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Behind the curtains at Amazon: Shadow industry of black hat consultants alter listings for a fee

“We’re selling on Amazon, paying for fulfillment and advertising — and now have to pay Amazon to fix their own abuse,” said one seller.
Inside An Amazon Inc. Fulfilment Center On Prime Day
An Amazon fulfillment center in Koblenz, Germany.Krisztian Bocsi / Bloomberg via Getty Images

After four years of selling massagers on Amazon, one seller noticed in March 2019 that his most popular product had split into two separate listings, one for each color. He contacted Amazon, who resolved the issue. But, within a day, the product listing split again.

“I was very surprised,” Michael, who asked that only his first name be used out of fear of retaliation, told NBC News. “I was thinking that Amazon basically has some checks for these kinds of situations.”

For months, he woke up to new issues on his top-selling massager product. One day the bullet points on the products changed. Another day the images changed. At one point, the product was recategorized as an adult toy. Each time, he reached out to Amazon to resolve the issue. In July 2019, Amazon told him the product had been suspended because it was categorized as a prohibited medical device. But Michael had made no such changes to the listing.

“No one would make changes like this unless it was an anticompetitive attack,” said Chris McCabe, a former marketplace investigator with Amazon who now runs an ethical seller consulting firm.

What happened to Michael’s listing falls along a spectrum of shady practices offered by a cottage industry of so-called black hat sellers who offer to tamper with listings for a hefty fee, according to McCabe, who helped Michael resolve issues with the listing.

“Over the last year, I’ve been contacted by sellers much more frequently about this who can’t explain — and we can’t explain — how it happened,” McCabe said.

Amazon told NBC News that “bad actors that attempt to abuse our systems make up a tiny fraction of activity on our site.”

“If a seller has a concern, we encourage them to reach out to us so we can investigate and take appropriate action, as we’ve done in this case,” it added.

Amazon’s long battle to clear its shopping site of bad actors came to a head last month with the federal indictment in Washington state of six people charged with conspiracy for allegedly sabotaging competing product listings and bribing internal company employees to remove negative reviews, leak information about the company’s product review algorithm and reinstate suspended accounts to gain an upper hand on the sprawling marketplace.

The group of individuals — Ed Rosenberg, Joseph Nilsen, Kristen Leccese, Hadis Nuhanovic, Rohit Kadimisetty and Nishad Kunju — allegedly paid more than $100,000 in commercial bribes to Amazon employees and contractors that resulted in more than $100 million in sales for some sellers, according to the indictment. Kadimisetty and Kunju are the only Amazon employees or contractors named in the indictment. Kadimisetty ended his employment with Amazon in December 2015 and Kunju was terminated by the company in August 2018.

After Kunju was fired, he allegedly started working with Nilsen in December 2018 to reinstate an account suspended for “safety issues” for about $5,700 that was wired to a bank account in India and transferred to an Amazon insider, according to the indictment. That same month an unnamed consultant allegedly paid Nilsen, Leccese and Kunju about $25,000 to flood the listing of a client’s competitor with fake negative reviews that resulted in a product suspension. At another point in February 2018, Rosenberg allegedly sent Nilsen a suitcase with $8,000 in cash via Uber to settle a debt for leaking internal information on Amazon seller accounts and work to lift warehouse storage hazmat limits for a seller.

Attorneys for Nilsen, Leccese, Nuhanovic, Kunju and Kadimisetty, who was arrested last week in California, could not be reached for comment. Peter Offenbecher, an attorney representing Rosenberg, told NBC News that “Ed Rosenberg is a forthright and honorable person,” and added that they would respond to the charges in court.

"There is no place for fraud at Amazon and we will continue to pursue all measures to protect our store and hold bad actors accountable,” Amazon said.

Amazon said in a statement that it has mechanisms in place to detect suspicious behavior by sellers or employees and teams to investigate and stop prohibited activity. It added that “there is no place for fraud at Amazon and we will continue to pursue all measures to protect our store and hold bad actors accountable.”

The indictment exposed what has long been an open secret among sellers on Amazon’s third-party marketplace — a flourishing industry of so-called black hat consultants who resort to shady techniques to pummel competition, artificially boost certain listings or bypass legitimate paths to account reinstatement for a high fee, according to several sellers on Amazon and consultants to third-party businesses.

Amazon’s third-party marketplace, which makes up 53 percent of the company’s e-commerce sales, has been flooded over the last several years with bad actors who have made a business out of providing quick solutions to suspensions or negative feedback, Cynthia Stine, president of the Amazon seller service company eGrowth Partners, told NBC News.

While Amazon makes setting up a business on its marketplace relatively accessible, its constantly changing terms of service, language and fulfillment rules mean that sellers are often at risk of breaking a rule and losing their account, said Stine. For many sellers, their Amazon business is their livelihood — which means losing business for even a day while they appeal the company’s decision can be devastating.

“Amazon sometimes spends days or weeks to get back to a seller — meanwhile, sellers are losing money and maybe they’re owed a big payment and they don’t have it so the business is hurting and they're laying people off,” she said. “That is part of the environment that leads people to want to push the ‘easy’ button.”

Amazon told NBC News that last year more than 90 percent of seller emails received a response from the company within 12 hours, while 96 percent of phone calls and 90 percent of chats were answered within 90 seconds. It said more than 85 percent of all seller issues are resolved in under 24 hours.

Many consultants offering black hat services are hiding in plain sight on Facebook Groups. One Facebook group with 1,800 members called “Amazon FBA Advanced Marketing” is run by Trista Lee based in Changsha, China. The group says its mission “is to solve seller’s problem with the most advanced methods.”

Every few weeks, Lee advertised new services that she offers sellers, along with a Google Doc with a price list, according to an NBC News review of the document. In August, Lee posted an announcement that she is now offering buyer reviews for $15 to $18 per review and advertising reports on any competitors’ business, which is information not available to third-party sellers through legitimate means. In July, she announced a new offer to reinstate accounts within three to seven days. In May she told the group she can remove negative reviews with a 40 percent success rate.

“Can amazon detect such outside interference?” a seller wrote in a comment. “This could compromise your account.”

“We will operate with bypassing Amazon and your store, so it's safe,” Lee wrote.

Lee’s advertised services did not include anticompetitive attacks such as the ones that hammered Michael’s business. But in a Google Doc called “AMZMarketing - Trista,” Lee includes an offer to buy internal Amazon sales reports on any seller for $130. Another service to increase a product’s number of five-star reviews costs $20 a review. For $70 to $140, a seller can pay Lee to vote down negative reviews to disappear from the first page, according to the document.

For anywhere between $70 and $140, a seller can pay to vote down negative reviews to disappear from the first page of a product listing.

Trista Lee did not respond to NBC News’ request for comment. The posts advertising black hat services in the Facebook Group were removed after Lee was approached for comment.

Mel Ethan Cutler, who sells throat and voice supplements on Amazon through his business, Vocaleasy, told NBC News he’s been tempted to use such services in his seven years selling on the platform. The coronavirus crippled his retail business as music stores closed their doors, leaving him to rely on his Amazon business for income.

In August, Amazon suspended five of Cutler’s products because they made “prohibited disease claims about pathogens such as bacteria, fungus, viruses, yeast, protozoa, or microbes,” according to Amazon. Cutler, who is a member of the Amazon FBA Advanced Marketing Facebook group, said he was tempted to use black hat services but decided against it in the end. After almost two months, four out of five of the products are now back online, he said.

“Basically you’re guilty until you’re proven innocent,” he said.

Amazon told NBC News that the products were reinstated after Cutler complied with its policy and responded to its warning notice to address the violation.

But some of the darker tactics wielded by black hat sellers and detailed in the Washington state indictment are less publicly accessible on Facebook and becoming more common on Amazon’s platform, said McCabe.

“It’s trending in the wrong direction,” he said. “Every day I’m getting another email from a seller about page takedowns, images erased and ‘all my bullets have changed and all of my pictures are of superheroes.’”

But with more than 2 million sellers on the marketplace, Stine with eGrowth Partners said she believes black hat consultants are a small minority of the community — but do a disproportionate amount of damage. The indictment suggests Amazon is now taking long overdue action, she said.

“This indictment is good news for sellers because it shows Amazon is listening,” Stine said. “It makes me hopeful that when we go to Amazon in the future, they’ll be more likely to believe us.”

Amazon has continued its push to root out bad actors among its ranks. The Department of Justice filed wire fraud and identity theft charges against another Amazon employee on Friday after he was reported by the company in July for falsely issuing refunds on products.

Michael, who was victim to a number of attacks on his massager listing in 2019, now pays about $5,000 a month for a seller account manager through an Amazon initiative called Marketplace Growth. Through the program, Amazon offers qualified sellers a personal account manager who is required to respond to emails within 24 hours, and a more robust listing protection.

“We’re selling on Amazon, paying for fulfillment and advertising and now have to pay Amazon to fix problems on their platform,” Michael said.