An agency hired by my competitors targeted my business with false claims and malicious reviews to bring me down. They almost succeeded.
This post is by Mike Young, an online seller on Amazon and eBay based in London, England. Mike has a background in finance and IT and has investigated financial wrongdoing within the banking industry.
Everyone knows that competition on Amazon is fierce. But I didn’t realize just how fierce until my business lost 50% of its sales in one month, thanks to the black hat tactics of an “online marketing expert” hired by a competitor.
What started with a false claim of trademark infringement turned into policy warnings, a stream of fake negative reviews, and my suspension from selling on Amazon.
In this post, I’ll explain how my business was targeted, what tactics were used, and how I worked out who was behind the attacks.
I started selling on marketplaces back in 2014 because my wife wanted to start an online business. We began with eBay, but after a few months we decided to move onto Amazon because it was easier and cheaper to fulfill goods using FBA, than it was doing our own fulfillment on eBay.
We are a family business and sell a range of products, such as branded toys, electronic accessories and seasonal items, as well as our own private label sports goods. At our peak we reached six digits of turnover and were planning to expand internationally in 2018. That was until our Amazon seller account was targeted by an “online marketing” agency, determined to bring my business down.
First trademark infringement claim
The attacks started on 31st October, when we were notified by Amazon that another seller had submitted a claim to them, saying one of the products we were selling infringed their trademark. When I went to look at the listing, I noticed that it was incorrect, as the brand name was set as the seller’s own business name instead of the manufacturer.
Initially, I thought that the company had simply made a mistake, and so I emailed them, asking them to withdraw the claim. After getting no response, I decided to call them but, again, I was met with silence.
At this point, I simply wasn’t getting anywhere, so I decided to escalate the case to the managing director’s office at Amazon UK. Soon after, Seller Performance contacted me to say that my listing had been reinstated and I could now sell the product again.
This wasn’t the end of the matter though, as despite being reinstated, Amazon couldn’t remove the black mark on my metrics, because the infringement claim itself hadn’t been withdrawn.
Naturally, this concerned me because I knew it was going to have a negative effect on my performance metrics, and could affect my sales. So, I made another attempt to get in touch with the company who had made the claim and also sent a counter-notice to them through my lawyer, to try and get them to withdraw it.
Overall, I thought this was all just a genuine mistake.
Two weeks later, on 14th November, we were notified by Amazon about supposedly breaching another trademark. This was a different product, with three variations, and we received policy warnings for counterfeit or trademark infringements against each one of them.
The really strange thing about these claims, was that they were made by a company that exclusively sells home and kitchen products. Let’s call them Acme Kitchen Products. Yet, the product in question was a small, spiky, rubber ball that flashes when you bounce it.
It was a generic, unbranded product, but the Amazon listings did show Acme Kitchen Products as the manufacturer. That was strange. I did some investigating and I couldn’t find the item in Acme’s product range or any evidence that it was trademarked by them.
Now, every time that I get a policy warning I go and fight it. Other sellers might think it’s not worth the trouble, but if something’s not correct, then I think it needs to be put right. When I tried to make contact with the claimant though, I realized that although the notice was submitted on Acme’s behalf, it was actually made by an agent who was acting for them.
I followed procedure, and made contact with both the agency and the company, explaining that if the claim wasn’t withdrawn, we’d be sending a counter-notice. Acme basically told me they had no idea what I was talking about and that it had nothing to do with them.
They continued on this line, even after I sent counter-notices, so once again I was forced to escalate matters to the managing director’s office at Amazon UK. I then heard from a director of Acme, who apologized and explained that they were in Brand Registry and made the claim in error.
Was it really in error? I don’t believe it was. I thought the first notice I received was an honest mistake, but this looked like a deliberate attempt to damage my Amazon account, and I was getting concerned.
After some investigation, I found many other listings on Amazon where the same company – Acme Kitchen Products – had put their name as the manufacturer. These were also completely unrelated products that Acme didn’t make or sell. For example, they were listed (incorrectly) as the manufacturer for the best selling products in five different toy categories.
Around this time, I was also looking into the agent that Acme had used to submit the intellectual property infringement claims. I found that they were not a firm of lawyers, as you might expect, but actually an “internet marketing” agency. Submitting trademark and copyright infringement claims is a strange type of internet marketing, if you ask me.
So, why were they changing the manufacturer on Amazon product listings? I researched it further and put more of the pieces together. It seemed like the same agency were systematically submitting changes to unrelated listings, to drive traffic to Acme’s products. The product listings they were changing were bestsellers, so they knew the traffic would be high, and they could use the manufacturer link to divert traffic from popular products, which had nothing to do with them, to their own pages.
I tried to tell Amazon about this, but they weren’t really interested and told me that I’d already been reinstated and didn’t need to worry about it.
Negative feedback begins
I was successful in getting all the notices of infringement overturned, and could continue selling the affected products. Black marks remained on my account, because the submitters were refusing to withdraw their claims, which was frustrating but didn’t have a big impact on sales. But, only a couple of weeks later, a new kind of dirty tricks campaign began.
On November 30th, I started getting negative feedback on my selling account. From experience, I could tell there was something malicious going on. For a start, customers normally email us when they have an issue rather than just leaving feedback out of the blue. The second factor that rang alarm bells was that the two pieces of feedback had been left within just five minutes of each other, and at a strange time of day – 5:40 and 5:45 in the morning.
We have always regularly checked our feedback and every time we get negative reviews we look into it, to try and find out what the problem was. This way, if it turns out that we did nothing wrong, or that the buyer simply didn’t understand how to use Amazon, we can appeal and ask for it to be removed.
This time was no different, so we followed our normal process and started investigating the feedback.
The first order
We started reviewing the first order that the feedback related to, and our suspicions were raised further by the telephone number the buyer had entered. It was obviously invalid, along the lines of “123123123”. Customers normally enter a genuine phone number to help ensure the courier can deliver their order, so a fake number is unusual.
I was, however, able to find a working phone number for the recipient, using a directory inquiry service. The person who ordered this particular item had it delivered to a different name and address, as you would for a gift. When I eventually spoke to the recipient, they told me that they had the item, but they had never ordered it, didn’t know the person who had, and were sorry that they hadn’t told anyone or returned the item.
This person had received several items they had not ordered, but didn’t know what to do about it, and were concerned they would be accused of stealing if they did tell someone. The review claiming to be from them had read: “Received damaged item, change it asap”, so I asked them what condition the item was in when they received it. They said it was perfect.
Clearly, the person who ordered this item had no connection with the person who received it. It was a “ghost order” made for the sole purpose of leaving fake negative feedback, and the recipient’s identity had been used repeatedly to attack different sellers.
The second order
I now strongly suspected that I was being deliberately targeted. I looked into the second negative review, which had read: “How can I rate as no item delivered yet!”.
Everything pointed in the direction of this review being malicious. It had a similar fake phone number, and Royal Mail’s new 2D barcode tracking said that the package had actually been delivered successfully.
Some more research uncovered that the named recipient used to live at the delivery address, but had moved house years ago. So the attacker wasn’t only using ghost orders, sent to people with no connection to them, they were also ordering products to people’s old addresses and then claiming the items never arrived.
It would be hard to get a working phone number with only the name of a former occupant, so I couldn’t take this one any further.
Where was this coming from?
I wanted to know who was behind this negative feedback. I guessed that the “online marketing” agency who submitted the false infringement claims could have something to do with it. Perhaps feedback manipulation was another service on their list of dirty tricks?
I started to look into them, and through company registration and trademark records I discovered that they actually sold on Amazon themselves – the same company details were on an active Amazon seller account. That was a surprise, but in itself didn’t prove they were connected to the negative feedback.
But when I looked at the feedback they had received, there was positive feedback from the same two buyers who had left me negative feedback.
It was pretty clear now that the same agency was behind:
- False claims of intellectual property infringement against me
- Orders placed using fake identities so they could give me negative feedback
- Fake positive feedback submitted for their own selling account
20 bad orders in one day?
By now I was really upset. I took it personally that I was being targeted, and this wasn’t helped by two more malicious feedback comments being received on 4th and 5th December.
I started looking into these four orders, and noticed that all of them had originally been placed on the same day – 22nd November.
When I went through my sales for that day, I found a total of 20 suspicious orders, all with the same characteristics.
The first, as I mentioned before, is an invalid phone number along the lines of “111222111”. The second was the type of products they were buying. They were always cheap products, never worth more than £4.00, and they were usually products that had been popular, but weren’t selling well anymore.
The buying pattern also stood out, as these orders were made quite early in the morning and within a few minutes of each other. For example, the first order would be made at 8:10 and followed by orders at 8:15 and 8:20. All the suspicious orders were made in batches close together like this.
To top it off, most of the named recipients on these orders had also left positive feedback for the Amazon seller account connected to the agency.
Armed with this evidence, I emailed the managing director’s office at Amazon UK to explain my situation and the fact that I was clearly being targeted. I even told them that based on the characteristics that all the orders shared, I could predict which one would give rise to negative feedback next (and I was correct!).
While emails went back and forth between Amazon and myself, the negative feedback was beginning to push my metrics down, and I was no longer winning the Boy Box. In fact, my sales had fallen almost 50% as a result. So, with no end in sight, I ramped up my emails to Amazon and, I will admit, I lost my temper with them.
On 12th December, when I tried to access my seller account, I found that I had been suspended. When the notification email came through later that evening, it said I had been suspended for two reasons: selling inauthentic products and for violating Amazon’s code of conduct.
I didn’t communicate professionally in all of my emails to Amazon, and I can see that does violate the code of conduct, but I think it was understandable given the situation. However, I do regret it.
What I can say categorically is that I have never sold a fake product. All the infringement notices I received were overturned, and I sent invoices to prove the authenticity of our products. Amazon accepted all of those.
We weren’t successful, however, in getting all the negative feedback removed. Having researched the orders, the pattern of the attack was very clear, but Amazon did not accept my evidence.
Being suspended has had a considerable impact on the business, and affected our cash flow severely. We are no longer able to sell on Amazon, and had to remove our stock from FBA at a cost of £5000. Some of that stock was then lost or damaged in transit. With no sales coming in, we were also asked to repay our Amazon Loan of £9000 in full.
We appointed an Amazon consultant to help us get reinstated, but it has been almost two months since we were suspended, and have had no success so far. To add insult to injury, negative feedback is still coming in from those twenty malicious orders placed on 22nd November.
Despite this saga, I’m not angry with Amazon. I don’t see it as their fault. My anger is directed at the “online marketing agency” that targeted my account and tried to ruin my business. After all, it wasn’t Amazon that indulged in black practices – it was the agency.
In one way, we are lucky. We also sell on eBay, and have started selling our private label product direct to retailers. Without these sides to our business, I’m certain that we would have gone bankrupt.
Many sellers won’t be so fortunate. If these immoral characters can have such a big impact on my business, despite a thorough investigation, what impact are they having on other sellers? Some businesses make most, or even all, of their sales through Amazon, and would not survive an attack like the one I experienced.
I’m certain that there are sellers being taken down this way on a daily basis. Some won’t ever realize just how ruthlessly they were being targeted. Their businesses will go under, and their personal lives will suffer.
Business is hard even when it’s played fairly, we know that, but being forced out by dirty tricks is not part of the game, and we should not put up with it.
This post was by Mike Young with Alex Knight. Mike is an online seller on Amazon and eBay based in London, England.