Defrauding the Competition

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 26: People opposed to Amazon's plan to locate a headquarters in New York City hold a protest inside of an Amazon book store on 34th. St. on November 26, 2018 in New York City. Amazon recently announced that New York City will become one of two locations that will house Amazon's second North American headquarters, known as HQ2. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

At The Verge, Josh Dzieza describes how lucrative placements within coveted search ranks on Amazon’s Marketplace are incentivizing sellers to do whatever it takes to undercut each other — not by competing on price or quality, but by creatively sabotaging the listing above theirs.

Once sellers find themselves trapped in Amazon’s labyrinthine court of appeals after a surprise suspension, guilt is often the only acceptable plea before reinstatement. And sometimes, the only person left to contact is the richest man in the world.

And what’s a seller to do when they end up in Amazon court? They can turn to someone like Cynthia Stine, who is part of a growing industry of consultants who help sellers navigate the ruthless world of Marketplace and the byzantine rules by which Amazon governs it. They are like lawyers, only their legal code is the Amazon Terms of Service, their court is a secretive and semiautomated corporate bureaucracy, and their jurisdiction is an algorithmically policed global bazaar rife with devious plots to hijack listings for novelty socks and plastic watches. People like Stine are fixers, guides to the cutthroat land of Amazon, who are willing to give their assistance to the desperate — for a price, of course.

In the intensely competitive world that Amazon has built, any efforts by the company to clean up seller misbehavior are quickly turned into weapons for sellers to wield against each other. The crackdown on fake five-star reviews begat the five-star bomb Plansky was hit with. After hoverboards started exploding in 2016 and Amazon became more vigilant about safety claims, sellers started buying each other’s products, setting them on fire, and posting photos in the reviews. The scheme that ensnared Harris made use of a program called “brand registry,” which Amazon overhauled last year to give companies more effective ways to guard against counterfeiting. Any seller with a trademark can register their brand with Amazon and get tools for quickly taking down sellers they claim are infringing.

“All of a sudden, brands could take people down like that,” Stine says, snapping her fingers. “I don’t know why Amazon naïvely thought that that was all they would do, that people wouldn’t use it to take down their enemies.”

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