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Some Amazon sellers pay $ 10,000 a month to cheat their way to the top of the market

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Zak Tebbal for BuzzFeed News

For millions third-party sellers in the Amazon market, maintaining a successful business is a constant battle for the search results to be ranked well, product reviews to be positive, and follow Amazon when it publishes its own versions of the best-selling products to sellers. This intense competition has led to the emergence of a secretive and lucrative black market, in which agents peddle "black hat" type services, sometimes obtained by bribing Amazon employees, supposed to give market sellers have an advantage over their competitors, according to documents obtained by BuzzFeed News.

The most prominent black helmet companies for American Amazon sellers offer ways to manipulate Amazon's filing system to promote products, protect accounts from disciplinary actions, and crush competitors. Sometimes, these black hat companies bribe Amazon employees to Amazon companies to flee information from the company's wiki pages and company reports, which they then resell to market vendors at local companies. very high prices. A Black Hat company charges up to $ 10,000 per month to help Amazon sellers rank at the top of product search results. Other tactics used to promote vendor products include removing negative reviews of product pages and exploiting technical flaws on the Amazon site to improve overall product sales rankings. These services make it more difficult for Amazon vendors who respect the terms of service of the company success in the market, and vendors who rely on these tactics mislead customers and undermine confidence in Amazon's products.

"The extent to which vendors use the system and the amount of resources they devote to doing so is a testament to how Amazon's recommendation and ranking algorithms shape consumption," said Renee DiResta, director of research at New Knowledge cybersecurity company, told BuzzFeed News. "While Amazon reiterates that" even a fake review is too much, "it remains the case that the manipulative tactics of dishonest salespeople are causing honest business owners to fear they can not remain competitive. And when the manipulation succeeds, it is the customers of Amazon who are the victims. "

"When the manipulation succeeds, it is the customers of Amazon that are the victims."

This black-hat economy still escapes Amazon's detection, despite the company's efforts to better fight against fraud on his site. Although buyers tend to trust Amazon, the site has long struggled to manage scams on his market, which includes fake journal rings organized secret and rapid enrichment schemes this scam on thousands of dollars. Some third-party sellers of Amazon told BuzzFeed News that the use of black hat tactics has become so prevalent that when a salesman is banned for the use of these methods, another seller doing the same thing appears in their place.

Amazon declined to comment on the black hat consulting companies named in this story, but she told BuzzFeed News that these "bad actors are a fraction of the activity" on the site.

The rise of Black Hat consultants comes as the Amazon market continues to become a more important part of its retail business. Amazon's third-party sellers now account for 58% of total platform sales, at $ 160 billion, compared to $ 117 billion for the company's retail business, according to to the CEO of Amazon, Jeff Bezos. But as this third-party market grows, so does the fierce competition among its millions of vendors around the world.

Davide Nicolucci, Founder and Director of the Amazon Marketing Consulting Firm Growth Hack, criticized tactical black hat on Amazon. He told BuzzFeed News that the market had become so competitive and bumpy that some sellers felt compelled to break the rules and use these tactics.

"Amazon is so slow to react to the cases, when Amazon solves your problem, you lost so much money that you might as well make black cap," he said. "It's crazy, it's a war.

"It's crazy, it's a war.

While Amazon has made efforts to control the manipulation of its market, black hat consultants continue to thrive, hiding largely in plain sight. A simple search on "super URL" on YouTube offers dozens of tutorials explaining how to manipulate Amazon's ranking system by writing a few words in a product URL, which allows the algorithm to make believe that real buyers find a specific item through popular searches to their baskets and wish lists. Amazon's Black Hat consultants speak frequently at Amazon vendor conferences and events, and some run their own private groups on Facebook, where most Amazon sellers connect with each other. For sellers, buying Black Hat services can be as simple as sending a message on Facebook or attending an online webinar.

AmzPandora, a site that markets Black Hat services to Amazon sellers, offers customers a menu of services ranging from $ 1 for a single product test to $ 10,000 to restore a suspended account, according to documents obtained by BuzzFeed News. The site AmzPandora.com disappeared after BuzzFeed News contacted the site's owner, a China-based consultant, John Zhu, who operates another black-hat tactical site called ClockWorks.deepbrief.net. This site has also been taken offline before publication.

AmzPandora's services ranged from small tasks to more ambitious strategies to rank a product higher using Amazon's algorithm. While online, he proposed pinging $ 500 from Amazon's internal contacts for information on why a seller's account was suspended, as well as tips on way of appealing the suspension. For $ 300, the company has promised to remove an unspecified number of negative comments on a list within three to seven days, which would help increase the number of stars of a product. For $ 1.50, the company offered a service to trick the algorithm into believing that a product had been added to a customer's shopping cart or wish list by writing a great URL. And for $ 1,200, an Amazon seller could buy a "frequently purchased together" spot on another market product page that would appear for two weeks. AmzPandora had promised a 10% increase in sales. Amazon declined to specifically comment on AmzPandora and the services offered to sellers in the market.

If you have any information or advice, you can contact this reporter through the Signal Online Conversation Service at 559 360-2419. You can also send an email to [email protected]

screen capture / Amazon.com

An example of the location of the "Frequently Frequently Together" item on a list of products that is not associated with the black hat tactics.

Another service offered by AmzPandora at a price of $ 550, known as a "No Seller Check", would provide sellers with suspended accounts with information about the reasons for the suspension, Zhu told BuzzFeed News in March on Skype. He said the service was "not working now," but his company sometimes paid Amazon officials $ 2,500 to "help us check."

Zhu told BuzzFeed News that many services offered by AmzPandora were simply removing publicly available data, such as email addresses and phone numbers from customers, Facebook and Google. He added that his offers did not violate Amazon's terms of service and that "that's what everyone does." Zhu finally hung up and refused to answer several attempts to get additional comments.

"The bad actors who offer these sneaky services and those who buy them are a blatant disregard for our community, our policies and, in some cases, the law, and do not reflect the thriving community of honest entrepreneurs who make up the great most of our salespeople, "Amazon said in a statement," We will continue to fight them, make their cover up more difficult and work with law enforcement to hold them accountable for their actions by withholding funds and by applying civil and criminal sanctions ".

Although Mr. Zhu stated that his company was not breaking the rules, during the recording of a BuzzFeed News customer seminar on the ClockWorks program, he admitted that he was using the information collected directly from Amazon employees. He advised the participants to "stay discreet" and warned that they "do not want to let anything filter, so these tactics are no longer available".

"I do not make that kind of thing. It's internal Amazon. "

During the seminar, Zhu said that he could pull an analysis of a list of products directly from Amazon "internal", which gives the seller a glimpse of its competitors. In a sample report presented by Zhu in a PowerPoint presentation, he explained how Amazon's internal product ranking system works, claiming that it was based on recurring purchases, searches, and page views.

"I do not make that kind of thing," he said during the seminar. "It's from internal Amazon."

Amazon told BuzzFeed News that it has "sophisticated systems to limit and audit access to information" and that any employee who violates his code of ethics may face disciplinary penalties, dismissals and possible criminal and penal sanctions. He also said that he was taking action against sellers who pay for internal information; penalties include termination of their sales accounts, deletion of revisions, withholding of funds and legal action. Amazon declined to comment on whether the information presented by Zhu at the seminar is only available to internal employees and how it was obtained.

Zhu's seminar consisted of a two-hour presentation on the benefits and tips of a black hat that a salesman can use and use with a "Cobra Account" available through ClockWorks. During the interview, Zhu explained at the many stages of the hijacking of a list by its original owner. He explained how to manipulate the market to avoid the $ 150 fee in order to list a "dazzling deal" and he explained how sellers can be caught by greed. "Vine Voice" review on their products, which is a designation that buyers tend to trust. He also explained how sellers can sabotage their competitors by creating fake buyers accounts with black market credit cards to write negative reviews and "sending flooded emails" to sellers via Amazon's email system. with terms such as "counterfeit", "fired", "broken", "counterfeit goods" and "poison". A PowerPoint slide of the presentation indicates that the targeted account can be blocked or terminated "for sure". Zhu also said at the seminar that, thanks to the "Cobra account," his company offers, an Amazon salesperson can create a customer profile not found to write reviews, as well as positive or negative reviews for his own products and those of his competitors.

Johannes Eisele / Getty Images

Amazon stepped up its fight against fraud and illicit tactics on its market in recent years which includes a repression in December on employees taking bribes to flee customer information. But its market is so vast that attempts to fight the bad actors are added to a part of whack-a-mole.

As recently as March 21, AmzPandora was promoting a service to get a customer's email address for sellers, according to documents obtained by BuzzFeed News. Amazon prohibits third-party vendors from accessing their customers' email addresses or phone numbers, as this limits communication with Amazon's email system.

Amazon terms of service for sellers specifically prohibit "Any attempt to manipulate the rank of sales". This includes accepting fake orders, placing orders on your own products and paying buyers for the purchase of products. It also prohibits sellers from creating multiple vendor accounts, writing reviews on their own products, and simulating customer traffic to a product – something companies like Black Hat like AmzPandora are offering customers to do.

screen capture / Black Hat Tech

Although the black hats market is secret, there are few barriers to entry for buyers. A site called Black Hat Tech – blackhattech.asinspy.net – allows interested sellers to order Black Hat services as simply as placing an order on WeChat. The company offers services like "remove negative reviews" for 1,500 Chinese yuan (about 223 US dollars) and "manipulate criticism (and) manipulate sales rankings" at a cost of 41,000 Chinese yuan (about $ 6,100) Americans). The company declined to comment on BuzzFeed News.

Amazon told BuzzFeed News that it relies on teams of investigators, automated technologies, and machine learning technologies to prevent and detect large-scale inauthentic criticism and take action against bad actors in the field. origin of this abuse. His team is also working with social media sites to stop inauthentic critics classified in private groups, he added.

"Amazon invests significant resources to protect the integrity of reviews in our store because we know that customers appreciate the knowledge and experiences shared by other customers," said Amazon. "Even an inauthentic criticism is one too many. We have clear participation guidelines for reviewers and sales partners and we suspend, prohibit and sue those who break our rules. "

"It's not uncommon for me to be on the phone with an adult man who is crying because he has lost all his belongings."

A Black Hat consultant, who asked to remain anonymous, told BuzzFeed News that he could restore the account of a suspended Amazon seller by pulling strings with his employees at Amazon. He said that he sometimes reimbursed those employees, who are based outside of the United States, with favors like help with their US immigration papers. He is asking sellers for about US $ 2,000 to reinstate an account suspended due to slow shipping rates or complaints from similar customers. The consultant even has a solution for the surprised sellers selling counterfeits. Amazon took a hard line against. The refurbishment of a suspended counterfeit account can cost between $ 4,000 and $ 4,500.

The consultant stated that he knew that this service was against the rules, but he considered that the third-party sellers were David faced with Amazon's Goliath.

"It's not uncommon for me to be on the phone with a crying adult man because he has lost all his activity," an Amazon consultant told BuzzFeed News, who asked to remain anonymous.

screen capture / Mafia seller

Another site, called Seller Mafia, is run by a Shenzhen-based consultant, Howard Thai, who introduced himself as the "Amazon teacher". Its most expensive product is a system called "stealth filing system," which allows appear in the query results when a customer on Amazon searches for competing words on his product, according to documents obtained by BuzzFeed News. For $ 2,000, Mafia Seller promises to rank three highly competitive keywords for a customer product, which manipulates keyword settings in an Amazon URL to create a relationship between a product and a keyword. To do this, the company can write an Amazon URL that includes the product and the customer's keyword, and then ask robots or paid employees to click on the link. This tells the algorithm that people looking for "protein powder", for example, click on the customer's product. Thai refused to confirm that his company offered this service, but Seller Mafia presents it on a list of services offered to customers. On SellerMafia.com, a seller can also purchase a second "stealth seller" account for $ 1,000, which allows him to use a second account in case his first account is "hit by a competitor," said Thai to BuzzFeed News.

For only $ 5, the seller Mafia "Sweep" an account, that is, when a product page is deprived of all information, except for its reviews, and listed with a new product, which is contrary to the rules of the market d & # 39; Amazon. This allows the seller to inherit a positive star rating and a high ranking for a product without ever selling anything. Thus, a customer can see a four-star product as a jade roll, but the list has had previous lives as a garage opener and a stepladder to earn that average four-star rating. This trick focuses on consumers who do not always run through all the magazines and risk missing the fact that a list of products has already been intended for a completely different article.

In an undated marketing video about vendor mafia available to connected customers, obtained by BuzzFeed News, a Shenzhen-based vendor, Kevin Zhang, said his product had pushed Amazon's ranks up to become the # 1 seller. 39, one of the top 10 products in the category after consulting with Thai.

"Everyone does it. People must survive.

"Before using the brushing system, we had never imagined being in the top 10 of Amazon," he said in the video. "At the moment, we are number nine and the rise is still in progress." Amazon declined to comment directly on Seller Mafia's services.

Some sellers who use black hat tactics are reluctant to do so, but do not know how to deal with their competitors. A salesman who uses Howard Thai's suite of services on SellerMafia.com and asked to remain anonymous told BuzzFeed News that he has been using different versions of black hat techniques since 2014, when the Amazon market was flooded with messy sales tactics. This was the case when he noticed that he had noticed that people were using Amazon's email system to send emails to buyers offering free products in exchange for exams.

"Everyone is doing it," he said. "People have to survive, so they will of course do it. … They say, "Why the hell are I spending money on ads and I'm not on the front page?"

Matthew Horwood / Getty Images

View of an Amazon distribution center.

The seller said that without the seller's mafia, he would barely make money from his sales because the cost of advertising on Amazon is so high. He said that he spends about 30% of his sales on advertising. He currently makes net profits of about $ 3 million a year, but before using Thai's services, he earned $ 73,000 a year.

"They bother me," he said of vendors who rely on black hat tactics on Amazon. "You always want to do things the right way."

Thai's range of services extends beyond the website. He also runs classes where he charges vendors $ 10,000 for them to learn black hat techniques for "educational purposes," he told BuzzFeed News. At a recent two-day seminar in New York, about thirty people gathered in a small conference room of the Times Square Renaissance Hotel to learn Thai.

Thai told BuzzFeed News that the seminars do not teach sellers how to cheat. He said that he was simply teaching "what people are doing there in China".

"We're not all bad-we're doing a lot of white," he added. It also means that it teaches sellers tips that do not violate Amazon's rules.

But at a free webinar on March 28, Thai organized an upcoming training in Shenzhen, China, and stressed the unauthorized nature of its services. He promised "Amazon's most controversial secrets will be handed to you on a silver platter" and "unveil the EXACT strategies that have made Chinese sellers met with resounding success on many occasions on Amazon." ". Regardless of his argument, Thai assured that participants "will receive unfair competitive information about your competitors so you can control them".

Chris McCabe, a former Amazon market investigator who now runs a high-end sales consulting firm, ecommerceChris.com, told BuzzFeed News that Black Hat consultants and salespeople who manipulate the company's sales rank and are trying to undermine other vendors are experts in avoiding Amazon control teams, despite the company's efforts to to follow.

"Targeted vendors have to constantly use defensive tactics via a trademark registry and reporting to policy teams to counter abuse, which hinders brand development and revenue growth," he said.

The US-based seller, which depends on Seller Mafia for its business, said it was doubtful that Amazon could prevent users from using new black hat techniques at the same time. to come up.

"They will always understand," he says. "Whatever machine is made, there is a human to manipulate it." ●

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