Amazon has been plagued by counterfeiters, fraudsters and crooks who use tactics like fake reviews to goose sales of their products; the company keeps cracking down on these activities, but despite using measures so broad that they destroy the livelihoods of legitimate sellers, Amazon is losing the war on crooked sellers.
Indeed, Amazon's aggressive zero-tolerance policies have created a thriving market in specialized "black hat" Amazon consultants who use a combination of bribes to Amazon employees and exploits against vulnerabilities in Amazon's ranking and security services to help sellers get their products re-listed, upranked and featured. Some sellers are reportedly paying $10,000/month to maintain their dominance.
Buzzfeed's in-depth investigation found several of these black hat "consultants" and exposed their tactics, from creating "brushed accounts" that have product-free pages but high customer satisfaction ratings (based on previous items sold by these dummy accounts, possibly to confederates) that new sellers can put their products on; to paying bribes to Amazon employees to pierce the company's notorious bureaucratic secrecy after products or accounts are delisted.
Other services include removing bad reviews, placing bad reviews on competitors' products, getting good reviews, dominating search terms, etc. Most of these black hats appear to be based in China.
For their part, sellers say that they have to cheat, or they lose ground to other cheaters.
Some sellers who employ black hat tactics say they're reluctant to do so, but don't know how else to keep up with their competitors. A seller who uses Howard Thai's suite of services on SellerMafia.com and asked to remain anonymous told BuzzFeed News that he's been using different versions of black hat techniques since 2014, when Amazon's marketplace became inundated with dirty selling tactics. That's around when he said he noticed people using Amazon's messaging system to send emails to shoppers offering free products in exchange for reviews and learned about offices full of people in Bangladesh paid to write fake reviews.
"Everybody is doing it," he said. "People have to survive, so of course they're going to do it. … They're like, 'Why the hell am I spending money on ads and I'm not on page one?'"
The seller said that without Seller Mafia he would barely break even on sales because the cost of advertising on Amazon is so high. He said he spends about 30% of sales on advertising. He currently makes about $3 million a year in net profits, but before he used Thai's services he was making $73,000 a year.
"They're upsetting me," he said about sellers who depend on black hat tactics on Amazon. "You always want to do things the right way."
Some Amazon Sellers Are Paying $10,000 A Month To Trick Their Way To The Top [Leticia Miranda/Buzzfeed]