Under the surface, Amazon is a scene of constant warfare. A growing share of goods on the platform are sold by third parties, who compete viciously for limited real estate. Some hop onto fast-selling listings with counterfeit goods, or frame their competitors with fake reviews. One common tactic is to find a once popular, but now abandoned product and hijack its listing, using the page’s old reviews to make whatever you’re selling appear trustworthy.
Amazon’s marketplace is so chaotic that not even Amazon itself is safe from getting hijacked. In addition to being a retail platform, Amazon sells its own house-brand goods under names like AmazonBasics, Rivet furniture, Happy Belly food, and hundreds of other labels. Sellers often complain that these brands represent unfair competition, and regulators in Europe and the United States have taken an interest in the matter. But other sellers appear to have found a way to use Amazon’s brands for their own ends. Amazon promotes them heavily, racking up thousands of reviews on listings that the company then abandons when it stops production or comes out with a new version. Enterprising sellers then hijack these pages to hawk their own wares.
Take this listing, formerly for an AmazonBasics HDMI cable. Amazon removed it and other listings after being contacted by The Verge, but before it was taken down, it was being used to sell two completely different alarm clocks: a “Warmhoming 2019 Updated Wooden Digital Alarm Clock with 7 Levels Adjustable Brightness, Display Time Date Week Temperature for Bedroom Office Home,” and a white wake-up light clock, which was out of stock. Strangely, that clock was listed as a second variety, color “Blackadaafgew,” yet the listing’s copy referred to binoculars that “can help you see a clear face from more than 650 feet away.” Many of the Amazon listings appear to undergo multiple hijackings.
Dubious as the listing is (the odds of successfully making use of the advertised “lifetime 7x24 customer service” on this HDMI cable turned clock-binocular chimera, sold under a name registered by a chemical processing company in Shenzhen, are slim), it had 5,324 reviews, averaging 4.6 stars. Almost all refer to the cable. It stood at a respectable number 98 in Amazon’s alarm clock category.
On better-executed hijackings, the deception can be hard to detect. The Verge was first alerted to the scam by Marketplace Pulse’s Juozas Kaziukėnas, who tracks Amazon brands. He noticed that every week, a handful of dead brands in his roster would reanimate as unrelated goods.
“It just highlights yet another case of the chaos that exists on Amazon,” Kaziukėnas says. “It’s an almost comical case of the products that, theoretically, Amazon should be curating most because it’s their own brands, being used for notorious purposes.”
As a consumer, the easiest way to detect a hijacking is to check that the reviews refer to the product being sold. The images in the reviews for this “Headphone Adapter for iPhone X Headphone Jack Audio Charger Earphone Splitter Dongle for iPhone” all showed the AmazonBasics HDMI cable it once was. If you toggled the reviews over to the most recent, there was further chaos. “I bought cable, not Binoculars,” complained one reviewer. He gave it one star. “This used to be a temperature control unit for fridges and such — now it’s showing a headphone adapter!” said another, warning customers to beware of scams. Nevertheless, it had 3,836 reviews averaging 4.3 stars.
The adapter was sold by a seller named Eigeliu, a trademark registered by a company in Shenzhen. For several years, Amazon has been recruiting sellers based in China to its platform. These sellers often have more direct access to the same factories American sellers are sourcing their goods from, and can undercut them in price.
There are now more than 2 million sellers on the platform, and Amazon has struggled to maintain order. A recent Wall Street Journal investigation found thousands of items for sale on the site that were deceptively labeled or declared unsafe by federal regulators. The Journal tested multiple items, including ones that bore an “Amazon’s Choice” badge, and found they failed federal safety standards.
Amazon makes it easy for sellers to join the platform, list items, and alter existing listings. Organizing and policing the platform, however, is handled by a mix of automated programs and call-center-like workers around the world. This system has allowed Amazon to rapidly expand its catalog while keeping costs low, but it also creates opportunities for exploitation.
“Where other retailers would probably be curating their categories and their brands and everything else, on Amazon, so much of it relies on automation and data and systems that if someone gets hijacked, no one really notices,” says Kaziukėnas. “The same powers which built Amazon, which is the infinite shop, the infinite shelf, and the open marketplace, is also what’s now causing many of the issues it’s having — the counterfeits and frauds like this hijacking.”
Asked for comment, an Amazon spokesperson said “we have clear guidelines about when products should be grouped together and we have guardrails in place to prevent products from being incorrectly grouped, either due to human error or abuse.” Shortly after The Verge contacted Amazon, the hijacked listings were taken down.
“I was waiting for this to happen,” says Rachel Johnson Greer, laughing, when The Verge showed her the hijacked Amazon brands. A former Amazon employee who now works as a consultant for Amazon sellers, she’s worked with clients who have undergone similar hijackings. She says these listings were likely seized by a seller who contacted Amazon’s Seller Support team and asked them to push through a file containing the changes. The team is based mostly overseas, experiences high turnover, and is expected to work quickly, Greer says, and if you find the right person they won’t check what changes the file contains.
In one case, an AmazonBasics cable was hijacked to sell a knife sharpener, then a knife. (It was ranked number 236 in Chef’s Knives, but number 27,250 in Electronics, because it’s a knife.) In another case, one of Amazon’s house-label Pinzon mattress toppers was hijacked to sell a five-pound weighted blanket for kids, a trendy item, and therefore one that you can find seemingly identical versions of on Amazon by the hundreds. The seller, PetOde, appears to mostly deal in plastic clothes-folding boards. The trademark is registered by a Shenzhen company that makes pet gear.
The hijacked Pinzon page was a battlefield. The copy appeared to be taken from another weighted blanket company, called Weighted Idea, also registered to a Chinese company. Reverse image search shows that a photo was taken from another Amazon weighted blanket company called ZonLi, registered in Jiangxi, China. Farther down the page, the text shifts to describing an iPhone adapter from Eigeliu, the same company that hijacked the AmazonBasics cable. Clicking the warranty button still brought up Amazon’s Pinzon policy. In the reviews, customers complain that they bought clothes-folding implements only to have the listing change. It had 3,691 reviews, averaging 4.2 stars.
“It’s totally chaotic,” says Greer. There are more than 2 billion listings on Amazon, she says, and they never die. When a product is discontinued, the listing just sits there, ready to be hijacked, and in the sea of goods, abuse is rarely noticed — even when it concerns Amazon’s own brands.
“The system they built, the self-service nature of it, and the fact that it’s always expanding makes it really difficult to do anything with,” she says. “I don’t pretend to know what Amazon should do, I just know the problem is way bigger than people realize.”