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.”
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.
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.
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.)
An incredible story, very worth reading in its’ entirety