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Dirty tricks and scams

On the Amazon marketplace, increasingly harder bandages are being fought. Dealers copy, deceive, sabotage, threaten and blackmail competitors - and even bribe corporate employees. In the war on the platform, Amazon's own rules have become the ultimate weapon.

Share this article Amazon's marketplace generates almost twice as much sales as Amazon's own retail business - and is growing much faster. The business principle is based on creating a shopping experience like in retail - and hiding the chaos behind it from customers.

Despite the change in speed, some good information is valuable for longer: Smart studies, useful tips, useful tools and best cases. That is why we are presenting you the best timeless items from etailment in loose succession.



There is high competitive pressure behind the scenes: around 2.5 million sellers worldwide offer more than 550 million products. According to market researchers from Marketplace Pulse, 1.2 million new sellers were added last year alone. The strongest growth is the number of Chinese traders who are pushing their way into Western markets. Around a quarter of Amazon sellers already come from the Far East. It could be so nice. Because the Amazon marketplace is actually the ideal free market: the dealers with the best quality, the best prices and the best customer service are preferred by the algorithms and are successful.
The coveted Buy Box: In order to win it, some Amazon retailers are inventive.

A new quality of fraud

If only it weren't for human nature. Just as the competition for the Buy Box resulted in an explosion of generic brands, the fight for the best search ranking has spawned all sorts of creative ideas right from the start to move up a few places on the hit list. Many of these excesses no longer have much to do with the ideal of the "honorable businessman". What is relatively new, however, is the criminal energy with which black sheep among the sellers take targeted action against individual competitors.

We're not talking about trickery like the coupon-versus-ratings model or placing one-star reviews in the competitor's shop. Even the click farms in Bangladesh are tiny pinpricks against what some Amazon retailers are doing in secret.

"Everyone who sells successfully on the Amazon marketplace has a crosshair on their back."

Cynthia Stine
The manipulations are no longer aimed at strengthening one's own position vis-à-vis competitors. The aim of the new saboteurs is to completely eliminate unpleasant competitors - specifically by getting Amazon to block their seller account. This is a whole new quality of fraud. And the digital highway robbers are pursuing highly sophisticated plans to get a competitor locked out.

The dirtiest tricks

Anyone who falls victim to such an attack is often faced with a lengthy, arduous process before they regain their authorization to sell. Because, as a well-read article on the US Internet portal The Verge explains: It is often Amazon's own rules that make fraud possible in the first place. As with the "five-star trap":

1. The five star trap
Amazon retailers who, like the American Zac Plansky, suddenly find dozens of top ratings on their seller page overnight, shouldn't pat themselves proudly on the back - instead, all alarm bells should sound for them.

Since Amazon declared war on false reviews, some resourceful sellers have come up with the idea that it is more effective to buy five-star reviews not for yourself but for your hated competitor - the more obviously fake, the better.

Preferably in a language that sounds like copy-and-paste and a bad translation tool. As with Plansky, the blocking by Amazon usually follows within a very short time.
Fantastic customer ratings - sometimes a nightmare too


2. Reclassifying competing products
A popular method of weakening competing products is to change their listings so that images and text no longer match the product. The result is negative customer ratings, which in their accumulation can lead to the merchant account being blocked.

Another variant is to reclassify competitor products into an unsuitable category where no customer is guaranteed to look for them. The "Sex Toys" category is particularly popular because this area is suppressed in the search results and is only visible to customers who have explicitly confirmed by clicking on the button that they are over 18. Anyone looking for a kettle will hardly find it necessary.

Another form of sabotage that is as simple as it is effective: Buying Google Ads in completely unsuitable categories for the competing product, for example a muesli advertisement, which then leads to the dog food offer. Result: The rate of clicks leading to purchases falls - and the Amazon algorithm automatically downgrades the offer.

It is not always clear how fraudsters gain access to third-party accounts in individual cases. Apparently there is a black market for internal Amazon data on customers and sellers. The allegation of bribery is in the room. Last fall, the Wall Street Journal (€) reported that Amazon had initiated internal investigations into the US and China. The suspicion: employees are said to have given out data from competitors to dealers for money. 3. The fire devil
Since hoverboards purchased from Amazon in the USA exploded in 2015, the group has been extremely sensitive to safety deficiencies in its product range. What could be more obvious than buying a competitor's product, lighting it and posting a photo of it in the rating field? If keywords like "fire", "explode" or "dangerous" are used, products can be blocked automatically.

Such wrong evaluations are therefore often noticed through exaggerated choice of words, according to the motto: as many keywords as possible so that the algorithm is also aware of them. It is also noticeable if the complete article description is repeated in an evaluation - that is: "My XY 70 radio with strong reception in anthracite has exploded". Especially when there were only two "explosions" in a product that hundreds of customers had no problems with.
Real or fake? Product plagiarism from the Far East has also become a problem for smaller Amazon retailers.


4. Blackening: The false allegation of forgery
Counterfeit products from the Far East have become an increasing problem for small retailers, especially in the USA. Tools like Amalyze or Sellics make it easy for fraudsters to identify successful products - and to recreate them right through to the packaging. The price is set well below the original - and the Buy Box is safe. The aggrieved dealer then has to go through a laborious complaint process - often just so that the cat-and-mouse game can start all over again: Once one fraudster has been removed, the next one steps in.

The black sheep among the sellers also know that Amazon takes counterfeit allegations seriously. And so different variants of "blackening", that is, reporting of alleged forgeries, have developed. This works because Amazon usually blocks the offer immediately when such a message is received.

A popular trick: the fraudster buys a competitor's branded product and swaps it for a no-name version, which he then sends back to the retailer. He poses as a customer and claims he received a counterfeit product, either in a review or directly in the form of a complaint to Amazon.

Left alone by Amazon

Trademark infringements are punished by Amazon as well as product counterfeiting. So it's no wonder that fraud is flourishing here too. Amazon provides its own form with which retailers can report infringements of industrial property rights, mostly trademark rights.

"As long as you do not clarify the conflict with the rights holder, you can no longer offer these articles for sale," said Amazon via email to a German retailer who complained to colleagues in the seller forum. His account had been suspended by Amazon on allegations that he was selling counterfeit Roberts Radio branded products. It was only after a lot of back and forth, countless emails and phone calls that it became clear: It was not the rights holder himself, but a third party who had lodged the complaint. Only after the injured seller contacted Roberts Radio and this authorized the sale in a letter to Amazon, Amazon reactivated the dealer account.

The report page on Amazon.de contains the note: "The indication of false or misleading information in the 'Notice to Amazon.de about a legal infringement' can have civil and criminal consequences." But scammers know that there is no team at Amazon that is systematically tracking this. And it goes without saying that you do not use your correct dealer address for reporting.

It is often difficult for the "accused" to convince Amazon that there has been no infringement of property rights. It depends on whether the opponent can be induced to make the necessary declaration to Amazon to withdraw the allegation. Amazon only gives the accused retailer the email address of the person who submitted the complaint. But if this is a fraud, as in the case of the radio dealer, he will not be particularly interested in "clarifying the facts" - and probably not react to the e-mails. By then, at the latest, it should be clear to the affected seller that bad faith is involved.

Anyone can "accuse" anyone

The explanation "Somebody tricked me" is not at all happy to hear from Amazon. Instead, retailers who have been denounced for alleged trademark infringements are well advised to find the real trademark owner immediately and ask him to approve the sale in writing to Amazon.

Even if the account is activated again, the fraudster has achieved a goal: to temporarily shut down the competitor. For many salespeople, just a few days offline can be very exhausting. And: It is not without reason that such attacks are piling up before Prime Day or Black Friday.

One thing is clear: there are a lot of justified bans - the Amazon marketplace attracts counterfeiters as well as money launderers and fenders. However, Amazon's complaint procedure harbors a high risk of abuse. Because everyone can "accuse" virtually everyone.

To believe that dishonest traders do not use this as an instrument against competitors would be naive. They use exactly the processes that are actually supposed to protect customers and owners of trademark rights in order to wipe out their competitors.
To protect against counterfeit products, Amazon has set up its own brand registration - which in turn is misused by fraudsters for their own purposes.

The ghosts that I called...

And so Amazon has to constantly introduce new rules to combat these excesses - only so that they can then become a tool for new abuse. Every attempt by Amazon to sanction misconduct on the platform quickly becomes a weapon in itself.

Windy retailers are always one step ahead of Amazon. They act more effectively the better they know the system. Even the "trademark registration" program at Amazon, which was revised in 2017, is being undermined to protect against product counterfeiting. It was introduced so that retailers who sell their own brand on Amazon can quickly block the relevant competitor in the event of trademark infringements. It gave rise to a particularly perfidious form of fraud:
 
5. Capturing brands or entire accounts
John Harris, an American retailer of outdoor products who had registered his articles and brands on Amazon, but not the name of his seller account, fell victim to a particularly sophisticated scam. This is exactly what a fraudster did, who first registered Harris 'sellers' name with the patent office and presented photos of his Amazon items as evidence - and then had the dealer brand registered again by Amazon. Apparently, Amazon does not check whether a listing belongs to an existing brand. In this way, the fraudster hijacked Harris' seller and brand names.

The aggrieved dealer then had to sit idly by as the negative reviews of customers who only received bad copies of his outdoor items piled up. To desperate e-mails to Amazon, he only received the standard reply that he should "clarify the matter with the rights holder" - until the fraudster finally gave him the last blow: He reported Harris for alleged infringement of his trademark rights.

The fraud with alleged trademark infringements has reached such proportions in the USA that even the US Patent Office saw action: A few months ago it issued a warning that "apparently unauthorized changes would be made in the database to these trademarks of other owners to register in "third trademark registers" (ie Amazon). What happened? Fraudsters had exchanged the email addresses of competitors in the trademark register - which works without entering a password - and then used the new email addresses to register trademarks on Amazon to register as their own.

Fraud cases are increasing

"In the past, retailers who were blocked by Amazon almost always did something wrong - even if it was just out of naivete," Cynthia Stine is quoted as saying at The Verge. The consultant specializes in getting blocked sellers back onto the platform. Today she sees more and more cases in which the seller, even according to the strict rules that Amazon sets for shipping and customer service, is "innocent" - because he has been the victim of fraud. "Everyone who sells successfully on the Amazon marketplace has a crosshair on their back," says Stine.

"I'm going to close your shop."

Anonymous dealer threat
German lawyers are also being consulted more and more frequently by Amazon sellers who want to know how they can defend themselves against sabotage by competitors.

And that doesn't just apply to luxury goods suppliers. The market for everyday items such as USB cables or plastic cups is extremely lucrative - judging by the criminal energy with which one also fights in these categories. The protagonists are often based in the Far East. More and more frequently, Amazon sellers in this country are reporting threatening blackmail letters in Chinese.
© Jefferson Santos Unsplash
Analysis tools make it easy for fraudsters to identify successful products on the Amazon marketplace.


6. Blackmail: "I'm going to close your shop"
What "Namey" describes in the German seller forum is material for a business crime. It all started with complaints about allegedly counterfeit products in its range, whereupon Amazon blocked Namey's merchant account five times in a row for six days each time. While the dealer was still wondering what could be behind this, the first email arrived in Chinese. Despite the bumpy translation by a tool, the message was clear: The writer asked Namey to "stop selling" certain items - otherwise, "many orders would be placed and immediately canceled" every day so that the account would be blocked. "I'm going to close your shop," it said unequivocally. A few days later, the affected retailer reports, many Amazon Choice awards have already been lost and sales have slumped by more than 70 percent.

In this case, too, Amazon support was of no help. Namey was told that "there is no control over sales and product statistics." Instead, the injured party received a message from Seller Central: "There is a risk that your account will be deactivated."

Cancellations every second

This is not an isolated case. Other traders report similar things in forums. "Threats after threats, and Amazon doesn't care. I had over 5,000 order cancellations within five days, every second," complains "Gizmo". And the coercion is often successful - as in this case, where the retailer reports that he "desperately deleted the item from inventory." The question remains: why do honest dealers do this to themselves? Quite simply: Because they often rely on Amazon. But there is also good news: a seller does not have to accept everything from dodgy competitors. After all, the Amazon cosmos is not an unlawful area either, competition law also applies here.

Classic case of disability competition

In the case of an unjustified complaint, it is a classic case of disability competition according to §4 No. 4 UWG - with corresponding injunctive relief and claims for damages. These can initially be enforced by means of a warning or, if the perpetrator does not submit a corresponding declaration of cease and desist, by applying for an injunction. Sometimes an email threatening legal action is enough. If not, Amazon retailers who have been banned due to unjustified plagiarism allegations should contact a specialist lawyer for industrial property protection.Nevertheless, legal enforcement is difficult if the counterparty is based in the Far East and is operating with a "nebulous" e-mail address.

But dealers can do a lot preventively, for example to protect themselves from product pirates. It is imperative that Amazon sellers keep an eye on their own product listings on the marketplace - and regularly check descriptions and photos as well as the review page for anomalies. Providers of private labels should ensure that their products are branded well, as it is visible on the product photos, as this makes them more difficult to copy. It is highly recommended to register your own brands with Amazon. On the one hand, sellers have something in hand if they themselves become victims of counterfeit products, and on the other hand, they protect themselves from unjustified reports of plagiarism by competitors.

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