Amazon Investigates Employees Leaking Data for Bribes

The following is from September, 2018. PG has no idea why he missed it.

From The Wall Street Journal: Inc. is investigating suspected data leaks and bribes of its employees as it fights to root out fake reviews and other seller scams from its website.

Employees of Amazon, primarily with the aid of intermediaries, are offering internal data and other confidential information that can give an edge to independent merchants selling their products on the site, according to sellers who have been offered and purchased the data, as well as brokers who provide it and people familiar with internal investigations.

The practice, which violates company policy, is particularly pronounced in China, according to some of these people, because the number of sellers there is skyrocketing. As well, Amazon employees in China have relatively small salaries, which might embolden them to take risks.

In exchange for payments ranging from about $80 to more than $2,000, brokers for Amazon employees in Shenzhen are offering internal sales metrics and reviewers’ email addresses, as well as a service to delete negative reviews and restore banned Amazon accounts, the people said.

Amazon is investigating a number of incidents involving employees, including some in the U.S., suspected of accepting these bribes, according to people familiar with the matter. An internal probe began in May after Eric Broussard, Amazon’s vice president who oversees international marketplaces, was tipped off to the practice in China, people familiar with the matter said. Amazon has since shuffled the roles of key executives in China to try to root out the bribery, one of these people said.

Internally, Amazon has worked hard to stop sellers from gaming its systems, but it can sometimes be a Whac-A-Mole situation as swindlers get more creative, according to former Amazon executives and other people familiar with the company’s thinking.

. . . .

Potential internal corruption is the latest challenge Amazon faces in upholding its platform’s integrity, after well-publicized problems with fake product reviews and counterfeit merchandise.

For the past few years, Amazon has recruited independent merchants to sell their products on the company’s marketplace, something that both widens the variety of products offered on the site and reduces prices. More than two million merchants now sell an estimated 550 million products on Amazon, representing more than half of all units sold on the site and contributing an estimated $200 billion in gross merchandise volume last year, according to FactSet estimates.

. . . .

One of the newer ways some sellers are seeking an edge over rivals is getting access to Amazon employees.

Some midlevel Amazon employees in China have the power to delete negative reviews and can access the email addresses of users who have purchased specific items and written reviews of them, said a person who has facilitated illicit transactions between third-party sellers and Amazon employees in southern China.

Brokers are the middlemen between Amazon employees and sellers who want negative reviews deleted or access to internal sales information. Brokers search for Amazon employees on Chinese messaging platform WeChat and send messages asking them if they would like to provide these services in exchange for cash, according to brokers and sellers who say they have been approached by brokers.

The going rate for having an Amazon employee delete negative reviews is about $300 per review, according to people familiar with the practice. Brokers usually demand a five-review minimum, meaning that sellers typically must pay at least $1,500 for the service, the people said.

For less money, sellers can buy from Amazon employees the email addresses of customers who write reviews. This gives sellers the opportunity to reach out to customers who have written negative reviews and try to persuade them to adjust or delete those reviews, sometimes by offering free or discounted products, the sellers and brokers say. Amazon prohibits this practice.

Brokers also offer proprietary sales information, such as the keywords customers typically use to search for items on Amazon’s site, sales volume and other statistics about buyers’ habits, according to the people. Having this information enables Amazon sellers to craft product descriptions and advertisements in a way that boosts their rankings in search results. Amazon doesn’t disclose this type of detailed sales information.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

In PG’s personal shopping on Amazon (and before he saw the OP), he has become less and less likely to purchase products from Chinese sellers because of the poor reputation some have for honesty, accurate product descriptions and substandard customer service.

He realizes this practice is unfair to Chinese sellers who are operating honestly and if PG discovers a reliable method for identifying such sellers, he’ll be happy to purchase from them.

The OP has lead PG to conclude that some of Amazon’s Chinese employees are doing positive harm to both the company’s overall reputation and to honest Chinese sellers. These employees don’t seem to be planning for long-term employment with Amazon. Perhaps some are working for Alibaba, or other Chinese ecommerce competitors of Amazon. The fact that such thoughts have crossed PG’s mind make it even less likely that he will patronize Chinese businesses online regardless of what name is on the website.

8 thoughts on “Amazon Investigates Employees Leaking Data for Bribes”

  1. Amazon’s review problems are no secret. From a bookseller’s perspective, it seems they tend to ignore obvious problems for months and then finally, when the problem garners enough media attention, do a one-time crackdown that does as much damage as good. Their approach seems somewhat baffling, considering that they have access to records of every action performed by an employee or customer.

    How hard is it to do a periodic review of employee actions in removing or modifying reviews? How about somebody in upper management reviewing cases of complaints about reviews? How hard is it to simply block all reviews coming from VPNs? They just don’t seem to be interested in doing the extra work.

  2. This is a problem with no solution.

    As long as people are in the loop, they can be bribed to access data, change things, block things. It’s not just Amazon, but things like the bank as well.

    Remember, it’s standard in movies/novels to have somebody get the information they need with a simple bribe. It’s human nature.

    Every business “leaks”.

    It doesn’t even need to involve money. Remember how J.K. Rowling tried to have a pen name career, and that was blown at a dinner party when the lawyers felt the need to share that information to impress the guests.

    This is the way humans are, they feel the need to share secrets. This movie takes that concept to the extreme. HA!

    Miracle Mile (1988) – Trailer

    • I have a theory that if you tell your best friend a secret you are letting them know that keeping it quiet cannot really be that important to you so they are justified in telling just one other close friend, and so on …

      • Information is power.
        At the lowest levels this leads to gossip — it the highest levels it leads to international incidents, ambassadors quitting, and leakers going to jail.

    • I never heard of this movie. I see Tasha Yar and Shaft(?), and Dr. Greene from “ER,” plus Mare Winningham (always in those NBC made-for-TV movies). I might look for this. Not sure where the secret-keeping comes in, because it looks like Dr. Greene should be telling those people in the diner that it’s about to explode. That’s a bad secret for a good guy to keep.

      • Spoiler warning. HA!

        Wiki – Miracle Mile (film)

        It has a good summary of the film. If you want, you can wait until you’ve watched the film. I never understood how any story could be “spoiled”, so, YMMV.

        I was born in 1956, and it was a different world. We knew that we were going to die any moment. Duck and cover! Even in small town Silver City, somebody built a bomb shelter in their back yard, just down the street. That was the Cuban Missile Crisis. Us little kids could see it from the alleyway. “Don’t talk about it,” parents would say. The middle of nowhere New Mexico, and they still felt the need to build a bomb shelter in the backyard.

        I went to work for the Highway Department in 1984. It was built with concrete, expanded aluminum wire lathe in all the walls, to make it a Faraday cage. That became a real hassle decades later when cellphones became common, no signal. We had to install repeaters throughout the building. You could step from the hall into an office and lose signal. The basement was a designated bomb shelter, with barrels of food under the stairwells, yet the outside was all glass windows. If ever a bomb hit nearby, they would have been shattered. All the barrels of food were quietly taken away in the mid 90s, just leaving the rusted rings of where the barrels used to sit, the faded rectangles on the walls where the fallout shelter signs used to be. They mopped the floor, did a paint job, and it was if they were never there.

        When the Berlin Wall fell, the economy suddenly collapsed? slowed down? when people suddenly realized that their “eat, drink, and be merry” spending habits suddenly did have to be paid off. Consumer spending, travel, etc… plummeted for a couple of years. Even the news was asking where all of the tourist had gone, discretionary spending had dried up, the towns that depended on tourists were hurting.

        – When the 90s came, and we were still alive, it was a shock to the system.

        I have a shelf that I keep the various DVDs of movies/series that are good, books are scattered here and there among the thousands I have. I have seen or read or have most of the stuff on this list.

        Wiki – List of nuclear holocaust fiction

        This movie is not on the list, but it should be.

        Wiki – The Lathe of Heaven (film)

        The book has a clearer summary of the story.

        Wiki – The Lathe of Heaven

        Here is the full movie.

        The Lathe of Heaven

        Watch the beginning of the 1980 version of The Lathe of Heaven, where he resets from the war in April 1998. “Do you remember the war in April?”

        I remember WWIII, and the Universal Draft. I remember standing as a kid in the middle of Eurasia, on guard duty. It was night, and the sky was filled with stars. It was cold, and I was wearing a great coat. I was there because Pax Americana had spread across the globe, and they needed me to watch the ass end of nowhere. Most people remember the Cuban Missile Crisis and the endless little wars we got into instead of WWIII.

        When I go for a walk in my neighborhood, and hear the birds, the dogs barking, underlaying all of it is the silence of the devastation that never happened, the snarl of the mutated dogs hunting in the the ruins that are not there. I get home after my walk puzzled that I can still remember what never happened.

        So when you see me moving a little slower, when you see me being more forgiving of annoying people, it’s because I remember what never happened.

        This is good stuff. All this goes into the Story folders. I need to add it to my Project List. I’ve got a page to finish so I can close out the spiral. HA!


  3. Sadly, I have had so many electronic goods purchased via the Zon that have stopped working within days/weeks – some ‘brand’ items, which in retrospect were knock-offs, that I now only buy ebooks/print books from Amazon (I see, though, that some print books are also now suspected of being pirated). I’ve started going back to physical stores for white goods.

  4. In PG’s personal shopping on Amazon (and before he saw the OP), he has become less and less likely to purchase products from Chinese sellers because of the poor reputation some have for honesty, accurate product descriptions and substandard customer service.

    Me, too. Two years ago, I ordered an item from a Chinese seller. The item was marked “shipped” within a couple of days. After a couple of weeks, it was obvious the item had “shipped” from China (if at all). Emails to the seller got no response.

    Contacting Amazon, of course, resulted in cancellation of the order and a full refund of my money. Within a short period of time, that item was no longer for sale and the seller was no longer listed on Amazon.

    Ever since, I’ve been very careful as to whom I buy from. If at all possible, I’ll choose an item “shipped by Amazon” if it’s not sold by Amazon. At least I know it’s in one of their warehouses.

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