Last August, Zac Plansky woke to find that the rifle scopes he was selling on Amazon had received 16 five-star reviews overnight. Usually, that would be a good thing, but the reviews were strange. The scope would normally get a single review a day, and many of these referred to a different scope, as if they’d been cut and pasted from elsewhere. “I didn’t know what was going on, whether it was a glitch or whether somebody was trying to mess with us,” Plansky says.
As a precaution, he reported the reviews to Amazon. Most of them vanished days later — problem solved — and Plansky reimmersed himself in the work of running a six-employee, multimillion-dollar weapons accessory business on Amazon. Then, two weeks later, the trap sprang. “You have manipulated product reviews on our site,” an email from Amazon read. “This is against our policies. As a result, you may no longer sell on Amazon.com, and your listings have been removed from our site.”
A rival had framed Plansky for buying five-star reviews, a high crime in the world of Amazon. The funds in his account were immediately frozen, and his listings were shut down. Getting his store back would take him on a surreal weeks-long journey through Amazon’s bureaucracy, one that began with the click of a button at the bottom of his suspension message that read “appeal decision.”
When you buy something on Amazon, the odds are, you aren’t buying it from Amazon at all. Plansky is one of 6 million sellers on Amazon Marketplace, the company’s third-party platform. They are largely hidden from customers, but behind any item for sale, there could be dozens of sellers, all competing for your click. This year, Marketplace sales were almost double those of Amazon retail itself, according to Marketplace Pulse, making the seller platform alone the largest e-commerce business in the US.
For sellers, Amazon is a quasi-state. They rely on its infrastructure — its warehouses, shipping network, financial systems, and portal to millions of customers — and pay taxes in the form of fees. They also live in terror of its rules, which often change and are harshly enforced. A cryptic email like the one Plansky received can send a seller’s business into bankruptcy, with few avenues for appeal.
Sellers are more worried about a case being opened on Amazon than in actual court, says Dave Bryant, an Amazon seller and blogger. Amazon’s judgment is swifter and less predictable, and now that the company controls nearly half of the online retail market in the US, its rulings can instantly determine the success or failure of your business, he says. “Amazon is the judge, the jury, and the executioner.”
Amazon is far from the only tech company that, having annexed a vast sphere of human activity, finds itself in the position of having to govern it. But Amazon is the only platform that has a $175 billion prize pool tempting people to game it, and the company must constantly implement new rules and penalties, which in turn, become tools for new abuses, which require yet more rules to police. The evolution of its moderation system has been hyper-charged. While Mark Zuckerberg mused recently that Facebook might need an analog to the Supreme Court to adjudicate disputes and hear appeals, Amazon already has something like a judicial system — one that is secretive, volatile, and often terrifying.
Amazon’s judgments are so severe that its own rules have become the ultimate weapon in the constant warfare of Marketplace. Sellers devise all manner of intricate schemes to frame their rivals, as Plansky experienced. They impersonate, copy, deceive, threaten, sabotage, and even bribe Amazon employees for information on their competitors.
And what’s a seller to do when they end up in Amazon court? They can turn to someone like Cynthia Stine, who is part of a growing industry of consultants who help sellers navigate the ruthless world of Marketplace and the byzantine rules by which Amazon governs it. They are like lawyers, only their legal code is the Amazon Terms of Service, their court is a secretive and semiautomated corporate bureaucracy, and their jurisdiction is an algorithmically policed global bazaar rife with devious plots to hijack listings for novelty socks and plastic watches. People like Stine are fixers, guides to the cutthroat land of Amazon, who are willing to give their assistance to the desperate — for a price, of course.
Stine runs a 25-person company out of the den of her one-story house in a leafy neighborhood of East Dallas. Each day, sitting before dual monitors and jotting notes on her tablet, she takes calls from distraught sellers who have received the dreaded email from Amazon. On her walls: photos of her family and the families of her support staff in the Philippines; a pegboard with packing tape and shipping labels, vestiges of her past life as an Amazon seller; and a sign that says “COFFEE... until it’s time for WINE.”
She’s outgoing and cheerful, happy to digress into war stories about the time an algorithm change suspended a swath of the Jewish Orthodox pearl dealing industry or a years-long “bloodbath” between two sellers of electric wheelchair batteries. But on the phone, she listens patiently as sellers rattle off their list of grievances. “You’ve got to get them off the ledge, and one of the ways to do that is for them to get heard,” Stine says. “Amazon won’t give you that. They’re not going to talk to a human.”
She calls the scheme that got Plansky a “dirty seller trick,” and she’s seen it before. As Amazon has escalated its war on fake reviews, sellers have realized that the most effective tactic is not buying them for yourself, but buying them for your competitors — the more obviously fraudulent the better. A handful of glowing testimonials, preferably in broken English about unrelated products and written by a known review purveyor on Fiverr, can not only take out a competitor and allow you to move up a slot in Amazon’s search results, it can land your rival in the bewildering morass of Amazon’s suspension system.
And Stine’s team had bad news: the only way back from suspension is to “confess and repent,” she says, even if you don’t think you’ve done anything wrong. “Amazon doesn’t like to see finger-pointing.”
Amazon calls them “appeals,” which suggests that there’s a possibility of having the verdict overturned. In reality, they’re more like a plea bargain crossed with a business memo, the core of which is a “plan of action” — an explanation of how you’ll make things right. And to make things right, you need to admit to having done something wrong. So Plansky sat down with Stine’s team and looked for something, anything, to confess to. In his appeal, he admitted to providing discounts for reviews before Amazon banned the practice, and to sending customers emails about printing out shooting targets that the algorithm might have mistaken for bribes.
“It was crazy,” he says. “I felt like I was in prison for a crime I didn’t commit, and the only way out was to plead guilty.”
In a way, Plansky had it easy. He at least knew what he had to confess to, even if he hadn’t done it. Many sellers can’t even figure out what Amazon is accusing them of. A suspension message will typically list an item along with a broad and tangentially related category of an infraction, like “used sold as new.” Understandably, sellers respond by sending invoices that show that the items are, in fact, new. Actually, Stine says, the suspension usually has nothing to do with the item being used, but with something like a peeling label on the box. “The thing Amazon wants you to fix is the buyer perception,” Stine says. “Just proving to Amazon that your goods are new is not good enough because Amazon wants you to address why the buyers thought they were used.” One seller described the typical process as Amazon saying, “I’m putting you in jail but not telling you what you did, now give me a justification for why I should let you out and you won’t do it again.”
The appeals process is so confounding that it’s given rise to an entire industry of consultants like Stine. Chris McCabe, a former Amazon employee, set up shop in 2014. CJ Rosenbaum, an attorney in Long Beach, New York, now bills himself as the “Amazon sellers lawyer,” with an “Amazon Law Library” featuring Amazon Law, vol. 1 ($95 on Amazon). Stine’s company deals with about 100 suspensions a month and charges $2,500 per appeal ($5,000 if you want an expedited one), which is in line with industry norms. It’s a price many are willing to pay. “It can be life or death for people,” McCabe says. “If they don’t get their Amazon account back, they might be insolvent, laying off 10, 12, 14 people, maybe more. I’ve had people begging me for help. I’ve had people at their wits’ end. I’ve had people crying.”
Much of Stine’s work involves translating Amazon’s cryptic suspension messages and then digging through every review, metric, and message in a seller’s account just to find the infraction she needs to design a remedy for. Sitting at her workstation, she clicks around the seller interface like a mechanic fiddling under the hood, talking mostly to herself. She looks at a warning message. “Amazon mad.” She sees a listing for dog toys that people complained were too chewy for their dogs. “This right here is going to trigger Amazon’s freak-o-meter real soon.”
The actual infraction can be as slight as the indictment is broad. Stine has a client whose listing for a rustic barn wood picture frame was deemed unsafe and taken down; it turned out the offense was a single customer review that mentioned getting a splinter. (The customer had actually given it five stars.) The seller was allowed back when he promised to add “wear gloves when installing” to his listing. Another seller was suspended for selling Nike shoes that were “not as described.” After he’d filed appeal after appeal proving the shoes were genuine Nikes, Stine’s team figured out the problem: some buyers complained the shoes were too small. That seller was let back on after promising to add a line to the listing recommending customers wear thin socks.
“That’s what we call ‘speaking Amazon,’” Stine says. “In my mind, I imagine a checklist, and it doesn’t even have to make sense. It’s just that the previous appeals hadn’t included this all-important proactive step they were going to take to prevent the complaint that the shoe was too tight.”
JC Hewitt, whose law firm frequently works with Amazon sellers, calls the system’s mandatory guilty pleas, arbitrary verdicts, and obscure language “a Kafkaesque bureaucracy with bad writing.” Inscrutable rulings emerge as if from a black box. The Performance team, which handles suspensions, has no phone number; there’s no one to ask for clarification. The only way to interact with them is by filing an appeal, and when it’s rejected, sellers often have no idea why. Sellers can call another Amazon department, Seller Support, but those workers can’t provide information about the Performance team and can offer only generic advice about what the seller might have done wrong.
The secrecy can be so frustrating that sellers have traveled to Seattle or Amazon’s London office to try to find a human, to no avail. One seller flew to Seattle from Shengzhou, China, and lived out of a Honda Pilot he bought on Craigslist while he wandered around Amazon’s offices trying to find someone to hear his case. The receptionist gave him the same phone number for Seller Support he’d been trying for weeks.
Kevin Harmon, who sells books and DVDs from his warehouse in Charlotte, North Carolina, calls his suspension last July “the worst month of his life.” His account was suspended and the $20,000 in it frozen over a damaged Lilo & Stitch DVD and nine other items. After laying off employees and starting to liquidate his inventory, he railed against the company on Facebook. “Amazon is a clear monopoly that is somehow being allowed to destroy industry after industry,” he wrote. “They don’t crush you when you’re small. They wait until you’ve got employees and lease obligations and business loans and warehouses full of product, and THEN they reveal that they don’t need you anymore.”
But ultimately, it wasn’t the suspension that was most galling. It was the way Amazon kept responding with the same request for more information whenever he appealed. “I was caught in some kind of AI gear,” he says.
In reality, there were likely humans reading Harmon’s appeal, but they’re part of a highly automated bureaucracy, according to former Amazon employees. An algorithm flags sellers based on a range of metrics — customer complaints, number of returns, certain keywords used in reviews, and other, more mysterious variables — and passes them to Performance workers based in India, Costa Rica, and other locations. These workers choose between several prewritten blurbs to send to sellers. They may see what the actual problem is or the key item missing from an appeal, but they can’t be more specific than the forms allow, according to Rachel Greer, who worked as a fraud investigator at Amazon before becoming a seller consultant. “It feels like it’s a bot, but it’s actually a human who is very frustrated about the fact that they have to work like that,” she says.
The Performance workers’ incentives favor rejection. They must process approximately one claim every four minutes, and reinstating someone who later gets suspended again counts against them, according to McCabe and others. When they fall behind, Stine says, they’ll often “punt” by sending requests for more information, as Harmon experienced.
Asked about complaints that the suspension process is harsh and confusing, Amazon responded with a statement saying the company supports the businesses that sell through its platform. “In order to protect both customers and sellers, we have selling policies that all sellers agree to and we take swift action against those that violate them,” the company wrote. “We have an appeals process where sellers can explain how they will prevent the violation from happening in the future or let us know if they believe they were compliant.“
There are plenty of justified suspensions. The prospect of an easily accessible global market attracts counterfeiters, money launderers, and fencers of stolen goods. Stine had a client who was suspended for trying to sell hand grenades, and another who thought he’d found the deal of a lifetime buying bagfuls of children’s costumes out of a warehouse in Salt Lake City, only to get suspended when the rightful owner reported the costumes stolen. She got him back on a technicality: the company had contacted the seller on the Amazon platform, a violation in itself. A typical seller, she says, he was more concerned about getting back on Amazon than about the fact that police might be waiting for him when he returned to the US from vacation.
Amazon’s ability to hide the chaos of its Marketplace from consumers is part of what made the company successful early on, says Marketplace Pulse’s Juozas Kaziukėnas. While eBay is obviously a bazaar, Amazon looks like a traditional retailer. In reality, a growing share of Amazon is also an open marketplace, one with mechanics that foster both intense competition and a retail-like experience. With Fulfillment by Amazon, all sellers have to do is ship their goods to Amazon’s warehouses; Amazon handles storage and delivery and bestows a Prime checkmark on their listing, a promise of speedy free shipping and easy returns. Behind the scenes, sellers compete with each other on price and a range of other metrics — mostly having to do with customer satisfaction — to “win the Buy Box” and become the default seller on a listing. Margins drop to zero so quickly on a popular listing that sellers seek out greener, more obscure pastures: niche categories like microfiber car wash mitts or gas fireplace logs.
Stine started playing this game in 2010. She was running a small public relations firm and needed an extra $1,500 a month to pay tuition for her son, who has special needs. So she turned to the decision-making process she’d learned from a Tony Robbins cassette course 19 years earlier, when she grew tired of living in a basement in Queens and dating non-committal men and moved to Dallas: visualize the solution. The answer turned out to be buying books from libraries and closeouts, and reselling them on Amazon. She soon realized she could sell pretty much anything at all, so she hit up local Targets armed with a barcode scanner on her lanyard and a phone in her armband. She used an app to check prices on Amazon to find goods she could resell for a profit. She became, in the language of the industry, a “scanner monkey.”
There are two types of sellers on Amazon. The first is the resellers: scanner monkeys like Stine, along with their cousins the product diverters, re-importers, and grey market tycoons. They play a hidden but important role in making Amazon the “everything store.” Brands that refuse to work with Amazon often find their products on the platform anyway through these back channels.
The second type is the “private label” seller. Rather than compete with dozens of other sellers all selling the same product on the same listing, they make their own brand, which gives them a listing of their own. Some of these sellers come up with original products and resemble traditional businesses, albeit based almost wholly on Amazon, but many simply slap a logo on a mix of trending goods sourced from China, creating eclectic catalogs of fidget spinners and cowboy boots, adult coloring books and survival gear. The result has been a Cambrian explosion of brands found only on Amazon selling largely identical products. Recently, their ranks have been reinforced by yet another generation of sellers, these ones based in China and with more direct access to factories.
Though private label sellers still face competition from other sellers buying or counterfeiting their products and hopping on their listing, they are largely freed from fighting over the Buy Box. Instead, they find themselves competing in a new arena: Amazon’s search rankings. About 70 percent of searches on Amazon are for generic products, like “running shoes” or “milk frother,” rather than brands, and Amazon has made buying things so easy that customers often purchase the first thing with Prime shipping they see. If a seller can game Amazon’s algorithm to win a high spot for their brand, they can out-sell household names. But search placement is everything. Greer says there’s a common joke: where’s the best place to bury a dead body? On the 10th page of Amazon’s search results, because no one ever goes there.
Just as competition over the Buy Box spilled over into a proliferation of generic brands, the competition over search rank is creating its own unintended consequences: sellers competing not on price and quality, but on who can best sabotage the listing above theirs. And if the saboteur is skilled enough in the ways of Amazon, they can trap their rival in the surreal limbo of Amazon court.
Plansky had reported the fake five-star reviews as soon as he’d gotten them, and after he was suspended, he’d played by Amazon’s rules and confessed to everything that could possibly be considered review manipulation. But in the end, it wasn’t enough. Several days after filing his appeal, he received an email saying it had been rejected. Amazon won’t read the same appeal twice, so now Plansky had to find another infraction to confess to. Unable to think of anything and utterly exasperated, he and Stine’s team decided to email Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos — a last resort. “Once you’ve gone to Jeff, there’s nowhere else to go,” Stine says.
Emailing the richest man in the world is actually the standard method of escalating an Amazon seller appeal. It’s called a Jeff Bomb, or as Stine prefers, a Jeff Letter. “Dear Mr. Bezos,” they wrote. “We desperately need your help.”
It’s probably not Bezos reading the emails, though McCabe says that during his time at Amazon, he was forwarded several appeals with only a question mark written on them, a signal of Bezos’ displeasure. Generally, fortunate sellers will have a member of Bezos’ staff take pity and respond.
Plansky’s Jeff letter was never answered, but after he’d sent it, a fellow Amazon seller at a local meet-up gave him the name of someone “high up” in the company. He emailed them, and shortly afterward, he got his account back. (Stine maintains that it was the Jeff letter that did it.) All told, he estimates his suspension cost him about $150,000 in sales.
Stine is aware that the suspension system is often unfair and needlessly bewildering, but she has faith in the system overall. Sometimes she likens it to Darwinian evolution, or the way governments shape societies through taxes and penalties. Except, in Amazon’s case, the ultimate goal is a “better buyer experience,” something so good you’ll never think of going to a brick-and-mortar store. The company, she says, has a “god’s-eye view,” and everyone it suspends is guilty of something, even if only out of naïveté. She sees herself as doing Amazon’s work, showing sellers how to reform their businesses to align with “the Amazon way.”
“Compliance,” she is fond of saying, “is the foundation of growth.”
But she’s begun encountering more and more cases like Plansky’s, ones where sellers are innocent even according to Amazon’s strange rules. They’ve been framed.
John Harris knew selling on Amazon was a “state of constant warfare,” and he had taken defensive measures. He sold survival gear — firestarters, compasses, combination firestarter-compass-watches with paracord wristbands — and in the world of Amazon, his account was a locked-down bunker with a panic room. He had trademarked his wares and registered his brand with Amazon, giving him a streamlined method for booting hijackers off his listings. He’d even built his own software to instantly send out cease-and-desist letters the moment someone tried to steal his Buy Box.
Typically, the prompt legal threats were enough to scare off competitors, but one September morning last year, he woke to see an interloper had remained on his listings through the night. Strangely, Harris realized, they had also found a way to steal his own seller name, SharpSurvival. His account had been transformed into the generic Seller123. He reported the imposter to Amazon, as he’d done countless times before. But this time, nothing happened.
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.
“This was very, very, very well orchestrated and researched,” says Harris, a pseudonym he wanted to use in order to avoid further attacks from rivals. “From a customer’s perspective, the scam was very seamless. The customers thought they were still buying the stuff from us.”
Instead, according to court documents, customers began receiving shoddy knock-offs of Harris’ survival gear, and pillorying his products in their reviews. He sent dozens of emails and appeals to Amazon trying to explain the situation as he watched his wares fall in Amazon’s search, only to be told he’d have to work things out with the rightful brand owner. Then came the retaliation: tired of Harris’s futile attacks, the imposter booted Harris off his listings entirely, reporting him to Amazon for infringing on his own brand. “We consider allegations of intellectual property infringement a serious matter,” warned an email from Amazon.
Attacks like this are increasingly common on Amazon. More customers and more sellers mean more competition for the top search result and more to gain by winning it. There may be half a billion products on the platform, but there are only so many high search slots and Amazon Best Seller badges. Last year only about 20,000 sellers — 0.3 percent — had more than a million dollars in sales a year, which is the point at which Kaziukenas says it becomes a viable full-time business. Where people used to mostly game Amazon’s platform to rank higher, Stine says, now they game it to take each other out.
In the intensely competitive world that Amazon has built, any efforts by the company to clean up seller misbehavior are quickly turned into weapons for sellers to wield against each other. The crackdown on fake five-star reviews begat the five-star bomb Plansky was hit with. After hoverboards started exploding in 2016 and Amazon became more vigilant about safety claims, sellers started buying each other’s products, setting them on fire, and posting photos in the reviews. The scheme that ensnared Harris made use of a program called “brand registry,” which Amazon overhauled last year to give companies more effective ways to guard against counterfeiting. Any seller with a trademark can register their brand with Amazon and get tools for quickly taking down sellers they claim are infringing.
“All of a sudden, brands could take people down like that,” Stine says, snapping her fingers. “I don’t know why Amazon naïvely thought that that was all they would do, that people wouldn’t use it to take down their enemies.”
Scammers have effectively weaponized Amazon’s anti-counterfeiting program. Attacks have become so widespread that they’ve even pulled in the US Patent and Trademark Office, which recently posted a warning that people were making unauthorized changes through its electronic filing system, likely “part of a scheme to register the marks of others on third-party ‘brand registries.’” Scammers had begun swapping out the email addresses on their rival’s trademark files, which can be done without a password, and using the new email to register their competitor’s brand with Amazon, gaining control of their listings. As Harris encountered, Amazon appears not to check whether a listing belongs to a brand already enrolled in brand registry. Stine has a client who had trademarked their party supply brand and registered it with Amazon, only to have a rival change their trademark file, register with Amazon, and hijack their listing for socks, which had things like “If you can read this, bring coffee” written on the soles.
Asked about seller attacks, Amazon said bad actors represent a small fraction of activity on the site, and that the company uses machine learning and other tools to stop them. Regarding the brand registry attacks, Amazon said it is “working closely with brands, the USPTO, and others to continue to strengthen our protections and stay ahead of these bad actors.”
“These schemes really require the mind of someone whose depravity knows no bounds,” says Brad Tucker, who handles most of the infringement claims for Stine. His previous job was investigating credit card fraud; the schemes he’s seen on Amazon are more devious, more creative. One of his recent favorites involved a mug that read “recently promoted to grandpa.” Someone reported the main photo of the mug for IP infringement, causing it to be taken down and an image of a grandpa in a rocker to become the main image, which was a violation of another Amazon policy that doesn’t allow images without a white background. As the listing fell in Amazon’s search results, the mug pirate made their own listing, with the original image, priced slightly higher. Brad thinks the plan was to fill any orders from the demoted listing, netting a couple dollars in profit.
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. They will go on the black market and purchase or rent seller accounts with special editing privileges and use them to change the color or description of their rival’s products so they get suspended for too many customers complaining about the item being “not as described.” They will exile their competitor’s listings to an unrelated category — say, move a product with a “Best Seller” badge in the office category to lawn care, taking the badge for themselves.
“They took a kids toy made for six to 12 year olds and they changed it to a sex toy,” one outraged seller told me. This is a common move, as Amazon hides products in that category unless the customer clicks a button saying they’re over 18. Another seller who had been battling counterfeiters of his childproof locks and outlet covers received a threat in Chinese saying that, while it is hard to build a listing like his, it would be easy to destroy. “Be cautious,” the message warned. Later, he too was banished to sex toys. “It’s suppressed from search results unless you literally search for a “sexual child proof door lock,” he says. (He had no sales.)
The viciousness of competition can be surprising given the items being fought over, but Amazon’s scale changes the traditional dynamics of counterfeiting. Rather than knock off a luxury good, it can be lucrative to go after the mundane commodities people buy every day without much thought: USB cables, cutlery organizers, various extruded plastic things. Stine has a client whose shoe tree business was barraged with phony infringement claims, hijackings, and threatening phone calls that she ended up referring to the FBI. Surveying crib cushions and safety locks of Amazon’s “baby” category, Stine sees a world of chaos and conflict. “All of these sweet little products are definitely potential targets,” she says. “We tell people: whenever you’re successful on the Amazon, you have a target on your back.”
Paul Miller has built a good business selling padded over-ear headphones and has nothing but praise for Amazon, which he says rescued him after his restaurant business went under. Nevertheless, he must constantly battle phony infringement claims and threats. He lost $10,000 when he was taken out for infringement right before Prime Day which, along with Black Friday, always sees a surge in attacks. Recently, Miller reported an imposter for infringing on his cartoon unicorn headband headphones and was hit with a retaliatory infringement claim citing an unrelated patent for a plush unicorn toy. “Our technical team will return a devastating blow to CozyPhones,” warned a message in Chinese. “The Amazon circle is very small. Evil deeds must be returned in kind.”
Recently, the fierce competition of Amazon’s Marketplace has given rise to outright bribery. In September, The Wall Street Journal reported that Amazon was investigating employees in the US and China for leaking internal data to sellers in exchange for bribes. A month later, the paper reported that one employee had been fired, and customers who had their emails leaked had been notified.
The Verge has viewed screenshots of WeChat posts offering troves of Amazon data and spoken with sellers who have encountered brokers offering internal access, some after Amazon announced it had fired the employee. In one conversation viewed by The Verge, sellers shared what appeared to be customer emails and phone numbers, valuable to sellers as a way of contacting shoppers and trying to get them to change their reviews. Several price lists viewed by The Verge included offers of customer contact information and data on their orders, new seller accounts, and data on other sellers. Another offer of internal reports advertised itself with the promise “Spy on your competitors!”
“That’s the kind of information Amazon will never give you and would be worth its weight in gold,” Stine says, after viewing the price lists. It’s how a seller might end up singling out a particular pair of novelty socks as a lucrative candidate for hijacking. “They’ll get this data, and it will be their target list.”
The Verge has also spoken with a broker promising guaranteed reinstatement in three working days through contacts on the Performance team, and viewed screenshots of the interface the Performance team uses while suspending and reinstating sellers. Stine has heard rumors of sellers paying thousands of dollars to get reinstated instantly, something that could only happen with intervention from someone inside the company.
Asked about the apparent market in internal data and reinstatements, Amazon responded with a statement saying the company has a strict code of conduct for employees and audits access to information. “We have zero tolerance for abuse of our systems and if we find bad actors who have engaged in this behavior, we will take swift action against them, including terminating their selling accounts, deleting reviews, withholding funds, and taking legal action,” the company wrote.
This black market is the only thing consultants like Stine and McCabe can’t compete with. “If you’re a seller, why wouldn’t you just want to pay a lot of money, if somebody can guarantee ‘I will have you back up by tomorrow’? Most sellers would pay almost anything,” Stine says. “We can’t promise that.”
Of the two-dozen sellers I spoke with, all of them described their time in suspension court as nightmarish and said they planned to get back to selling on Amazon as soon as they could. “Not being on Amazon doesn’t feel like an option,” Plansky says. His listings have dropped in search rank during his time offline. To regain his place, he’s buying Amazon ads.
The trap Harris had been caught in was too sophisticated to resolve with Amazon, and Stine referred him to an Army-prosecutor-turned-patent-attorney named Jeff Breloski. Based in Atlanta, Breloski stumbled into the world of Amazon after speaking at a seller conference, and he now estimates that Amazon cases represent 80 percent of his practice. He’d actually encountered Harris’ hijacker before, a man named Georgi Marhasin who lives in Toronto and had used a similar strategy to steal the listings of a shoehorn seller in Passaic, New Jersey, and a seller of magic tricks in Brandon, South Dakota. (Shoe paraphernalia, for whatever reason, seems to be a favorite target of the Amazon underworld.)
In May, the District Court of Northern Georgia ordered a temporary restraining order forbidding Marhasin from selling the knock-off watches and firestarters, which he ignored. Amazon, too, would only act on a final court order. On October 31st, more than a year after Harris’ listings were first hijacked, the court ordered a default judgment against Marhasin, awarding Harris $2 million in statutory damages. Harris says he can once again sell on his listings, but Amazon won’t re-register his brand until the patent office website updates, so he’s had to deal with hijackers. He has little hope of recovering the damages.
Marhasin did not respond to repeated requests for comment sent to the emails listed on his trademark applications and to his profile on LinkedIn. An email sent to the address listed on the site for MarhasinWarehouse, a bare-bones page with photos of Harris’ and other goods for “today’s fast paced, digital world,” bounced. The site now appears to be offline.
For most sellers and a growing number of traditional businesses, Amazon is so big, so much the default place people go to shop, that they find ways to tolerate constant sabotage as just another cost of doing business. In a sense, the chaos of the platform fuels its own growth. The only way to get the tools to police your brand on Amazon is to join, as Nike did last year, after years of resistance. When sellers get in trouble for customer complaints or attacks from counterfeiters, the solution is often to more fully meld with Amazon — to enroll in its fulfillment program, to purchase Amazon’s labels to make sure product isn’t being diverted, or even make their brand exclusive to Amazon, which brings special protections. Many sellers come to Amazon looking for a new distribution channel for their retail business or a way to jump-start their company, but they find that Amazon has become their advertising firm and their storefront, their warehouse and their shipper. For some, it’s their bank and the intermediary that collects their sales taxes. It makes the rules and enforces them.
It’s an arrangement that suits Amazon, which is able to outsource the costs of managing inventory and vendor relationships. Revenue from seller commissions and other fees is growing far faster than Amazon’s online sales overall, with the company taking in about $19 billion in the first half of this year, a 41 percent increase over the same period the year before and representing about 18 percent of the company’s total revenue. Where antitrust concerns have arisen, they chiefly concern Amazon’s practice of competing against other sellers with its own brands. It’s harder for regulation to grasp a company that, rather than monopolizing a market, has become the market itself.
As for Stine, business is booming, and she says Amazon has been a force for good in her life. She uses it constantly for everything from groceries to appliances. As we’re speaking, she gets a Kindle alert for a new James Patterson novel. Selling on its platform got her out of a tight spot. She published books on Amazon selling using Amazon’s tools. Now she’s built a business interpreting its rules and systems, and she’s flying around the world to speak at gatherings of Amazon sellers. She thinks the company will only grow, that it will expand its business supply marketplace, providing coffee to offices and machinery to factories, and that one day, we’ll wake up, and it will be like Demolition Man, says Stine, a sci-fi fan, where Sylvester Stallone’s character comes out of hibernation to find every restaurant is Taco Bell.
She recently learned that Amazon may make seller consultants like her part of the site. She doesn’t know exactly what it will look like yet — maybe a list of Amazon-approved finance, advertising, and other support services on the seller dashboard — but she’s eager to join. She’s done several interviews explaining her business already, even flying to Seattle of her own volition to meet with Amazon representatives. She’s also wary. She knows how Amazon works, and she’s given the company a lot of data about her business.
“I figure I’m going to get everything I can out of it while the getting’s good,” she says, reaching for another sci-fi reference. “I mean it’s like the Borg. Someday, we will all be assimilated.”