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Gamers compete for new video consoles

Legions of video game enthusiasts are logging on at Web stores all over the Net, hoping to snag an advance order of one of the hot new game consoles debuting next month.

Mitch Bartlett whooped it up when he thought his quest for Nintendo's new GameCube was over.

"Yes, I got it!" he hollered at his PC. "It's mine."

Legions of video game enthusiasts are logging on at Web stores all over the Internet, hoping to snag an advance order of one of the hot new game consoles debuting next month. Nintendo's GameCube goes on sale Nov. 18, three days after Microsoft's Xbox.

Bartlett was among the lucky few to put a GameCube in his virtual cart at a presale earlier this month at Toysrus.com. All he needed to ensure that he would be shipped a console once it was available was to press one last button.

He clicked and...nothing. The GameCube had vanished from his cart. In less than four minutes, the site had sold out and Bartlett--who had already unsuccessfully tried preordering with EBgames.com, GameStop, CDUniverse and Best Buy--had lost his machine to a quicker finger. Now he's searching other Web stores and looking to try his luck again at Toysrus.com's next presale, on Nov. 12.

Each year it seems, a new game console is unveiled and a shopping frenzy is whipped up. Last year, it was Sony's PlayStation 2. In previous years, Nintendo's N-64, Sega's Genesis and Atari's 2600 had gamers and their parents lining up at brick-and-mortar stores.

At stake among gamers are bragging rights over who brings home a console first. "With gamers, consoles are all about: 'I have one and you don't,'" Bartlett said.

It'll be twice as bad this year with the debut of two consoles, both likely to be in short supply during the holiday season. Gamers are already scouring the Internet for information, poring over newsletters and message boards and tipping each other off via instant messages as to where the coveted machines may show up next.

"We had people camping on our site for hours last year," said Dave Karraker, spokesman for Kmart's Web unit, BlueLight.com. "That's what you have to do to get one of these machines. It's like guerilla warfare out there."

The hunt for machines sometimes leads shoppers to discard their common sense, leaving them easy prey for con artists. Last year, the craze over PlayStation 2 led to several scams that duped overly eager console hunters.

Here are some tips to help locate prized consoles as well as to navigate sometimes treacherous obstacles.

Don't get burned
Know which stores are going to receive consoles. Microsoft and Nintendo are shipping to most of the big retailers, such as Wal-Mart, Kmart, Best Buy and Toys "R" Us. GameCube fans can call Nintendo for a list of authorized GameCube merchants at 800-255-3700.

Last year, many consumers plunked down as much as $700--list price is $299--to buy a PlayStation 2 without checking whether the store they were dealing with was legitimate.

Fraudsters last year were expert at cobbling together Web sites that looked like well-stocked and fully functioning e-commerce stores, said Bob Whitelaw, a board member of the U.S. Better Business Bureau.

"They were attractive online storefronts but just window dressing," Whitelaw said. "Behind them was absolutely nothing except for individuals who wanted to steal your money."

Be wary of any store that claims to possess "thousands of units direct from the manufacturer," he said.

Also beware of anyone selling the Japanese version of GameCube, which went on sale last month. While the console might be delivered, it won't play American games.

Most importantly, never, under any circumstances, send a photocopy of your credit card to anyone, Whitelaw said. One phony site asked unsuspecting Web shoppers to fax a copy of both sides of their credit card. Although possessing such information wouldn't allow a criminal to go on a spending spree, it could help to gather valuable information about the cardholder.

Console hunting
Knowing how the bad guys work is only half the battle. Nabbing a console is the other.

Merchants play their own game with consumers by rarely announcing the exact times that consoles will go on sale or how many consoles will be available, so shoppers must revisit sites continuously. The stores say they are doing some shoppers a favor.

"We offer several different presale events, so if you get caught napping, you have a couple of other chances," said Jeanne Meyer, a spokeswoman for Toysrus.com, the jointly run Web site of Toys "R" Us and Amazon.com.

Patience and research are the keys to winning such a guessing game.

Staying informed as to what sites will carry the console is paramount, according to Greg Bottorff, an operator of community sites dedicated to the console search.

Bottorff operates Allcube.com and Allxbox.com, message boards where gamers can read the latest news and exchange information. Last year he ran PS2bargains.com.

Bartlett has opened up his own GameCube message board, Gamecubewatch.com, to glean information on where he might find one. Some e-tailers issue electronic newsletters that alert subscribers to approaching console sales.

Once a console hunter learns the day of a presale, he or she must be ready to pounce.

One of the first things to do is to input credit card information in the retailer's system before the sale. Most Web stores don't wait for console buyers to place a machine into their carts and then poke around, said John Goelzer, who bought a GameCube from Toysrus.com two weeks ago.

Shopping bots have proven to be effective. Bots are programs that repeatedly log on to Web sites automatically to help people search for prices or products. Instead of wearing out fingers hitting the refresh key over and over on the page where a presale is to be announced, the bots will monitor retail sites and alert users when a console sale has begun.

Bottorff said that he will likely make shopping-bot software available for download on his sites.

But many e-tailers, whose sites were overtaxed at times last year by bots employed by PlayStation 2 hunters, have found ways to rid themselves of overactive bots.

Karraker said BlueLight will employ technology that can deflect bots, after the site saw 80,000 hits in a period of minutes during a PlayStation 2 sale last year. Such traffic stalled Web sites.

Just the same, Karraker understands why gamers camp out on sites.

"It's all about vigilance," he said. "Hitting as many outlets as you possibly can and hitting refresh, refresh, refresh. You've got to use your bots and your friends. The ones who hang in there the longest are the ones who get the machines."

Bartlett plans to hang in there in his GameCube quest. "Sometimes I'm up until midnight looking for one," he said.