What’s Going On?
Recent stories in eCommerce Bytes and Business Insider share the horror and shock many Amazon customers are feeling now that their buyer accounts are suspended. It’s like 2015 all over again but on the buyer side. I’m unable to resist the urge to say on behalf of all sellers, “Welcome to our world.” They are seeing the dark side of Amazon for the first time and it’s understandably making them angry. They have no notice, no appeal, they’re out.
Amazon has taken sudden and massive action – most likely facilitated by an algorithmic change aimed towards enforcement of its TOS. This is not new – it is simply the volume and frequency of takedowns that is new. Over the years, Amazon has removed buyers with egregious abuses of their privileges – but it was rare and usually there was a notice explaining what they did wrong.
For sellers, this is welcome support from Amazon. We’ve all had the experience of what I call “online shoplifting” where a buyer will return a product, but it is an entirely different item, or it is an earlier version and they just wanted a free iPhone upgrade. One seller received bricks in his return box which was incredibly insulting. We may report the buyer to Amazon for theft, but nothing seemed to happen…until now.
Other abuses are extortion where the buyer will say “Give me free shipping back or I’ll leave a bad review.” Then there are buyers who lie and say they did not receive the product. They get another shipment, and they do it again. This happens frequently with luxury goods from high -end salon-worthy shampoos to Coach handbags. If you don’t send another unit, they threaten an A-Z complaint against you, which is damaging to your seller account. You may have a delivery receipt from UPS, but Amazon won’t support you in refusing to re-send which is why most sellers send more and more replacements. There’s a reason Amazon is taking pictures of its deliveries and it is about a lot more than “better buyer experience” if you catch my drift.
I’ve seen buyers suspended for abusing Prime. They use their buyer Prime accounts – and those of their friends and family – to buy goods for resale on the platform without paying for shipping, which is forbidden. They may use their combined Prime accounts to buy multiple units of lightning deals and other specials where purchase quantities are limited. Then they sell against the very brands they just bought from at a lower price.
Some buyers are freight forwarders. They receive the merchandise in the US and forward it to another country – then they demand a refund for various reasons, which is another form of theft. If you insist on having the product returned you find out it is now in Bolivia. While online companies like Amazon and eBay keep lists of these freight forwarders and refuse to send to them, more keep popping up. If a merchant fulfilled seller were to refuse to send to an address, they would be in trouble with Amazon. These are the kinds of binds sellers find themselves in every day due to bad buyer behavior.
Then there are those who are paid reviewers. They use their accounts to leave biased product reviews – both positive and negative. As seller advocates, we have had some success getting these buyers removed when we can show Amazon a pattern of reviewing behavior or other red flags. Other so-called buyers sit and type in keywords all day to influence the algorithm for or against a product. Some reviewers are biased but not paid. They are either related to someone at the company that owns the product or are employees leaving positive reviews. This is also a Terms of Service violation. Usually it is the company/seller that is taken down, but I’ve seen cases where the buyer was removed, also. I assume their case was egregious and innocent confusion.
Another trick I’ve seen occurs when bad actors add products to customers’ wish lists without their knowledge. They do this hoping it induces the consumer or his/her friends and family to buy the product. If they are using a buyer account to do this, that is also a violation of Amazon’s rules. So is creating fake buyer accounts under a false name, a small purchase is made and then the “buyer” leaves reviews, makes keyword searches, etc. I’m assuming these buyers are NOT complaining on Facebook. They know why they were shut down.
To be very clear on this, any fake account regardless of how it is used is against Terms of Service. It is OK to have an alias for leaving reviews, etc., but if your name, address, bank account, credit card, etc., – that Amazon has on file for you is fake or forged, or even outdated, then your account could be forfeit if they suspect fraud. Consider this a nudge to make sure all your data is current.
Other violations include things like too many returns. My understanding (but I cannot get it publicly confirmed) is that buyers have a lifetime number of 26 or so free returns and then they lose the privilege. They can still buy stuff, but Amazon will make them pay for returns. However, if there is a pattern of frequent returns – beyond statistical averages – they may suspect deliberate bad behavior and take a buyer down entirely before they reach their lifetime limit.
Some people falsely use Student Prime accounts to save a few bucks when they aren’t students.
One abuse of a buyer’s account is from sellers using Prime. They use it to deliver product from another seller to their customers. This is not allowed. They may be buying off Amazon if they’ve run out of their own inventory and don’t want to cancel an order. To reduce their losses and to provide a good buyer experience, they use Prime to drop ship. If you are a seller in this situation, pay the shipping. It’s not worth saving $7.99 if you lose your selling privileges. Also, this goes for people selling on eBay and then buying off of Amazon to fulfill an order. It is OK to use Amazon’s fulfillment services to do this, but not to pretend you a buyer sending a package to a “friend” who originally bought off of eBay.
Sellers have learned the hard way to read Amazon’s Terms of Service very carefully, but most buyers don’t. Many are genuinely confused as to why they lost their accounts. No doubt there are some innocent fish swept up in this massive action, but I can claim with confidence based on experience that most are not innocent. Amazon is really good at mining its own data. These buyers broke the rules and they are just shocked that Amazon did something about it. In a culture where the buyer is king, this is a huge step for Amazon to balance the scales a little bit towards fairness to its sellers (and itself, let’s be honest). While the first strike seems aimed mostly at people who abused Prime and reviews, I hope to see Amazon enforce all of its buyer policies in the future.
PSA Announcement – Amazon isBig Brother
Amazon knows who your friends and family are. They are integrated into Facebook and other social media – they lurk in review groups and they know everyone you’ve ever bought a gift for from a wish list or sent a package to – ever. If you’ve ever used Amazon’s social media tags to send a link to one of their products, they know all about it. They know every search you’ve ever done on the platform, every review you’ve left, every physical and virtual location you’ve ever accessed the platform from and every website you used that led you to an Amazon product. They can see what you look at on Facebook and the books and news outlets you read. They know the online and computer programs you use, the size of your computer monitor, and much more. The data that Amazon has on you is possibly more comprehensive than what’s happening with Facebook right now. In the online world, they have a god’s eye view. It is very, very hard to fool them.
If you have a friend or even a distant Facebook friend who is a seller or brand on the platform, buy from them if you wish, but don’t leave a review – not even a book review – ever. I’m Facebook friends with very few people. I direct the dozens of friend requests I get daily to my company’s page. I do this to try and keep my personal and professional lives separate, but it turns out to be a good strategy for Amazon as well. We’ve had clients get warnings from Amazon because someone they barely knew on Facebook left a review on their product. It’s crazy.
A question I know I’m going to get is, “How does Amazon know who is a friend and who is a casual acquaintance or business colleague?” I have no idea. What I do know is that Amazon is one of the biggest data mining companies in the world and their algorithms learn about us over time.
Latest Update From Amazon!
After this blog was published I saw a great article from eCommerce Bytes from April 4, 2018 that included Amazon’s official response to this situation. The good news, it looks like they will be reviewing and reinstating some of the suspended accounts. The bad news is that they are taking a zero tolerance stance towards what they see as review manipulation in all its forms. Sellers who used their buyer accounts to buy inventory with Prime or to leave abusive reviews — including negative reviews on competitor’s products and abusing the “thumbs up/thumbs down” function — will likely not get back. Amazon states that they have sued thousands of sellers for abusing product reviews and I’ve seen it first-hand with some of our clients. If you’ve ever accepted a gift card, PayPal payment or some other form of incentive for leaving a review, you probably won’t get back. For the bloggers who are writing reviews on their blog and then linking to Amazon? Same problem.
According to Amazon, they should have finished their reviews by now. I take this as hopeful optimism based on past experience with Amazon. They may still be reviewing cases. I bet more sellers were taken down than they thought.
This news should change sellers’ approach to how they use social media and conduct their off-platform operations immediately.
Can You Appeal?
At this moment there is not an official appeal process. In the past, we were unable to get buyers reinstated. This is terrible news for sellers who were taken down because they lost their selling privileges as well as buying privileges and there was no chance to appeal.
From the article, it seems like some buyers have had success working with Seller Support to get at least part of their buying privileges back. They have discovered that they can still access wish lists, digital orders, Prime videos, etc. My guess is that their infractions were not as serious as others, but I have no special insight. It is possible that these are separate platforms inside Amazon and that’s why one was shut down and not the others.
I have seen this type of selective suspension on the seller side where a client might be able to sell through FBA but not Merchant-Fulfilled, or vice versa. If the suspended sellers are also a brand, they can often still sell their products on Amazon through Vendor Central – direct to Amazon in other words – but not as a third-party seller.
My speculation is that Amazon will likely set up a mechanism for buyers to appeal these suspensions or that they will allow them to buy again but find a way to turn off privileges like leaving reviews or buying lightning deals.
I hope I’m right on this because sellers are huge buyers on the platform and they could lose everything from mistakes with their buying account – and so could their spouses, relatives and friends if they were part of abusing the platform with them. On the seller side, Amazon allows appeals and they are remarkably forgiving considering some of the stunning examples we have seen of policy violations, product quality issues and performance failures.
Can I Sue?
Angry buyers on the Facebook groups are talking about suing or filing a class action lawsuit. That will be very tough to do. When you signed up for an Amazon account you agreed to their Terms of Services and all future amendments to that TOS. Your agreement with Amazon says you must go to arbitration for all issues except infringements. Specifically, it says:
To begin an arbitration proceeding, you must send a letter requesting arbitration and describing your claim to our registered agent Corporation Service Company, 300 Deschutes Way SW, Suite 304, Tumwater, WA 98501. The arbitration will be conducted by the American Arbitration Association (AAA) under its rules, including the AAA’s Supplementary Procedures for Consumer-Related Disputes. The AAA’s rules are available at www.adr.org or by calling 1-800-778-7879. Payment of all filing, administration and arbitrator fees will be governed by the AAA’s rules. We will reimburse those fees for claims totaling less than $10,000 unless the arbitrator determines the claims are frivolous. Likewise, Amazon will not seek attorneys’ fees and costs in arbitration unless the arbitrator determines the claims are frivolous. You may choose to have the arbitration conducted by telephone, based on written submissions, or in person in the county where you live or at another mutually agreed location.
We each agree that any dispute resolution proceedings will be conducted only on an individual basis and not in a class, consolidated or representative action. If for any reason a claim proceeds in court rather than in arbitration we each waive any right to a jury trial. We also both agree that you or we may bring suit in court to enjoin infringement or other misuse of intellectual property rights.
Only a lawyer can tell you what is and isn’t possible (this is America, after all, we sue for anything), but this would be an issue to overcome.
What Do I Do Now?
If your buyer’s and seller’s accounts are currently suspended, your best bet is to contact Seller Support to get your personal buyer account reinstated. If you still have access to your Seller Central account, you can do it through the “Help” function. Otherwise, fill out this form (no login required): https://www.amazon.com/gp/help/customer/account-issues/ or you can call them at 888-282-2406 (if you can’t login) or 866-216-1072 (customer service) and try to get an email address or process to appeal your case.
I recommend escalating your case up to a supervisor until you get someone from the US team. The rank and file customer service team members don’t know what to do for you at this time. You may have to be very persistent and call back every few days to find out if Amazon will be giving those suspended a chance to appeal.
If you are given the option to appeal, contact us. Amazon has recently been telling suspended sellers that they can only submit an appeal twice, and it could be true for buyers as well. You want to make sure your appeal is a good one.
How Do I Prevent This from Happening to Me?
Knowledge is power. Read up on the Terms of Service for Buyers. You will have to login to your buyer account to see some of these pages:
Amazon.com Conditions of Use – You’ll see here that: “Amazon reserves the right to refuse service, terminate accounts, terminate your rights to use Amazon Services, remove or edit content, or cancel orders in its sole discretion.”
Amazon Prime Terms and About Amazon Prime – Here you’ll find out “Amazon Prime isn’t available for customers who purchase products for the purpose of resale or use Amazon Prime to ship products to their customers or potential customers.” And “We may terminate your Prime membership at our discretion without notice.”
Amazon Return Policies – You’ll learn that you can’t return live insects and the situations when Amazon will pay for your returns.
Community Guidelines – This covers reviews, questions & answers and other forms of community interaction. “Any attempt to manipulate Community content or features, including contributing false, misleading, or inauthentic content, is strictly prohibited. If you violate our Guidelines, we may restrict your ability to use Community features, remove content, delist related products, or suspend or terminate your account.”
Buyers Can Report Fraudulent Reviews Here or use [email protected]. Specify the location of the content you believe violates Amazon’s guidelines. Amazon also says: “If you receive an offer for compensation of any kind (including free or discounted products, refunds, or reimbursements) in exchange for creating, modifying, or posting content in violation of these Guidelines, forward the offer, including contact information and Amazon listing, to [email protected]”
Sellers take note of this. Even if you are communicating with your customers off-platform, you could get caught by Amazon for violating its review policies if one of your customers reports you to Amazon.
Don’t Be A Victim
There’s blood in the waters and the sharks are circling. There are already reinstatement services out there claiming to be able to get your buyer account reinstated. Some are claiming to have an insider at Amazon that can flip the suspension switch for you. Others believe they can use seller performance or other internal emails to help desperate buyers.
Be very careful. All the former Amazonians I know do have internal contacts, but they can’t and won’t take action like this. It violates their contract with Amazon and could get them in very serious trouble of which losing their jobs is only the least of it. If you are required to pay an internal contact to get reinstated, you already know what you are doing is wrong and risky. Some of the services we see who falsely claim to have these inside contacts (and there are quite a few of them) are taking the money and sending appeals to random people inside of Amazon which we easily figured out just by looking at their LinkedIn profile. It’s shocking some of the lies and abuses we’ve seen by these companies after desperate sellers come to us to finally get reinstated.
If someone can get their buyer account reinstated without breaking TOS (or the law in some cases!), then I hope they share with the entire community. We want to help and will as soon as a process is in place.
As a service to the community, I am offering free 15-minute consultations to talk about your situation next Tuesday (April 17, 2018) and Thursday (April 19, 2018). This can be about your buyer or seller account and does not have to be a suspension. This is first-come, first serve.
Unlike the free consultations we always give to prospective clients who have questions before they buy, there is no expectation that you are looking to buy services, no selling, and can be about anything on your mind. It is like grabbing me for a private chat at a conference.
Grab your timeslot here! NEW! Just added slots on Friday.
What You May Not Know About Amazon’s Returns Settings
FBA Sellers have long requested the ability for Amazon to return their items to them directly rather than repackaging and putting the products back into inventory. After getting puzzling “Used Sold as New,” “Missing Parts” and other product quality complaints, they’ve (rightly) concluded that products are still being sent back out to buyers that shouldn’t be. It is a big pain point with Amazon’s FBA services.
What we’ve learned is that even when you turn off the service, you may still be auto-enrolled by Amazon into new categories as they add them to the repackaging program. The solution is easy and will at least get you out of the repackaging program until the option to have returns sent directly to you is available:
- Go to your account settings and select “Fulfillment by Amazon”
- Click Edit and change your preference to “Enable” for repackaging services – don’t worry, this is temporary!
- Make sure all categories are clicked
- Un-click “Auto-Enroll”
- Click on “Disable”
- Click on Update
Now you will no longer be auto-enrolled when they open new categories for repackaging.
Amazon has heard FBA seller’s requests and is beta testing a new returns option for us. The beta is so incredibly constrained that most sellers’ inventory does not qualify for the beta. We are, however, heartened by this move because it will ultimately be rolled out to all sellers.
Next, Merchant-Fulfilled sellers can now offer pre-paid returns for their orders through Amazon’s system. This means that when a buyer goes to return an item, they will go through the same system as FBA buyers and will be able to print off their own pre-paid shipping label and send it back.
This works for items that fall within the Amazon Returns Policy. It provides a better buyer experience and frees up the Merchant’s time having to handle all those returns manually. If your account has been enabled for pre-paid returns, you will see a notification at the top right-hand side of the Manage Returns page. You will still be able to see all returns, just like before.
If you have certain SKUs that you want to handle yourself, you can make your rules SKU-specific. You can choose specific categories (like food or beauty) where refunds are given without a return required. You can also change/edit where your returns are sent.
Cynthia is speaking at or attending the following upcoming conferences. Please be sure to say hi!
Resonate by Seller Labs in Atlanta (May 15-16, 2018)
IRCE in Chicago (June 5-8, 2018, 1:15 PM – 2:00 PM)
BOOST by Amazon in New Orleans (June 19-20, 2018)
ASD in Las Vegas (July 29 – August 1, 2018)