Ungating, platform manipulation and black hats – oh my!
Amazon sellers beware. People will lie to get into your pockets – and destroy your Amazon account in the process.
Every week, we meet new clients whose Amazon seller accounts were suspended for some form of platform manipulation, review manipulation, Code of Conduct violations or forged/manipulated documents and utilizing ungating services.
In many cases, these suspensions happened because of service providers who claim their offerings comply with Amazon’s Business Solutions agreement.
Clearly, they do not.
It is a sad reality of the Amazon Seller space:
- High-quality consultants and software tools
- Functional consultants and software tools
- Charlatans who take money under false pretenses and put sellers’ accounts at risk
In the charlatan category, three examples of risky propositions come immediately to mind:
- Ungating services
- Tools designed to drive reviews or boost best-seller rank (BSR)
- Black hats who pay bribes to Amazon employees or attack competitors unlawfully
Ungating services: A web of lies and fake documents
An ungating service recently admitted the truth. Hundreds of its customers were suspended by Amazon.
A client came to Riverbend Consulting with a daunting suspension.
Amazon deactivated their seller account for forged or manipulated documents after they hired an ungating service. The service boasts on its web site that all of its documents are authentic and can be verified by Amazon.
Sadly, that is a lie.
Ungating services typically falsify invoices and submit them on behalf of the seller.
To understand why, it helps to know how ungating services work:
- Seller gives the ungating service a third-party login to their account
- Ungating service creates an application for the gated category, brand or ASIN
- The ungating service magically obtains the exact invoices needed by the seller for approval by Amazon
- The ungating service submits these documents to Amazon, which may be fooled into approving the application or may detect that the documents are fake
Why do I assume that the documents are fake?
Amazon wants invoices that demonstrate a true, completed transaction between the seller and their supplier.
When sellers use an ungating service, no such transaction has taken place. The ungating service is either creating or obtaining false documentation. Perhaps they are altering real invoices. Or, perhaps they have cultivated employees at supplier companies.
They may pay bribes for false invoices, as well as to answer the phone and confirm to Amazon that the invoices are real.
Whatever method they use, this behavior is both unethical and against Amazon’s Business Solutions Agreement.
It can result in immediate account suspension or a permanent block.
Worst of all, this particular ungating service used a generic gmail address for the third-party login on each and every seller account. This puts every past client of theirs at risk of suspension.
Amazon Seller performance can easily perform a search for accounts with that login email address and reasonably assume that the ungating service submitted false documentation.
As the service admitted to our client on a chat, hundreds of their clients’ accounts went down. That didn’t prompt them to take down their web site or stop selling their scam service to new customers.
Platform manipulation: From rebates to chatbots, giveaways and more
Amazon has been cracking down on all forms of platform manipulation. Several software vendors have stepped into this unsavory space.
They “help” sellers improve their Best Seller Rank (BSR) or gain reviews by:
- Featuring products on “deal” web sites, which link to Amazon. Buyers can get products at steep discounts. This boots sales volume inorganically.
- Using chat bots to offer free products or refunds after a review is posted.
- Providing refunds to buyers who purchase products, so they essentially become free after-the-fact.
It takes a little interpretation to understand the big picture from Seller Performance’s viewpoint.
Here are statements in the Help on Seller Central.
“The following are examples of prohibited activities. This is not an all-inclusive list:
- A seller offers a third party a financial reward, discount, or other compensation in exchange for a review on their product or their competitor’s product. This includes services that sell customer reviews and websites or social media groups with implicit or explicit agreements or expectations that an incentive is contingent on customers leaving a review.
- A seller offers to provide a refund or reimbursement after the buyer writes a review (including reimbursement via a non-Amazon payment method).”
Amazon considers all of these strategies to be inducements to write positive reviews and/or an inorganic way of boosting BSR.
Also, note that Amazon’s rules don’t say you cannot ask for a “positive” review. They just say “review.”
The argument people make about things like discount sites and rebate services is that there is no request for a review.
***Note the first bullet above, which says “implicit or explicit.” Services like rebates and deal sites are used either to boost reviews or boost BSR – artificially. This fulfills the “implicit” requirement.
Seller Performance will never assume that a seller was wanting to give away some free product out of the goodness of their heart. They know these strategies are intended to increase positive reviews or BSR, and they act accordingly.
And let’s not forget the U.S. Fair Trade Commission. Amazon MUST legally act when they find abuse of their platform, regardless of how or where the seller manipulated reviews or BSR.
The hucksters that sell these services will claim that nobody gets suspended for using rebates, launch services and discount sites. That is simply not true. Riverbend Consulting has worked on hundreds of platform manipulation suspensions because sellers were using these and similar tools.
Some scammers even claim that Amazon has “approved” their services, which is something that Amazon would simply never, ever do from a Risk Management perspective.
Black hats: Bribery, extortion and evil activities
There are two kinds of black hats in the Amazon ecosystem:
- Those who bribe Amazon employees so that their “client” has a positive result. Bribes are paid for account reinstatement, ASIN reinstatement, account notations, ungating, and more.
- Those who bribe Amazon employees or work with overseas click farms to hurt the competition. This includes modifying competitors’ ASIN detail pages with pornographic images, offensive descriptions or prohibited words. False reviews, fake upvotes, false orders that are returned, extortion … the possibilities are endless.
In both cases, using a black hat services can result in countless bad outcomes for sellers:
- Loss of selling privileges
- Criminal charges
- Civil charges filed by government agencies
Currently, several black hat “consultants” are scheduled for federal trial in January 2022 for bribery, fraud, extortion and a host of other charges that could well fall under a RICO designation.
Unfortunately for sellers, these “consultants” are still operating their businesses and putting their clients at risk.
Several sellers have signed up with Riverbend for help with suspended accounts:
- One seller believes her suspension “consultant” paid a bribe to get her 3P account reinstated two years ago. (She did not ask for this bribe to be paid. The consultant proudly publicized fast results getting the account reinstated to an online audience.) After her consultant was indicted, the seller’s 3P and 1P accounts were suspended for Code of Conduct violations.
- One seller paid this same “consultant” to help him get ungated – with fake invoices – for topicals. This seller also was suspended for Code of Conduct violations. The suspension notice specifically request information about the seller’s relationships with the indicted parties.
- Other clients have been the victim of extortion by indicted parties – right now. The unlawful behavior has not stopped.
How can sellers avoid being caught up in this terrible net?
- Be aware of arrests and indictments in the industry. You wouldn’t hire an accountant who was charged with tax fraud. It’s too risky to hire an Amazon consultant who was charged with bribery and wire fraud. Even if you think these parties are innocent (a difficult ask after reading the detailed indictment), Amazon clearly believes they are guilty. Being aligned with them puts your account at risk.
- Never work with a consultant who offers to obtain Amazon’s internal account notations. This is illegal.
- Never work with a consultant who explicitly or implicitly speaks of bribing Amazon employees.
- Avoid any schemes to interfere with your competitors. Using overseas operations in China, Russia and Eastern Europe doesn’t make these actions any less illegal. And yes, ultimately, they can still be traced.
Save your money. Save your account. Avoid these risky services.
If you need assistance on a black hat situation give Riverbend Consulting a call 877-289-1017. A member of our team will be happy to help!
Lesley is co-founder and co-owner of Riverbend Consulting, where she oversees the firm’s client services team. She has personally helped hundreds of third-party sellers get their accounts and ASINs back up and running. Lesley leverages two decades as a small business consultant to advise clients on profitability and operational performance. She has been an Amazon seller for almost a decade, thanks to her boys (21 and 15) who do most of the heavy lifting.