Are Black Hat Sellers Winning the Battle on the Amazon Marketplace?

Seller sabotage and abuse are running wild. Here’s what’s happening, and what both Amazon and sellers need to do to bring it under control.

Hands out of the darkness

This post is by Chris McCabe, owner and founder of ecommerceChris, LLC, an Amazon seller account consultancy.

Black hat seller behavior continues unabated in 2019.

We’ve seen spikes of listing hijacks and seller sabotage, mostly via loopholes exploited within Vendor Central. We’ve seen sellers inflating their positive reviews, but no action taken by Amazon’s Product Review Abuse (PRA) teams after they were reported.

There have been overnight spikes in negative reviews for products that had gone months without a single negative, clearly due to malicious targeting. When the impacted sellers report these fake reviews, Amazon’s ability to understand and act is often lacking.

Unauthorized changes are made to private label listings, resulting in chaos and lost sales for legitimate sellers. Competitors with barely any track record have been able to boost their profiles overnight with piles of positive “verified” reviews.

Just how bad is seller abuse on Amazon now? What does Amazon need to do to address the problem? What can sellers do to get Amazon to take effective action?

How extensive is seller abuse on Amazon?

I’ve read enough about Amazon product review abuse in the past few months to make anyone’s head explode. It’s been reported more or less everywhere in the media.

A bit less understood and cared about publicly (although well-known in seller circles) is that hijacked listings remain a major problem. A new seller suddenly appears on a branded product as if they sell the same item, even if they have no source of those products.

These sellers may manage to change the listing images, title, and even the brand name to suit their purposes, even if the genuine seller is supposedly protected by Brand Registry. It’s commonly known as “VC abuse” in many circles, because Vendor Central is the back door to gain the necessary control over the product detail page. We’ve seen many changes to Vendor Central accounts this month, and we can safely conclude that this is one reason why.

Is this all down to Chinese sellers?

I get asked this all the time. Abuse is coming from some China-based sellers, sure, but the tactics that started in China are also being used by sellers here in the U.S.

They are helped by China-based black hat service providers, now marketing their software and services to U.S. sellers, who are only too ready to pay for any edge to help them compete.

Sometimes these services provide fake buyer accounts that will buy products from a targeted seller, then claim counterfeit or safety problems, and leave dozens of ugly reviews. The next step in the process is when other fake buyers come along and upvote those negative reviews, giving them extra weight. All this can be had as a pre-packaged black hat service. Destroy your competitors overnight! It’s all there for the right price – a “black hat buffet” of poisonous bites that legitimate sellers fear.

Some sellers have gained access to Amazon’s precious internal data to help them gauge what to sell, in what category, at what price, and how buyers navigate from one product detail page to another. They can also discover what keywords to use and when to make changes. Sometimes, account managers inside Amazon are passing data directly to them. Other times, third-party services act as middle-men.

Unfortunately, once a critical mass of sellers begins operating this way, success on the marketplace comes down to who has the most money to spend on black hat tactics.

It’s up to Amazon, and the legitimate sellers who remain, to track it down.

What does Amazon know, and what are they doing about it?

Amazon knows about these problems. They also know they need to do more about them, and I’m sure they will. But how long will it take?

It’s not evident yet that they know how to position their multiple, overlapping teams to cope with a problem this big and this complex. Communication between different teams at Amazon is not great, but it has improved in recent months out of necessity.

Just as the PRA teams did not exist a few years ago, new teams and initiatives like Project Zero will likely be created to handle the increase in black hat tactics. Word is out, and Amazon teams know what they are up against.

We anticipate tougher action from Amazon (and the FTC) on all policy abusers this year, but not only against sellers exploiting the review system. The crackdown will likely focus on any attacks sellers initiate against their competitors. In many ways, it has already begun.

For instance, several internal Amazon tools that were previously accessible across various teams are now limited to just the main Amazon employees who need them. Account managers who passed internal data to sellers now find themselves with limited access, to maintain the integrity of ALL account managers. It’s not just the few who were “oversharing” who have had their privileges taken away.

How can Amazon resolve these problems?

To really get black hat sellers on the run will take tools, investigative time, training, and an interest in shutting down all the avenues that sellers use to abuse the platform.

Better machine learning may identify sales rank manipulation, and automated scripts can root out keyword re-use and clickfarm activity. Ultimately, however, there will always be a human element that’s needed.

In the past, Amazon had investigators working with account managers to handle particular sellers who were breaking the rules. More recently, some account managers have helped sellers in ways that they shouldn’t have, and they are the ones under investigation. These managers are starting to feel the heat, and have put their jobs are at risk by doing these tricks.

We’ve also seen major changes within Vendor Central to combat some of the rampant rule-breaking and listings abuse. Some accounts were canceled and some new applications won’t be approved, unless there are high-level manager approvals and “business case” exemptions. It will be tightly controlled from this point forward.

How does Amazon communicate with sellers who report abuse?

To date, Amazon’s standard reply to sellers who report abuse has been:

“Hello, We will investigate this issue that you brought to our attention and take the appropriate action. For privacy reasons, we cannot share the results of our investigation with you.”

I think we can all agree that they need to do better than that.

Amazon has had to deal with bad publicity over this mess, and they finally had to tell their stockholders that they have a counterfeit problem. Managers within Amazon will have to get more involved, not only in how investigators process abuse reports, but also in how other teams regulate the marketplace.

When the teams responsible for policing the rules fail to do their jobs effectively, managers on other teams get dragged into the fray during the appeal escalation process. Unsurprisingly, tensions are often raised and each team will blame the other.

Avoiding responsibility or passing the buck is not going to cut it in 2019. The abuses of black hat sellers and services are too successful and too widespread for vague responses to continue much longer. At every turn, we see the platform abused and misused.

Amazon’s mission is to prevent this sort of behavior, because fake sales, fake reviews and sabotaged listings create mayhem for buyers. There’s no way that buyers will continue to trust a platform where sellers who use dirty tricks not only survive but thrive.

Amazon might be able to live with sellers and consultants knowing what is happening, but when horror stories in the national press flag it up to their customers, it provokes a reaction and changes inside the company.

How should I report seller abuse to Amazon?

First of all, you should learn how to go beyond simply opening up cases with Seller Support.

That’s the first step, but there is rarely direct action as a result. it just creates a paper trail to reference later. Sellers will often also email Community-help@amazon.com or other abuse-reporting queues, but again, you cannot depend on these teams to take definitive action. You really need to escalate to team managers, open Brand Registry cases, and contact Executive Seller Relations.

Also, know HOW to report abuse. You can’t expect any action from Amazon teams if your abuse reports are convoluted, hard to follow, really long and repetitive, poorly written or inaccurate.

Make sure you show policy investigators information that can be independently confirmed. Don’t toss speculation at them. If they see “we suspect this is all coming from XYZ seller” or vague insinuations that you’re under attack from unknown sellers, they will not act. If you’re unsure how to phrase abuse reports, find someone who knows and ask for help. Defending against hijackers and review abusers is one of our specialties at ecommerceChris.

If escalations fail, you need to reach out to anyone within Amazon who will listen to your cry for help. Have you interacted with category managers in the past? Do you have a Marketplace Growth manager? Did you interact with anyone in Business Development during your onboarding phase, if you started selling a year or two ago? Make use of those contacts now.

Is there anything else we can do to beat the black hat sellers?

Better abuse reports are one thing, but much more needs to happen on the seller side.

A lot of sellers take part in abusive activity, and many others tolerate illicit behavior by sellers that they know. You can’t just turn a blind eye because it’s “someone else’s problem.” It all makes the situation bigger and worse, and feeds the black hat service providers.

Here’s what needs to happen.

  1. Sellers need to stop hiring black hat services themselves. Don’t forget, they have no seller account to lose if things go sour. Your business is the one that suffers.
  2. Talk to your category contacts at Amazon. Make it clear that you want to help them control bad behavior. Cleaning up the category reduces bad buyer experiences and helps them show success. You can help them solve one of their biggest problems.
  3. Learn to see these tactics coming. If things are going well for you, then expect to be attacked. Sellers will offer generic or counterfeit products on your listing, get their own private label product to compete with yours, or directly attack your listings and reviews.
  4. Build a defense plan! You can’t prevent all attacks, but you can have a strategy to fight back. Plan for the “worst case scenarios” and define your steps to roll back bogus listing changes or fake reviews, as soon as they happen. Don’t get caught with your pants down.
  5. Stop turning a blind eye to black hat services because you think you may need them yourself someday. Report them early and often, to as many Amazon teams as you can find. Amazon need to see patterns to determine exactly which companies and people are behind those services, and your reports help provide that.

The future is in our hands

Black hat abuse cannot continue at the rate it is currently growing. More businesses will go under and brands will die.

If you are reluctant to report abuse, or stop at opening a case with Seller Support, it’s time to up your game. Escalate abuse reports as if your entire seller account depends on it (because it does). It’s worth the investment.

If you neglect to up the ante, you might be joining the other sellers forced out of business by black hat tactics. This work is mission critical.

This post was by Chris McCabe, owner and founder of ecommerceChris, LLC, an Amazon seller account consultancy. Chris was formerly an Investigation Specialist for Amazon’s Seller Performance team.

17 comments on “Are Black Hat Sellers Winning the Battle on the Amazon Marketplace?

  1. I have a persistent hijacker who lists on my registered brand product listing.
    He has no way of getting my brand as the goods are manufactured solely for me.
    We have purchased products from him and complained to Amazon and opened A to Z’s against him.
    All he does is apologise and say the wrong product was sent by mistake and sends a label for returns.
    Amazon refuse to deal with the fact that he is selling “fake” products,
    How do I get him off my listings? Any advice would be greatly appreciated

      1. Hi Chris and thank you for responding.
        Yes I have opened tickets, spoken several times with Seller Support and filed an infringement claim.
        Amazon say that they cannot stop anyone selling a product that is brand registered, even if the brand owner tells them specifically that the products are not available to any other source.
        Further when we purchased the product (2 of the SKUs) from this vendor, we also complained that it was not the brand he was selling the goods under and also they were of inferior quality (and I was very angry to note that he was selling cheap nasty products under my well laid out listings with fabulous reviews about the quality).
        We opened an A to Z claim too.
        All he did was to say that the products sent were the wrong products sent by mistake and he sent a return label to return the products and erfund the purchase.
        Amazon did nothing about the A to Z as he offered to return and refund.
        I don’t know how to get him off the listing.
        I did try going through a lawyer, but there didn’t seem to be a cap on what it could cost – so I couldn’t weigh it against my sales loss.
        Surely there must be a simpler way to sort this out?

      2. What angered me the most, is that he called me to have a laugh and say that he challenged me to see if I could get him off my listing!
        He said he did this all the time and knew all the loopholes and Amazon did not have a way of getting him off people’s listings!
        He seems to be right!

  2. You cannot rely on Amazon to sort this mess out without external pressure.

    Bad press can get some reaction from them, but government must get involved and force Amazon to take action.

    For example, review manipulation is simply misleading buyers regarding the credentials of a product … surely this i enough for government to get involved.

  3. There are three major problems for the small seller: 1) The obscene numbers of fake positive reviews; 2) The persistent negative fake reviews; 3) The new bizarre weighted formula for “averaging star ratings on a given product. The small seller loses in all three cases. Fake negative reviews, combined with an “averaging” metric that is skewed to the negative has rendered some of our product a three star rating, when the organic rating is actually three stars, e.g.. (and this always includes some fake negative reviews). After five years of steady sales growth, we have experienced a 40% drop in sales, with some popular items at 10% of their average after successive fake negative hits. To make matters worse, each time we lodge a complaint, and ask the (outsourced, autocratic) review team to remove the obviously fake ads, they spitefully remove legitimate 5-star reviews from our meager, organic positive reviews, and leave the fake negative reviews to stand! I believe the “review team” is much more a part of the problem than a part of the solution. They do not understand the culture, (they are in India) and they are private and independent, so by punishing the sellers who report the problems, they are, through aversive conditioning, saving themselves time and work.

  4. In the above, I meant to say that the new metrics for “averaging” star ratings turns our four star average into a three or 3.5 star rating.

  5. Black Hat techniques are rampant on Ebay too. The latest one I have noticed is this:

    Sometime ago Ebay required all branded goods to be listed with EAN/UPC numbers so that buyers could compare the same product price from different sellers. But Ebay no longer enforce this rule so unscrupulous sellers can sell at a higher price without being compared to their lower priced competitors.

    Something needs to be done.

    1. I think they will definitely care Mike if it gets to the point where buyers don’t trust reviews they see anymore, since that impacts most buying decisions and faith in the marketplace.

  6. I think Amazon cares, but the problems are reified by all of their outsourced support services, which are now overwhelmed with complaints and problems stateside due to incompetency in the USA and ineptitude in cheap and largely untrained seller support in other countries. So much is lost in translation and sellers are losing their minds (not to mention a ton f time, and money) trying to get problems solved. Amazon’s classic corporate approach will not bend until the problems hit the bottom line hard enough to justify real action. sad.

    1. these teams are still Amazon, by outsourced you mean finding employees of other companies to work the queues? PRA / product review abuse is not an outsourced team, that’s where you report fake reviews and abuse.

  7. I can’t reinforce strongly enough everything Chris said here. The problem is darker and deeper than mere words can convey…and a lot of this is caused by Amazon itself. We’re screaming for action from Amazon because it is Amazon’s own policies, procedures and algorithms that are being manipulated to take down honest sellers. Then when a seller tries to report, they are generally ignored. It is disheartening and discouraging. Amazon cares so little for its sellers that it just ignores them. I was happy to see the news about vendor central merging with brand registry. My hope is that this will fix the awful VC loophole that Chris mentions. We’ll find out in about 60 days.

    1. Right on, Cynthia. Amazon, by not being part of the solution IS part of the problem. The more they do nothing to fish out the scammers and fake negative review writers, the more this behavior is supported/rewarded by financial gains by black hats.

  8. All of THIS……..is exactly why I have been afraid to sell on Amazon, even eBay too! I’ve been selling items on other platforms for a while now because it’s pretty cut & dry compared to Amazon & Ebay! Funny thing is I’ve noticed a huge surge of scammers on these other platforms too over the last 2-3 yrs! Both bad/scam buyers & sellers! These people look for any way possible to manipulate & use the system!
    It’s so sad to me that ANY company cannot get behind its sellers & user base to offer them proper support that aligns w/THEIR OWN rules, policies, regulations, etc. as well as various laws!
    I agree that until this starts effecting them where it hurts most &/or the government gets involved (which quite frankly surprises me they haven’t yet because they love sticking their noses in other people’s business!), until they are forced to become more supportive, offer real viable solutions & protections to their sellers & their buyers, they’re just going to continue allowing these things to happen….

    I am so thankful for sites, blogs & forums like this, that are started by good intending people! I have learned so much more than I could ever had dreamed (always learning) from the actual site & the support they offer!
    It’s a ridiculous that anyone should have to be afraid of losing their own business because they HAVE to deal w/all the problems not offered/protected by the platform & it’s sad that anyone should be afraid to start selling!

    I think back to the not too long ago past where starting a business was hard work still but there was SO much that we didn’t have to worry about!

    Thank you to this site for creating this content & a place for people to learn, grow, thrive! Also to all of you who post your stories!

  9. you’re welcome, and yes, this discourages many sellers from doing Amazon. It’s sad to see so many private label brands that could sell on there, and sell well, go to another platform. We think this will become the norm as brand attacks continue, although it’ll take time for that to unfold fully. Years, really.

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