples, we allow you the consumer to relabel DVD's with apple prices."

Nathan said the sophisticated hoax was only meant as a prank and that he does not advocate stealing.

"I've never stolen anything in my life," he said during a brief telephone interview.

Nathan also said he was unaware that anyone actually used the re-labeling service on the Web site. However, Wal-Mart's Williams said the company took the action against Re-code.com after prosecuting individuals that tried to use false bar codes in actual stores.

Still, he declined to comment on whether Wal-Mart will attempt to shut down the site entirely.

"We'll take this one step at a time," he said.

As of press time, the site is still online albeit slow due to the excess load. Nathan said that only two servers based in California are mirroring the site and he welcomes the increased traffic.

"A lot of people get the satire. It's all conceptual," Nathan added.