When Donald Trump visited Louisiana earlier this month, he was greeted with an unexpected hairy surprise. Billy Nungesser, the state’s lieutenant governor, got dressed with the commander-in-chief in mind that morning. With the president and news cameras as his witness at the airport, Nungesser joyfully lifted the leg of his pants to reveal a goofy pair of socks: Each ankle bore Trump’s face, complete with a signature tuft of fake blond locks waving daintily in the breeze. The bizarre-looking socks quickly went viral and were covered by a smattering of news outlets. Stephen Colbert even mentioned them on The Late Show.
For Erica Easley, all the attention was great, at least at first. Easley is the founder of Gumball Poodle, a small Los Angeles–based sock company that originally came up with the hirsute design during the last presidential election. “They went really viral, beyond anything we’d ever experienced before,” she says about the aftermath of Nungesser’s photo-op. “And these socks have been on Rachel Maddow, The View, a bunch of things in 2016.” Wholesale orders started ticking up. Several media outlets linked to Gumball Poodle’s Amazon listing, and soon the Trump socks reached Amazon’s best-seller list for men’s novelty socks.
About a week passed before Easley noticed that something had gone horribly wrong. Dozens of third-party merchants, most of whom looked to be from China, had jammed her Amazon listing with what Easley believed to be knockoffs, selling for a fraction of the original $30 price tag. (Included in that price, for the record, is a tiny comb, to style your socks’ hair. Everything is made in the USA.) To make matters worse, Amazon had chosen one of the frauds as the default seller, shutting Gumball Poodle out. Meanwhile, other third-party sellers appeared to have taken Easley’s photos and set up their own, much cheaper listings.
Easley had done everything to protect her business from exactly this kind of attack. Her hairy sock design is patented in the US, and her logo, which is stamped on the bottom of the socks, is trademarked. What’s more, Gumball Poodle is enrolled in the Amazon Brand Registry, an enhanced suite of tools the company provides eligible brands to protect their intellectual property. But Easley found Amazon’s protections weren’t enough, and she says the company largely ignored her pleas for help. Only after WIRED reached out to Amazon for this story were the counterfeits removed.
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Gumball Poodle isn’t alone. “There are thousands of other trademark owners who face the same kind of nonsense every single day,” says James Thomson, a former Amazon employee and a partner at Buy Box Experts, a firm that consults with Amazon sellers. “Amazon does have a problem with counterfeits.”
Counterfeiting is a booming, trillion-dollar industry that costs businesses around the world billions of dollars a year. Its growth has been fueled by the rise of ecommerce, which a government report says has led to “a fundamental change in the market for counterfeit goods.” That report, published last year by the Government Accountability Office, found that the volume and variety of counterfeit goods seized by officials has grown year after year, and it’s increasingly difficult to distinguish knockoffs from the real thing. It also notes that fraudulent goods are sold on a number of different ecommerce platforms.
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But on Amazon, counterfeits can be uniquely devastating, in part because of the site’s sheer scale. Half of all US ecommerce sales go to Amazon, and the site is also where about half of all product searches on the web begin. Not many companies can afford to avoid it. If they do stay away, they risk letting other sellers determine how their brand is marketed on one of the biggest online retailers in the world.
Another problem is the way Amazon is designed. Unlike on eBay, Etsy, or other online marketplaces, a single Amazon product listing can feature offers from dozens of independent sellers. The company uses an algorithm to decide which merchant’s goods should be the default, based on factors like price and shipping speed. Winning the default slot, referred to as the “Buy Box,” gives sellers an enormous advantage. Customers can “Add to Cart” or “Buy Now” their products with a single click, while the losers are hidden behind a dropdown menu. The idea is to allow consumers to quickly make a purchase, without needing to sift through every similar option. But the system, experts say, also makes sneaking counterfeits into the hands of consumers easy.
Link to the rest at Wired