Amazon’s crusade against fake and incentivized reviews is going international.
The e-commerce giant is expanding its efforts to shut down fake review brokers, filing its first criminal complaint in Italy and its first lawsuit in Spain.
These two legal proceedings, plus 10 new recent lawsuits in the U.S., target bad actors that operate more than 11,000 websites and social media groups attempting to orchestrate fake reviews on Amazon and other stores in exchange for money or free products.
Amazon has sought to turn around its reputation of being a haven for both fake reviews and counterfeit products in recent years, recently filing suits against more than 10,000 Facebook group administrators for peddling incentivized reviews, before taking more legal action against Trey King, the CEO of Auction Sentinel, a business that sells “verified” seller feedback.
Last year, the online retailer banned more than 600 Chinese brands from its marketplace for knowingly and repeatedly violating review policies.
“Holding bad actors accountable through litigation and criminal referrals is one of many important ways that we protect customers so they can shop with confidence,” said Dharmesh Mehta, Amazon’s vice president of selling partner services. “In addition to continuing to advance our robust detection and prevention of fake reviews in our store, Amazon will remain relentless in identifying and enforcing against bad actors that attempt to engage in review abuse. There is no place for fake reviews on Amazon or anywhere else in the industry.”
Amazon’s first criminal complaint in Europe targets an unnamed “high-profile broker” in Italy selling fake reviews. The defendant is said to have built a network of individuals who are willing to buy products on Amazon and post five-star reviews in exchange for a full refund.
In a statement, the tech titan said its decision to seek criminal proceedings in this case signals its seriousness about stopping bad actors who profit by misleading customers and selling partners. Individuals convicted of this type of crime in Italy may be subject to imprisonment and fines.
Amazon also filed its first civil complaint in Spain against Agencia Reviews, a service that targets sellers and customers of its Spanish e-commerce site and communicates via the instant messaging service Telegram to evade detection. Amazon alleges that the Spanish company fully reimburses customers once they publish a fake five-star review.
More legal action is possible in Europe, with Amazon also sending warning letters to five German websites that were directing visitors to an alleged fake review broker. All five websites have since agreed to stop this activity by signing a cease-and-desist letter, Amazon said.
The company says it has a global team of expert investigators, lawyers, analysts and other specialists to track down fake review brokers, piece together evidence about how they operate, and take legal action against them.
However, Amazon also emphasized the need for collaboration and investment across the industry to stop fake reviews for good, highlighting its partnerships with government agencies, regulatory bodies, and law enforcement to improve detection and increase enforcement action against fake review brokers.
“Amazon will continue to devote significant resources to fighting fake reviews and ensuring customers have a trustworthy shopping experience,” Mehta said. “We continue to improve our proactive controls, invent new technologies and machine learning to detect bad actors, and find new ways to hold them accountable.”
The U.S. lawsuits were filed against websites including: Accfarm, Amazon Bulk Reviews, Amzonreview.com, Auction Sentinel, Bestsoft.website, Buyreviewservice.com, Buytrustpilot.com, Cash Back Base, Climbazon, Iblmarket.com, Seosmmseller.com, Seosmmworld.com, Seozillow.com, Smmseomarket.com, Smmtopreviews.com, TahoeVine, Usarealshop.com, Usaseoshop.com, Usatopsmm.com, Virtual Experts and Worldtopseo.com.
U.K. class action alleges “buy box” favors Amazon’s goods
Like its fight against fake reviews, Amazon’s antitrust affairs tend to be just as bumpy internationally as they are in the U.S.
On Thursday, a class action lawsuit in the U.K. alleged that Amazon has breached competition law and caused millions of customers in the country to pay higher prices for products sold on Amazon.co.uk and the Amazon mobile app by obscuring better-value deals.
Collectively known as the Amazon U.K. Buy Box Claim, anyone who lives in the U.K. and made purchases on Amazon since October 2016 is an eligible member of the claimant class. The claim will seek damages from Amazon estimated around 900 million pounds ($1.01 billion).
An Amazon spokesperson told Sourcing Journal the claim is “without merit.”
“We’re confident that will become clear through the legal process,” the spokesperson said. “Amazon has always focused on supporting the 85,000 businesses that sell their products on our U.K. store, and more than half of all physical product sales on our U.K. store are from independent selling partners. We always work to feature offers that provide customers with low prices and fast delivery.”
Like the claim’s name states, the allegations focus on the “buy box” prominently located on both Amazon’s website and mobile app. The buy box promotes what is presumably a popular product, and allows shoppers to add them to their cart in one click. The inclusion of the box has been heavily criticized in similar antitrust suits carried out in the U.S. and the E.U.
In hopes of settling the E.U. antitrust case without a significant fine, Amazon is amending its marketplace in the region by adding a second buy box on the screen. The new buy box would include a rival product if it differs substantially in price and delivery from the product in the first box, the company said.
Hausfeld & Co LLP, the law firm filing the class action suit against Amazon, alleges the marketplace uses a “secretive and self-favoring algorithm” to ensure that the buy box nearly always features goods sold directly by Amazon itself, or by third-party sellers who pay to use the Fulfilled by Amazon (FBA) business.
The firm also alleged that other sellers who do not pay for Amazon’s fulfillment services, “are nearly always excluded from the buy box.”
“The buy box is designed and presented in a way that effectively prevents millions of consumers from navigating the site to find cheaper offers, or better delivery options, for the same product,” the claim said. “Such manipulation of consumers is a breach of Amazon’s obligation as the dominant marketplace not to distort competition.”
The Competition and Markets Authority, the U.K.’s antitrust watchdog, began investigating Amazon’s business practices in July, including how it sets the criteria for what’s selected as the featured offer.
In accordance with Competition Appeal Tribunal rules, the collective action is being filed on behalf of all potential claimants without them needing to actively opt in to the claim.
“Online shoppers have a right to be treated fairly and to be able to make informed decisions,” said Julie Hunter, the suit’s proposed class representative, in a statement. “This lack of transparency and manipulation of choice is an abuse of consumers’ trust, as well as a raid on their wallets. Amazon occupies an incredibly powerful position in the market, making it impossible for consumers to take individual action. Amazon shouldn’t be allowed to set the rules in its favor and treat consumers unfairly. That is why I am bringing this action.”