October 2, 2019

Don’t believe the Amazon boosters who say only “bad guys” are deactivated

By: Lesley Hensell

Who gets suspended from Amazon? It isn’t just “bad guys.” While cruising seller groups on Facebook, I saw a disturbing comment from a “guru.” It followed a news article about seller account suspensions from the Amazon platform.

This highly respected businessman said that Amazon suspends “thousands of scammer accounts daily.” (That number seems high to me.) He then went on to imply that any legitimate seller who is suspended is “caught in the net” accidentally, and then gets their account back “shortly thereafter.”

As someone who works with suspended sellers every day, I take exception to this characterization of my clients and friends. It implies that anyone who loses their seller account deserves it. It also completely misrepresents the appeals process, making it sound simple, short, and with the foregone conclusion that good sellers always get their accounts back with relative ease. For some sellers, nothing could be further from the truth.

Before the horror stories, a caveat. Do most of our clients get reinstated? Yes. Are some reactivations relatively fast and easy? Sure. I’ve gotten an account reinstated in as little as 20 minutes. But for most suspended sellers, reality lies somewhere between 20 minutes and blocked for all eternity.

woman checking rear view mirror

Suspended – for no reason

I’ve always viewed my friend Connie as an ideal Amazon seller. She runs a small operation, doing 80 percent of the work in her Amazon business. Occasionally, she hires helpers during busy season to help with shuffling inventory, organizing products, and packing orders.

Connie is Amazon’s dream. She buys only legitimate product, with invoices or receipts for every single item. Her record keeping is impeccable. She carefully packs every item and includes personalized notes for buyers. If problems arise (and they rarely do), she takes care of the customer efficiently and with the goal of making them happy. She has a high repeat buyer rate. Connie also cares about the Amazon catalog. She spends dozens of hours a month correcting listings and ensuring that her products are accurately represented in the Amazon catalog. When I think about Connie as a seller, the word that comes to mind is “conscientious.”

Connie’s account was recently suspended. Why? Nobody knows. The suspension notice said that she had not provided a valid plan of action. But Amazon had never asked her for a plan of action. In addition, the suspension notice said there were specific ASINs involved. In the space where those ASINs should have been listed, there was blank space.

Connie reached out to Seller Performance and asked for more details. They responded by permanently blocking her account. Escalations to various executives were met with silence. Connie was burning through her savings and eyeing storage spaces packed with inventory she intended to sell in Q4.

I have two team members with 30 years of Amazon Seller Performance and Strategic Account Management experience between them. They reviewed her case and her account carefully, and they were baffled. They believed the suspension was a mistake, but that the account had been notated in such a way that nobody would give Connie a second review.

After weeks of suffering financially, mentally and emotionally, Connie was finally reinstated. But it took multiple escalations to executives that, frankly, an average seller would never know to contact. Without that, who knows if and when she would have gotten her account back.

Frauded for weeks, then an apology

Jacob called us in a panic. He was completely locked out of the seller account for his small, family-owned business. He literally had no idea why. In Amazon parlance, he had been “frauded,” meaning he could not log into Seller Central, and Amazon refused to respond to any emails or calls.

Jacob’s business was gradually falling apart. A few years ago, his family decided to close their Manhattan store because of outrageous rents. They focused solely on Amazon, but they did not diversify further. Now, they were suffering as a result. Almost a month had passed since they were frauded, and they had to lay of employees. Their personal mortgage payments were about to be late, and their vendors were unpaid.

Jacob had tried several appeals and letters, but he had gotten nowhere. We took over and escalated to several executives. After a few weeks, Jacob received an apology from Amazon. It essentially said: “Oops. Sometimes we err on the side of caution. Sorry about that.”

We have our suspicions about why the fraud designation happened. In all possible scenarios we dreamed up, it was a flat-out mistake by someone at Amazon. That mistake almost destroyed a multi-generational family business. We will never know the real reason for sure.’

 

Wrongly accused of forged invoices

Ali sells replacement computer parts. Some customers complained about receiving these items in non-retail packaging, so Ali’s account was suspended for suspected inauthentic. He provided Amazon with detailed invoices from his supplier – a major distributor of PC parts and accessories.

In response, Amazon blocked Ali’s account for forged invoices. Why? Your guess is as good as mine. Ali has given Amazon a supplemental letter from the corporate headquarters of his distributor, confirming his invoices are accurate. In addition, he has sent Amazon stamped bank statements showing that he paid the invoices.

Ali is a good guy and an honest seller. Amazon continues to hold his funds and refuses to communicate with him about his account. How can this be, if only scammers are blocked?

Ali is not alone. Another client was accused of forged invoices because his supplier could not find a document when Amazon called him. The supplier confirmed three of four invoices, and he found the fourth only after the phone call ended. It took multiple escalations and a full month to get the “forged invoices” designation removed from the seller’s account – even though none of this was his fault. A month is not “shortly thereafter.” It’s 8 percent of the year without sales.

Taken down by a serial IP abuser

One of our clients, Darryl, sells seasonal items in the Outdoors category. He called us when most of his catalog was made inactive, thanks to intellectual property complaints alleging patent infringement. When we investigated, we determined that Darryl was the victim of a large company with an even larger reputation for filing false IP complaints.

Not only was Darryl not infringing on the patents cited in the notice from Amazon. In this case, the complaining party was trying to enforce patents it did not even own.

Darryl’s account wasn’t suspended, but it may as well have been. All of his key ASINs were down, right at the beginning of the season for these very seasonal items. It took almost two months to get his ASINs back up and running. Why? A successful Jef Bezos escalation was somehow overruled by Seller Performance. It took another Jeff escalation and several follow-ups to resolve this discord inside of Amazon.

The worst part – to me – is that Amazon is fully aware that this particular complaining party has a history of abusing other sellers. Yet that did nothing to cure the problem promptly. Unfortunately, even “rights owners” that have internal notations as “abusive” at Amazon have their complaints taken seriously and enforced.

Destroyed by a devious competitor

Chris isn’t a social media guy. He doesn’t have any personal or business accounts on Facebook, Instagram or other similar platforms. So imagine Chris’ surprise when Amazon suspended him for review manipulation based on a Facebook giveaway.

Unfortunately, Chris manufactured a private-label product in a particularly crowded niche with cutthroat competitors. From what we can tell, one of these competitors created a fake Facebook group or logged onto Facebook freebie groups spoofing Chris’ company. The competitor then offered free product and asked for positive reviews.

Chris got “caught” by Amazon, even though Chris didn’t do it. His competitor was so crafty that Amazon flat-out didn’t believe his appeals. He was stuck with thousands in unsold private-label inventory and walked away from Amazon in disgust.

When good people do bad things

There are sellers who do the wrong thing on Amazon. I see it all the time:
  • Knowingly selling product in the USA meant only for sale in Asia or Europe
  • Drop-shipping from retailers
  • Buying items from a friend of a friend, with no invoices or receipts
  • Selling Alibaba inventory that is essentially counterfeit or infringing on legitimate patents
  • Playing games with Best Seller Ranking and Review Manipulation
But the average suspended seller who walks through our doors committed “minor” Amazon infractions. Do you think someone should be blocked forever because their mom bought their PL product and wrote a review? Should they lose their account for late shipments when their warehouse lost power, or when their inventory management software messed up their feed? Are these people “scammers,” as the guru would label them, or did they make mistakes? People in these exact situations hired Riverbend after they were blocked from Amazon and failed to get reinstated through their own efforts. I’m not going to defend their violations of Amazon policy. Yet to characterize them as unsavory individuals or fraudster businesses is just not right.

Risk matters

This mischaracterization also misleads people – and businesses – about the true risks of selling on Amazon. Don’t get me wrong – I’m a huge fan of third-party selling on Amazon. I’ve been a seller since 2010, and I think there is still incredible, long-lasting and sustainable opportunity on the platform. I would never discourage a legitimate seller from taking the plunge because there is a chance that theirstorefront could be suspended.
However, all businesses carry risk. And the best businesses address risk as part oftheir strategic planning process. You must understand the risks you face and act tomitigate those risks – not pretend like they do not exist. I realize that someconsultants are only interested in Amazon Boosterism, since they cannot sell theirproducts and services to people who won’t sell on Amazon out of fear. But isn’t it more intellectually honest to provide a complete, accurate picture of what it is like to sell on Amazon?

If sellers don’t comprehend the danger zones, they will fail in many ways. Why? They will believe that their good intentions are understood and accepted by Amazon, in place of following policy. Here are examples I see every week:
  • New sellers start of by listing garage sale and thrift store products as “new.” Amazon, however, expects receipts or invoices to be available for all new merchandise. This way, you can prove items are authentic and new. If Amazon asks for invoices and you don’t have them, you’re on a fast track to suspension.
  • Sellers with cash-flow issues launch their accounts by drop-shipping, hoping to stockpile cash they can use to buy wholesale inventory. Unfortunately, they sometimes choose to drop-ship from retail stores. This is a violation of Amazon policy – even though the items are authentic. Amazon has become less and less tolerant of this violation and often blocks new accounts it finds drop-shipping from Walmart, Home Depot and the like.
  • Struggling sellers do Amazon-to-Amazon flips of private-label products purchased through discount sites. The brand owners get angry and file IP complaints against them, resulting in an account suspension. Again, good intentions and being a nice guy are not a credible defense in Amazon’s eyes. Currently, IP suspensions are some of the most difficult to overcome, and they often require hiring a professional.

If new sellers understood how these techniques put them at risk, yes, they may choose another business model. Successful Amazon sellers usually have at least a little capital available to get them started.

All sellers need to also understand that Amazon is can be a cruel mistress. We get the vast majority of our clients reinstated. But in all cases, sellers who are deactivated suffer from cash flow issues, lost revenue, and sleepless nights.

For the unfortunate few who are permanently locked out of Amazon, a scarlet A is not always deserved. Rather, kindness and understanding are demanded from those who comprehend how truly heartless the machine of Amazon has become.

Riverbend Consulting navigates online retail. Get your Amazon account reinstated, sell with confidence, and increase your bottom line. Contact us.

Lesley Hensell is Partner at Riverbend Consulting, she offers practical know-how to improve retail performance. Lesley’s experience with Amazon compliance gets accounts back up fast.