The quality of customer reviews greatly influences how well your business performs on Amazon. In fact, nearly 4 in 5 customers (79%) read reviews prior to making an Amazon purchase, according to price optimization platform Feedvisor. However, reviews can also be used against you by malicious Amazon competitors. Reviews are, unfortunately, just one way that you might be attacked (although they can be used by black-hat operators in various ways, as seen below).
Here are eight common strategies of sabotage that have been used in recent years on Amazon and that could hit your business on Black Friday:
Tactic #1 – Fake positive reviews of their own products
Buyers on Amazon are greatly influenced by reviews, so it has become common practice for unethical sellers to concoct positive ones so they can rise up the rankings. Those who want to have better reviews through shady means use various strategies. Relatives, friends, and employees of a seller might post great reviews. The vendor may pay or otherwise incentivize actual customers for a strong review – a practice that continues even though Amazon made it clear it would no longer tolerate any review incentives in 2016. A misbehaving seller might even hire a company that specializes in leaving bogus reviews through “zombie” accounts.
Often the 5-star reviews from loves ones and employees are completed without them having bought the item. In other, more sophisticated cases, though, associates of the seller do in fact purchase the product. The seller then reimburses them via PayPal or some other channel for leaving the strong review.
In the case of going through real customers, sometimes discounts on future products or extended warranties are offered in exchange for 5-star reviews. Illicit sellers will sometimes call customers to offer an incentive to take down a 1-star review or write a 5-star one. Free products are sometimes offered via email in order to improve a negative review or to create a positive one.
There are even rebate clubs that provide rebates toward the cost of an item for giving an item a great review. Also called review marketplace sites, these black-market institutions will often give buyers 80-90% off Amazon products — and perhaps even rebate the entire purchase price. These sites will insist that you write 5-star reviews if you want to continue to be a member, which in turn allows you to get the discounts and rebates.
Companies that generate fake reviews create many different zombie Amazon buyer accounts that mimic the typical browsing actions of legitimate buyers so that Amazon does not detect any issues. These firms, called review farms, have sometimes been run out of sweatshops in the Philippines and India. They have their workers spend all day posting 5-star reviews for items they have not bought – and expect them to be working overtime for Black Friday.
In a similar scenario, sometimes sellers will use automated review-posting software that utilizes algorithms to submit false reviews at randomized times throughout the day. To create the reviews, language is copy-pasted from products (whether from your store or a rival’s) that have similar characteristics to the one in question. In some cases reviews are built from components of several different reviews to create a hodgepodge of snippets and keywords that are the most positive.
Tactic #2 – Poor ratings & reviews of your products
A rival company may purchase your products through Amazon specifically so that they can leave you terrible one-star reviews. Amazon is unlikely to consider a review fraudulent because the competitor has actually bought your product and is, by definition, a customer. In many cases, the competitor will offer misinformation that your item is dangerous – and Amazon will often side with the buyer, assuming the report to be honest. Do not think investigations will be excessively thorough during the flurry of activity on Black Friday and in the leadup to the holidays.
In the case of a safety warning, the buyer could purchase an electronic product, set it on fire, and take pictures of it as evidence that it had exploded when they attempted to use it. People also might be paid to purchase items and return them, reporting bogus reasons to Amazon about why they did not meet expectations. When products get these false reviews related to their safety, the concocted situation and review are not your sole concerns. You can end up with keywords such as “risky,” “dangerous,” or “flammable” being associated with the product.
Tactic #3 — Glowing reviews
At the opposite end of the spectrum from damning negative reviews are hyper-positive reviews from bogus accounts. Since a seller might themselves buy fake reviews in order to work their way up the listings, competitors will sometimes try to make it appear to Amazon that you are doing that by directing fake users to give your products 5-star ratings. In other words, they take the fraudulent action on your behalf as a way to frame you for misbehavior.
That is what happened to Amazon seller Zac Plansky in August 2018. Plansky, who sells rifle scopes through the marketplace, discovered one morning that 16 new 5-star reviews for his products had been submitted in the middle of the night. The reviews looked like spam, with copy that seemed to be scraped from elsewhere, often even mentioning another scope.
Plansky was unsure what was happening but reported the troubling reviews to Amazon to be safe. They disappeared in the following few days. Regardless, Amazon emailed him a couple weeks afterward to notify him that his listings were being taken off the platform and that he was banned from selling through it. Amazon had determined he had violated its rules against review manipulation. It proved incredibly difficult for him to get back into good standing with the organization. Be ready for these types of tactics to be widespread as sales are peaking on Black Friday and in the following weeks.
Tactic # 4 – Brushing
Brushing, or the creation of false orders, is another way that a competitor can abuse the marketplace and boost itself in the listings. In a common brushing scheme, customers who have ordered from Amazon in the previous weeks or months will begin getting little envelopes with cheap baubles in them that are worth a few cents.
In these cases customer accounts have been used to fraudulently order products. Since the accounts have been hijacked, the seller can then also leave 5-star reviews for himself. Con-artists typically apply this method internationally so it is less likely that they are targeted through legal channels.
Tactic #5 – Alteration of your listings
Many miscreants have official accounts and permission to edit listings. These malicious vendors may change the descriptions of your products. You can end up with titles that incorrectly identify the product; other bogus information; and blurry or inaccurate images.
Anyone who assumes those descriptions to be true will then not get the product they thought they would. They may respond by reporting you to Amazon. Your account can be suspended as a result – which would be particularly devastating on Black Friday.
This strategy often works with larger sellers who have a huge catalog of items and who are busy managing various sales channels. Sellers who have become successful do not want to spend all their time checking their listings; they want the process to be as automated as possible. Unfortunately, since you are put at great risk when people manipulate your listings, it is necessary to persistently monitor your descriptions, so that you can report abuse quickly and rectify any bad information.
Abuse of inactive listings is particularly common since the perpetrator will assume that the seller is not paying much attention to that description. Locating these products that are not actively being sold is relatively simple for criminals. You can pull them up by entering in a search engine, “site:amazon.com currently unavailable [type of product].” If you have products that are out of stock and that you are not intending to sell in the near future, it is a very good idea to take them down.
Tactic #6 — Switching your products to irrelevant categories
The changing of your product information can go beyond simple manipulation of the descriptions and images. Your listings may even be transferred to nonsensical categories. For example, a lawn care item with a “Best Seller” badge could be transferred to office products, in which case the badge is freed for the wrongdoer to take.
Often black-hat users will transfer products to sex toys, since that requires a buyer to click a button confirming they are at least 18 before the listings are visible. One seller had a children’s toy moved to the sex toys category. Another seller had a child-proof door lock reassigned to sex toys.
Tactic #7 – Counterfeit products
The counterfeiting of products is a major issue in the world of Amazon. The company’s earnings report for 2018 stated that Amazon might not be able to stop fraudulent users from selling stolen, pirated, counterfeit, or illegal goods. It admitted that Amazon might not be able to prevent the violation of proprietary rights, or the conducting of sales through unethical or illegal means. The report concluded that Amazon “could face civil or criminal liability for unlawful activities by our sellers.”
The issue with all this trickery in the ecosystem stems from the fact that Amazon is similar to eBay in being a place in which numerous users can sell an identical product. There is no program at Amazon to audit products it receives at its warehouses to make sure that they are genuine. The system is entirely reliant on the legitimacy of the UPC barcode. Since Amazon will assume that a product is genuine if it has the right bar code, a nefarious party can print a bogus bar code and affix it to a counterfeit product.
Amazon seller Joe Cochran noted that his company had been fighting counterfeit sellers of its products since the first year he had been in business. Cochran said he had spent tens of thousands of dollars defending himself against them.
Amazon has taken significant steps against counterfeiting of products. One of those efforts was providing sellers with trackable, exclusive barcodes via a program rolled out in 2018 called Transparency. In February 2019, Amazon released Project Zero, a program designed to make it easier for sellers to kick counterfeiters off of their listings. Counterfeiting remains an issue despite these measures by Amazon – so look out for counterfeiters on Black Friday and through the holidays.
Tactic #8 — Hijacking your account & listings
Changing your listings and where they are located is a huge problem – but things can get even worse when a nefarious user hijacks your account completely and steals all your product listings. To do that, they trademark the name of your seller account through the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). It is a form of identity theft and means that has been used by some criminals to successfully take over the storefronts of legitimate sellers.
John Harris, who sells compasses, firestarters, and other survival gear, was hit with this kind of attack. Harris thought that he had protected himself sufficiently by registering his brand through Amazon and trademarking his goods. When other users would try to steal his Buy Box, he had a custom automated software that would immediately issue them a cease-and-desist letter.
However, in September 2017, he found that another user had somehow stolen SharpSurvival, his seller name. His account was changed to the generic name Seller123. When he reported the theft to Amazon, he remained locked out of his account and listings.
The thief had trademarked SharpSurvival with the USPTO, using photos from Harris’ account as evidence that they owned it. Granted the trademark, the con-artist then had the proof of ownership they needed to register the name with Amazon. That allowed them to take over his account and block Harris from accessing his own listings.
Protecting yourself in the Amazon on Black Friday
Many of these attack methods can make it appear to Amazon that you are responsible for improper behavior. If you are framed and end up suspended, it can be extraordinarily difficult to clear your name and to get your business back up and running quickly. Depending on your volume of sales, you can end up losing many thousands of dollars due to the downtime of the suspension.
If you are offline on Black Friday, you could miss one of your biggest sales days of the year.
While Amazon does have an appeals process, sellers have often complained that it is confusing and frustrating. The Performance department is in charge of suspensions, and there is no phone number for it. It is impossible to speak with someone and get yourself heard if you believe you are being victimized. In fact, some sellers have even flown to Seattle or London to attempt to meet with someone from Performance in person, to no avail.
If you feel that you are being abused on Amazon, you need expertise to defend yourself. At Revision Legal, we have litigated against some of the largest corporations in the world, and when truly unique challenges arise, we show up ready to work. Contact us with the form on this page, or call us at 855-473-8474.