Just weeks after suing more than 10,000 Facebook users for peddling incentivized reviews, Amazon took another step toward clamping down on fake feedback this week.
The e-commerce titan filed a lawsuit Tuesday against Trey King, the CEO of Auction Sentinel, a business that sells “verified” seller feedback. King’s company also offers a service helping sellers set up multiple accounts, specifically as a means of undercutting the impact of an Amazon suspension.
According to Amazon’s lawsuit, Auction Sentinel offered sellers four Amazon Feedback packages, starting at $200 for 10 verified reviews and going up to $700 for 100 verified reviews. Though the complaint includes an image of these various packages, Auction Sentinel appears to have removed them from its site. It still offers “feedback services” for Walmart, eBay and Etsy. Instead of listing its various feedback packages, Auction Sentinel’s Amazon page now features a disclaimer.
“Auctionsentinel.com does not sell product reviews,” it reads. “Product reveiws [sic] and feedback are two completely seperate [sic] features of Amazon. Please do not ask us to engage in Product reveiws [sic]. Your request will be refused. Please inquire for feedback only.”
Though closely related, product reviews and seller feedback are two different beasts. The first refers to the reviews customers leave regarding a specific product, while the latter rates the seller and the customer service they provide. Both use a five-star rating system and they both impact Amazon’s internal rankings—it ranks products and sellers separately.
Amazon’s complaint makes numerous references to its product review policies, but its central legal argument focuses on how Auction Sentinel offers seller feedback in exchange for money. A high feedback score, it noted, can encourage customers to purchase from a seller and increase the likelihood Amazon selects its products as “Featured Offers”. Given that a high proportion of negative feedback can result in Amazon restricting a seller’s privileges, fake positive feedback can help sellers evade consequences for otherwise poor customer service, it added.
Per Amazon’s complaint, the Amazon Services Business Solutions Agreement that every seller agrees to incorporates a Seller Code of Conduct. This document forbid attempts to “influence or inflate customers’ ratings, feedback, and reviews,” including by paying for feedback.
Though Auction Sentinel’s feedback packages do not target product reviews, they do attempt to game Amazon’s feedback rating system.
“Are you a drop shipper who can not [sic], for the love of God, stop your accounts from being suspended due to invoice requests?” Auction Sentinel’s site says. “Well, here’s the real solution. Amazon does not hassle sellers for those once your [sic] pass a specific feedback rating on your account.”
The business attempts to distinguish between product reviews and feedback, describing the former as a “front end feature for Amazon Consumers” and the latter as a “backend feature” that sellers need “to avoid suspensions and account holds.” It further claims that Amazon’s policies make it “extremely difficult for sellers to receive feedback.”
“Auction Sentinel does not believe in the minipulation [sic] of product reveiws [sic] and we have never engaged in the sales of product reviews,” Auction Sentinel wrote. “Our goal is not to trick consumners [sic]. Our goal with feedback is to help even the playing feild [sic] for new sellers to compete aged [sic] sellers. To be frank , many older amazon sellers are bullies to new amazon seller stores. They do not like new competition and many times engage in sabatoge [sic] tactics to take out new stores that pop up in their lane.”
According to Amazon, those who purchase a feedback package from Auction Sentinel are provided with a list of inexpensive products and their associated Amazon Standard Identification Numbers. They are then instructed to list some of these items on their page. Though they never stock or ship these items, Auction Sentinel then pretends to purchase the nonexistent products. The business allegedly provides sellers with multiple options for simulating the process of shipping the imaginary items, including by creating fake tracking numbers and mailing empty envelopes. Once the item has “shipped,” Auction Sentinel provides the five-star feedback, boosting the seller’s score, Amazon said.
The e-tailer also contested Auction Sentinel’s seller accounts services. Though the website still lists seller account packages for eBay and Etsy, it appears to have removed those it offered for Amazon. A disclaimer posted to its “Amazon Seller Account Setup Service” page states:
“To avoid confusion ,we do Not sell premade Amazon accounts. This is a Amazon seller account setup service. All stores are made in real time under the consent of the detail owners.”
Auction Sentinel’s Amazon page still lays out Auction Sentinel’s logic for offering its seller account services, including its acknowledgement that “Amazon has policies restricting sellers to only one Amazon seller account per household.” One “way around this” is to create multiple seller accounts that Amazon’s system can’t connect or link to the others using different information for each account and operating them from different “computer setups,” Auction Sentinel said.
The business lists several reasons why someone might want multiple seller accounts, including to have backups in case one account is suspended and “market domination.” “You want to have advantage over competitors, having 10 accounts selling at different price points can snag you all the sales,” it wrote.
“Amazon has always had a unfair practice of suspending sellers a lot for what seems like frivolous reasons,” Auction Sentinel added. “Having multiple Seller stores can split risk of suspension by dividing up your sales into each account. Especially helpful if your sales are massive.”
All of these reasons violate Amazon’s policies, the marketplace said.
In addition to allegedly violating its rules, Amazon claims that Auction Sentinel’s practices undermine consumer trust, tarnishing its brand and causing reputational harm. The lawsuit references a story the Wall Street Journal ran last year regarding fake Amazon reviews. Two days later, it said, it received an inquiry from Sen. Roger Wicker of the Senate Commerce Committee regarding Amazon’s efforts to ensure reviews are authentic.
Auction Sentinel’s account services, it added, can expose customers to sellers who have lost selling privileges for prior “unscrupulous or illegal conduct or poor customer service.” Those exposed to these sellers can lose trust in Amazon, damaging its goodwill and reputation.
Amazon’s lawsuit accuses Auction Sentinel of engaging in “unfair and deceptive acts,” breach of contract, intentional interference with contractual relations and unjust enrichment/restitution. It is seeking a cease and desist enjoining Auction Sentinel from selling or facilitating the sale of Amazon feedback and from offering “stealth account setup” services. It requested information “sufficient to identify” each Amazon feedback and “stealth” selling account Auction Sentinel was paid to create. It also asked that the business be required to disgorge its related profits and pay damages.