Fraudulent Tactics on Amazon Marketplace

Fascinating article about the many ways Amazon Marketplace sellers sabotage each other and defraud customers. The opening example: framing a seller for false advertising by buying fake five-star reviews for their products.

Defacement: Sellers armed with the accounts of Amazon distributors (sometimes legitimately, sometimes through the black market) can make all manner of changes to a rival's listings, from changing images to altering text to reclassifying a product into an irrelevant category, like "sex toys."

Phony fires: Sellers will buy their rival's product, light it on fire, and post a picture to the reviews, claiming it exploded. Amazon is quick to suspend sellers for safety claims.

[...]

Over the following days, Harris came to realize that someone had been targeting him for almost a year, preparing an intricate trap. While he had trademarked his watch and registered his brand, Dead End Survival, with Amazon, Harris hadn't trademarked the name of his Amazon seller account, SharpSurvival. So the interloper did just that, submitting to the patent office as evidence that he owned the goods a photo taken from Harris' Amazon listings, including one of Harris' own hands lighting a fire using the clasp of his survival watch. The hijacker then took that trademark to Amazon and registered it, giving him the power to kick Harris off his own listings and commandeer his name.

[...]

There are more subtle methods of sabotage as well. Sellers will sometimes buy Google ads for their competitors for unrelated products -- say, a dog food ad linking to a shampoo listing -- so that Amazon's algorithm sees the rate of clicks converting to sales drop and automatically demotes their product.

What's also interesting is how Amazon is basically its own government -- with its own rules that its suppliers have no choice but to follow. And, of course, increasingly there is no option but to sell your stuff on Amazon.

Posted on December 20, 2018 at 6:21 AM • 38 Comments

Comments

Peter GalbavyDecember 20, 2018 8:07 AM

A recent one on Amazon UK is the sale of (easily counterfeited) memory cards by a market place re-seller called "Amazon", fulfilled by Amazon and isting their office details as the street address.

I have tried to report this multiple times but either through malicious design or stupidity any e-mail to customer services containing certain keywords automatically get routed to the re-seller "team" and then bounced as there is no re-seller with my source e-mail address.

Subsequent carefully worded e-mails result in platitudes, boiler plate and no action.

DocDecember 20, 2018 8:49 AM

The real problem is abandonment / abdication of all ethics. The current standard for ethics was set by former Sen Harry Reid when confronted with some clearly unethical campaign tactics: "We won, didn't we?" This is all that matters now. We must remember Fox Mulder's admonishment to "Trust no one."

Doing what is right simply means doing what is good for the individual in question. Morality and ethics have left the building.

TimHDecember 20, 2018 9:22 AM

For new consumer electronics, including computer parts, I really only trust Newegg now. Trouble is, Newegg now offers a marketplace, and I don't trust those second-tier sellers.

The problem will be when Amazon and Newegg hide the distinction between themselves and the second-tie sellers. Then you have no idea from whom you are buying. New... or repackaged return?

DaveDecember 20, 2018 9:22 AM

That's the problem with Amazon marketplace, it's eBay without the controls. Amazon tried to create something that competes with eBay, whether that was deliberate or not, but they got it up and running by cutting corners as much as possible. eBay is already a bit of a mess even with the company trying to keep things organised, but with Amazon marketplace it's just a free-for-all with little to no controls. The safest option, until they clean it up (if they ever clean it up) is to only buy direct from Amazon, and for the rest go to eBay. Half the sellers on Amazon marketplace are just eBay drop-shippers anyway, and at least you've got an attempt to police things on eBay.

IggyDecember 20, 2018 9:27 AM

@Peter, can confirm.

@Bruce et al, I noticed years ago that Amazon was behaving like a government bureaucracy and stopped shopping there completely. I'm much happier.

I stop letting others decide what constitutes convenience for me when they fail to ask me what that entails.

Seattle SipperDecember 20, 2018 9:38 AM

This is why brands were invented. As the article says, there are attacks on brands such as hijacking brands and destroying their reputations, but the positive side of branding is that the consumer gets some warranty of the quality of the product and the conditions of the sale. Some brands relate to the manufacturer and others to the retailer. And, yes, there are empty brands, but they tend to be self-destructing.

To bring this back to the Security domain, the current situation calls for a secure way to check identities so that the source of the material is known, a secure way to execute the business transaction, and a secure, durable way to handle warranty transactions.

I'm not claiming that this observation is terribly original. I'm pointing out that we know how to do this and yet we choose not to.

TiresiasDecember 20, 2018 9:50 AM

This is the problem with the whole Web 2.0 business model. In order to get a product sold at an old school retailer like Sears for example, the vendor would have to show up in person and give a sales pitch live demo where the product placement exec could look it over and kick the tires. This is basic quality control.

Amazon let's pretty much anyone sign up as a vendor with limited vetting and expects an algorithm to police the store. Facebook does the same thing. People post whatever they want, an algorithm blocks the most obviously illegal stuff and then its up to users to flag anything else. Google had the same issues with black hat seo scammers and adwords click fraud.

Web 2.0 companies want to replace human moderators with algorithms to reduce costs, but algorithms are not good at policing content. It's like putting a 5 year old in charge of the store. It becomes a game of outwit the algorithm where the cleverest scammer wins. A human with the same task would never fall for these types of scams but companies keep "outsourcing" the work to algorithms despite the predictable results and society seems to think it's good enough.

Petre PeterDecember 20, 2018 10:00 AM

A seller pays someone to write obviously fraudulent five-star reviews for a competitor's listings and hopes Amazon cracks down

This reminds me of attacks that click on the competition's ads to exhaust their advertisement revenue.

Impossibly StupidDecember 20, 2018 10:10 AM

Amazon is complicit. I see it most security-wise from attacks that originate from their AWS offerings. The actively shield abusers there, so it should come as no surprise that supporting fraud extends across their business enterprise. I've also dealt with their HR recruiters a number of times, and it's clear that they're intentionally hiring an incompetent workforce. Anybody who still deals with Amazon gets no sympathy from me.

Clive RobinsonDecember 20, 2018 3:03 PM

@ Wiredog,

With regards Williams Sonoma's federal lawsuit against Amazon, the WashPo site does not let "European's see their "Democracy"[1]...

So an alternative link,

https://gazette.com/williams-sonoma-sues-amazon-over-knockoffs/article_85f2a2a6-03d2-11e9-b04f-af3ea90480a9.html

For those not used to Amazon's very nasty "knock-off" practices it's a lot lot worse if you are a new effectively start up business.

In theory as a manufacturer selling via Amazon you get to see sale information from Amazon. But Amazon get to see it first and have been known to "drag their heals" on letting manufacturers know causing all sorts of problems.

Especially if it's popular as an Idea and Amazon can get their own "Knock-Off" ready in time. If they can they then use the alternative product to advertize their own product whilst telling customers looking for the manufactures product that it's out of stock etc. This then uses an effectively illegal conversion of the manufacturers trade name and product quality.

Worse as Amazon often screw their knock-offs up, and they do where possible use them as "private data leaches" they just drop their knockoff by nolonger providing the back end service thus the product fails to function. This indirectly harms thr manufacturers good name by "poisoning the well" of that marketplace.

Whilst Amazon basically deny such practices there is sufficient evidence to say it's policy, enough that smarter manufacturers are designing and pricing their product for a short sales life that ends around the time Amazon have prepared their knock-off. They do this because they don't have the resources to fight Amazon in court as Amazon will not just protract it as long as possible they will use it as an excuse not to carry the manufacturer any longer.

It will be interesting to see if Williams Sonoma's can fight this and win because "as sure as eggs are eggs" Amazon is going to try it's best to make them loose or at best get a pyrrhic victory just to deter others from following suit.

There are a whole load of other very dodgy business practices Amazon use, which is why I'm never going to shop there and will tell people about their dodgy practices.

[1] Every one claims democracy will die in the face of darkness and oppression caused by censorship, and they are most probably right... But what do you call a news organisation that self censors based on where their readers might be comming from? One could I suppose look at it another way and ask "WashPo what are you trying to hide?".

Witch PatrolDecember 20, 2018 3:34 PM

"But what do you call a news organisation that self censors based on where their readers might be comming from? One could I suppose look at it another way and ask "WashPo what are you trying to hide?".

-What the hell are you even blathering about here?

If you have a specific problem with the article that would be one thing as yet unelucidated, but to have vague pseudo-critiques of an entire news organization based on one article you don't like is patent idiocy and you ought to know better.

If you have a specific credible accusation of Wapo "censoring" information then spit it out, but your mealy-mouthed pseudo-accusation goes nowhere except right back in your face.

jdgaltDecember 20, 2018 3:38 PM

And this is why markets need to have plenty of competitors. But like eBay and PayPal before it, Amazon is increasingly deciding that there are some categories of product it won't carry.

Please resist the urge to enact regulations, which will only prevent competitors from forming.

FaustusDecember 20, 2018 4:28 PM

I've both bought and sold on Amazon with no problem. It was scrupulously fair and consistent.

The problems in this article are with unscrupulous sellers. And ignorant people who do not secure their accounts or file for trademarks. Why blame Amazon for their own mistakes? Actual scammers hurt Amazon and it will undoubtedly track them down and kick them off.

Amazon is a private business, so yes, not so shockingly, it has its own rules. In my experience they make more sense and are more even handed and better enforced than US laws.

People that think Amazon is evil should please go and use their competitors. If your morality doesn't extend to the effort of finding an alternative, who is really culpable here? These companies are monopolies simply because everyone CHOOSES to use them.

It is like a slave owner criticizing slavery but still owning them because of the inconvenience of not having them around.

"If you don't stand for something you will fall for anything."

Me? I have abandoned Twitter and Facebook and their ilk because I don't like what they do. Choice is a superpower. Use it or lose it.

gordoDecember 20, 2018 6:07 PM

@ Faustus,

Me? I have abandoned Twitter and Facebook and their ilk because I don't like what they do. Choice is a superpower. Use it or lose it.

What, then, does Amazon choose to do?

Amazon Doesn’t Just Want to Dominate the Market—It Wants to Become the Market
The company is a radically new kind of monopoly with ambitions that dwarf those of earlier empires.
By Stacy Mitchell February 15, 2018

By controlling these essential pieces of infrastructure, Amazon can privilege its own products and services as they move through these pipelines, siphoning off the most lucrative currents of consumer demand for itself. And it can set the terms by which other companies have access to these pipelines, while also levying, through the fees it charges, a tax on their trade. In other words, it’s moving us away from a democratic political economy, in which commerce takes place in open markets governed by public rules, and toward a future in which the exchange of goods occurs in a private arena governed by Amazon. It’s a setup that inevitably transfers wealth to the few—and with it, the power over such crucial questions as which books and ideas get published and promoted, who may ply a trade and on what terms, and whether given communities will succeed or fail.

https://www.thenation.com/article/amazon-doesnt-just-want-to-dominate-the-market-it-wants-to-become-the-market/

Clive RobinsonDecember 20, 2018 7:02 PM

@ Witch Patrol,

If you have a specific credible accusation of Wapo "censoring" information then spit it out

I have, and it's been discussed on this blog before.

So you saying,

your mealy-mouthed pseudo-accusation goes nowhere except right back in your face.

Kind of boomerangs right back at you. Your whole rant also shows that you did not fully read what I wrote.

The shortest answer to what the WashPo is doing is,

GDPR fear

The visable and risable result is that people in Europe just see their web "Masthead" which ironically has the tag line of,

    Democracy Dies in Darkness

Because it then does not load anything after it, thus "leaving you in the dark" if you are from Europe.

As you have chosen the handle you have, need I say,

    Keep yer 'at on deary

Security SamDecember 20, 2018 10:37 PM

The art of creative marketing
By stretching what is truth
Resembles the sugarcoating
For those with a sweet tooth.

FaustusDecember 21, 2018 7:46 AM

@ gordo

Amazon is trying to get as much of the market as it can. That is simply business, that is what corporations do.

But what do you do is the question. If you can't regulate yourself in what sense are you qualified to regulate anything else? Do you use Amazon?

The fastest way to support competition is to support competitors. Amazon does not own the sources of most products nor most of the means of delivering them. Anybody can compete. People that are worried about Amazon should go to the competitors. It's true that if nobody does use competitors, they will dwindle. And that will be Amazon's fault?

I'm sorry, its childish to ask the government to save you from corporations that you can simply not use.

gordoDecember 21, 2018 10:36 AM

@ Faustus,

The issues raised by Amazon's behaviors require more than glib recommendations for others to self-marginalize.

The scale of the problems make such arguments, put forth by apologists, easy, because, as you know, such recommendations, when followed, will have next-to-zero effect.

In some ways, such tactics are patronizing and demean public discourse on issues that touch everyone, or society, writ large.

FaustusDecember 21, 2018 1:25 PM

@ Gordo

I don't understand how not buying from Amazon is self marginalization. Maybe that could be said of not using Facebook, etc, but, as someone who is not using fb etc, I strongly suggest trying it. Social media has negative mood affects on me, and seemingly others. I highly recommend Jaron Lanier's "Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now".

I have both bought and sold extensively on eBay and Amazon. They have very clear policies that protect buyer and seller, but they are specific so it is important to read them. Both have a long mandatory return period for almost everything. (Maybe not things like used cars). I have never had a problem with either that they did not resolve quickly per their policies.

I support alternatives to Amazon purposefully because I don't want them to disappear. I buy at great book shops all the time. I order books from ebay as well as small bookshops. I use Netflix and Hulu in addition to Amazon for my video needs. To me it is good to act in a way that sustains the companies I value.

We have a captive Congress. Look at current internet legislation like Fosta and the craziness in the EU. Look how Amazon is treated by potential office locations. I'd say the chances are that regulation would enhance Amazon's position and make competition with it harder.

Have you had specific problems with Amazon that you think were unfairly resolved? It doesn't sound like a great place to work, nor does its Mechanical Turk, but people decide to work there anyhow for their own reasons. Does giving them less options help them?

To me, just complaining and calling on a messed up Congress to "fix" things is a passive approach. Why not create a website of great alternatives to Amazon? Why not support other companies with qualities you prefer?

Calling in regulation is like calling in a napalm strike in Vietnam: The results will be very unpredictable.

We live in a time of amazing access to products and information. Amazing technologies. The ability to talk and be heard around the world. Why focus on the negative? Life is getting better and batter for more and more people internationally. All sort of historic discrimination is being confronted.

Why can't we enjoy the life that we live that would be the envy of almost everyone in the past?

What regulations would you like to see for Amazon?

gordoDecember 21, 2018 7:52 PM

@ Faustus,

I don't understand how not buying from Amazon is self marginalization. Maybe that could be said of not using Facebook, etc

Amazon's network effects and predatory business practices are in no way meaningfully countered or mitigated by not using Amazon's platform. Though it might make you feel better personally, the same can be said of not using FB.

Anecdotally, I can tell you that it generally costs more, not using Amazon. Considering that most Americans claim to live paycheck-to-paycheck, such choices are not sustainable and thus may also serve as a partial explanation for why so many people have subscribed to Amazon Prime and choose to pay $99/year for free, two-day shipping.

Regarding major sellers, they either pay Amazon to play or they'll eventually go under as they're priced out of the market. That's the trend.

That "Amazon Marketplace sellers sabotage each other and defraud customers," the subject of this thread, it's a mere "fighting over crumbs."

What regulations would you like to see for Amazon?

In the spirit of accenting the positive and eliminating the negative, I'll quote from Mitchell's article:

How might we use the tools of antitrust law to check Amazon’s power? One approach would break the company into two pieces by spinning off its e-commerce platform from its retail operation, thereby eliminating the conflict inherent in controlling market access for one’s competitors. We could then designate the resulting platform company as a common carrier, obligating it to offer all sellers access on equal terms, just as we did with the railroads. Alongside this, we need to once again police predatory pricing, the practice of selling goods below cost to drive out competition. Antitrust enforcers and the courts dismissed predatory pricing as a concern in the 1980s on the grounds that the tactic rarely succeeds. Amazon has shown otherwise.

https://www.thenation.com/article/amazon-doesnt-just-want-to-dominate-the-market-it-wants-to-become-the-market/

FaustusDecember 22, 2018 9:45 AM

@ Gordo

Isn't it a little inconsistent to say that people must use Amazon because they need the low prices, and then attacking Amazon's ability to provide these low prices?

The suggested regulation could be worse. Perhaps it would be a good thing as a general principle to ensure equal treatment of vendors when a company captures such a large part of the retail market and seeks to have other companies sell through it.

But you seem to have a somewhat passive aggressive viewpoint, hating and fearing the companies you that you choose to rely on. You state that I must be the same as you, but I am not. I am fine, I choose what I want and I discard the rest. I focus on creating, rather than tearing down others' creations.

As Nietzsche wrote: "My formula for happiness: A Yes, a No, a straight line and a Goal."

gordoDecember 22, 2018 1:15 PM

@ Faustus,

Regarding the question of what to do about Amazon's abuse of its position as a provider of services, all I've said is that, short of breaking them up, they will continue abusing that position.

A Nonny BunnyDecember 22, 2018 2:37 PM

@Faustus

As Nietzsche wrote: "My formula for happiness: A Yes, a No, a straight line and a Goal."

I wouldn't take advice on happiness from Nietzsche. He does not strike me as a happy person.

Witch PatrolDecember 22, 2018 3:07 PM

So you have nothing real, just toothless gripes, thanks for admitting that.

That was the weakest protest of "censorship" I've ever laid eyes on, nice griping there.
To be a fly on the wall when you're confronted with the real issue for the first time.

TeveDecember 22, 2018 5:47 PM

naive question hear from somebody who's only bought a few things on Amazon. How can you tell when you're buying from Amazon itself versus when you're blind from an Amazon marketplace seller? It may be obvious, I honestly don't know.

FaustusDecember 22, 2018 6:53 PM

@ A Nonny Bunny

Well, Nietzsche's life was complex. At the end he was suffering from tertiary syphilis. Probably not fun, but it induced a prophetic state in him. Through most of his career he professed to be happy in spirit although he suffered from ill health. He definitely had trouble connecting with women and that caused him pain.

But what is happiness? The absence of pain? I think there is more to it. Nietzsche left an incredibly influential body of work. In Ecce Homo he expressed great satisfaction at what he had accomplished. He also loved walking in the cities and the mountains and found great joy and inspiration through that.

"My formula for happiness..." is addressed to what Nietzsche saw as the Higher Man. His was not a philosophy addressed to everyone. Note that he wrote "My formula", not "The formula".

Hating something that you depend on is a species of what Nietzsche called "resentment". Although Nietzsche did not particularly value consistency, and would argue apparently contradictory positions at different times, resentment was something he always held in low regard.

The Nietzsche connection is interesting, and I am not going to quote someone without crediting the source, but, to me, "My formula" stands on its own as describing the kind of happiness I value. Sans excuses and moral posing. Focused on what I am doing rather than trying to compel others.

FaustusDecember 22, 2018 7:04 PM

@ Teve

How to tell whether you are buying from Amazon varies a bit by Amazon sub-store, and possibly country. In the US there is a Sold By name under the price on the product page. However Amazon may be "Amazon.com" or a sub-component like "Prime Pantry".

Outside sellers should be represented by a link to their store page where you can see their ratings. Some outside sellers are marked as Fulfilled by Amazon which means Amazon processes the order and you get Prime shipping discounts and Amazon shipping rates, usually a good thing. Amazon and Fulfilled By Amazon tend to ship faster and more reliably than buying directly from outside stores. Returns are easier too.

ThomasDecember 23, 2018 6:37 AM

This explains Amazon's eagerness to divest because they've quickly become the next Buy dot com. What amazes me is they seem to warrant an endless supply of OPM (other people's money) which they can divest into new cash flows that kept the company going in terms of shareholder appreciation. Other countries, and trade zones, are quickly catching up to this madness.

FaustusDecember 23, 2018 12:39 PM

Talking about not choosing according to one's expressed views, here is an interesting review of a book whose author should not have been around to write it if he really believed what he wrote: https://quillette.com/2018/12/22/the-anti-natalist-paradox/

Not that I wish he had acted on his beliefs. The whole worldview expressed is sad beyond measure. Our lives our so rich that we can choose to disdain life itself.

NickDecember 24, 2018 6:10 AM

Those who think that "competition" is a solution need to understand that it is impossible for a small company to compete against a large, established, near-monopoly like Amazon. Regulation is not a solution, because the giants have more clout with politicians, and any regulation is likely to tilt the playing field even more in favour of the mega-corporations.

To enable competition, you have to have laws that explicitly favour small companies. This is possible, but only happens only in markets too small to attract lobbyists. In Switzerland, for example, startups are exempt from paying value-added tax while their turnover is less than 100,000 francs/year (1 Swiss franc is about $1). The paperwork for filing a VAT return (or a sales-tax return in many US states) is about the same for a company of any size, so it's proportionately a greater burden for small companies than for big ones (that's true for a lot of regulatory compliance).

Next, it's basically impossible for a small company to win a lawsuit against a big company. (Amazon probably has a team of top-notch full-time litigation lawyers - if it needs more, they'll cost a negligible fraction of its profits.) The only way to even that up would be to make a big company pay most of the legal costs of its smaller opponent even if the big company wins the case.

FaustusDecember 24, 2018 9:26 AM

@ Nick

I like the way you think. There has got to be a targeted way to enable competition without encouraging another FOSTA/CESTA or European Copyright Directive scandal or monopoly butt kissing contest like in the Amazon HQ sweepstakes.

The US just recently passed a law giving small pass-through corporations a 20% tax deduction. That's in the right direction.

Let's incentivize instead of punish. Like the way the EU and the US incentivize pirating with their uncalled for extensions of copyright terms. Incentives work!!

Let's incentivize the EU from passing insane laws by sawing them off of Eurasia internet-wise. (OK, ok, that's a punishment. I'm a hypocrite. But at least I'm not putting them in solitary for 20 years, or clawing back their income. "Clawing back", I love that expression. It's like we are lobsters, screaming from the pot.)

Every time I use a proxy out of Europe and I can't access a web site, I get a big BIG smile. Europeans don't have time to browse the internet. They really need to be watching the European Parliament continuously because those dudes are out of control!

OK, OK. I really do prefer incentives to punitive regulation. And we should each try to support smaller vendors ourselves, even if we have to enter our credit card or address information again. I know it cuts down our time playing Crazy Korn or whatever. But its important. Think of newborn corporations like baby seals, imploring you with their big big eyes.

Clive RobinsonDecember 24, 2018 10:38 AM

@ Faustus,

They really need to be watching the European Parliament continuously because those dudes are out of control!

It's not the MEPs that worry me because they have little real power, that is mainly vested with the unelected Council of Ministers and they have a habit of following "National Socialist economic policy" from the 1930's.

Essentially their plan is to financially enslave Southern and Eastern Europe and use that as an excuse to asset strip them of anything that would lift them out of being peasant farmers feeding the North of Europe cheaply.

Two millennia ago it was the "All Roads lead to Rome" with "Bread and circuses for free" for Roman citizens. The Merkel plan as she is fronting witingly or orher wise is to replace Rome with Berlin and the wheatfields of Egypt and England with the foods of Portugal along the Meditaranian to the Turkish border and north along the Russian boarder...

Drive-By IdealogueDecember 27, 2018 1:35 AM

And, of course, increasingly there is no option but to sell your stuff on Amazon.

I think you are wrong. I know what you mean of course, and I presume you know what I mean.

S.December 28, 2018 12:27 PM

I pretty much only buy stuff online from Amazon, since they don't insist on making me open up my system to XSS attacks.

NewEgg happily sent all of their customer's data off to the bad guys, because the customers had no choice but to allow it.

I would cheerfully use a competitor to Amazon, except that I have yet to find anyone else who doesn't require me to be a little bit stupid.

I may not like it when the gorilla crushes the competition, but when it does so by being, if not nice, at least respectful, then I really can't shed a tear over the competition.

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