Under the surface, Amazon is a scene of constant warfare. A growing share of goods on the platform are sold by third parties, who compete viciously for limited real estate. Some hop onto fast-selling listings with counterfeit goods, or frame their competitors with fake reviews. One common tactic is to find a once popular, but now abandoned product and hijack its listing, using the page’s old reviews to make whatever you’re selling appear trustworthy.
Amazon’s marketplace is so chaotic that not even Amazon itself is safe from getting hijacked. In addition to being a retail platform, Amazon sells its own house-brand goods under names like AmazonBasics, Rivet furniture, Happy Belly food, and hundreds of other labels. Sellers often complain that these brands represent unfair competition, and regulators in Europe and the United States have taken an interest in the matter. But other sellers appear to have found a way to use Amazon’s brands for their own ends. Amazon promotes them heavily, racking up thousands of reviews on listings that the company then abandons when it stops production or comes out with a new version. Enterprising sellers then hijack these pages to hawk their own wares.
Dubious as the listing is (the odds of successfully making use of the advertised “lifetime 7×24 customer service” on this HDMI cable turned clock-binocular chimera, sold under a name registered by a chemical processing company in Shenzhen, are slim), it had 5,324 reviews, averaging 4.6 stars. Almost all refer to the cable. It stood at a respectable number 98 in Amazon’s alarm clock category.
On better-executed hijackings, the deception can be hard to detect.The Vergewas first alerted to the scam by Marketplace Pulse’s Juozas Kaziukėnas, who tracks Amazon brands. He noticed that every week, a handful of dead brands in his roster would reanimate as unrelated goods.
“It just highlights yet another case of the chaos that exists on Amazon,” Kaziukėnas says. “It’s an almost comical case of the products that, theoretically, Amazon should be curating most because it’s their own brands, being used for notorious purposes.”
As a consumer, the easiest way to detect a hijacking is to check that the reviews refer to the product being sold. The images in the reviews for this “Headphone Adapter for iPhone X Headphone Jack Audio Charger Earphone Splitter Dongle for iPhone” all showed the AmazonBasics HDMI cable it once was. If you toggled the reviews over to the most recent, there was further chaos. “I bought cable, not Binoculars,” complained one reviewer. He gave it one star. “This used to be a temperature control unit for fridges and such — now it’s showing a headphone adapter!” said another, warning customers to beware of scams. Nevertheless, it had 3,836 reviews averaging 4.3 stars.
Amazon makes it easy for sellers to join the platform, list items, and alter existing listings. Organizing and policing the platform, however, is handled by a mix of automated programs and call-center-like workers around the world. This system has allowed Amazon to rapidly expand its catalog while keeping costs low, but it also creates opportunities for exploitation.
“Where other retailers would probably be curating their categories and their brands and everything else, on Amazon, so much of it relies on automation and data and systems that if someone gets hijacked, no one really notices,” says Kaziukėnas. “The same powers which built Amazon, which is the infinite shop, the infinite shelf, and the open marketplace, is also what’s now causing many of the issues it’s having — the counterfeits and frauds like this hijacking.”
Asked for comment, an Amazon spokesperson said “we have clear guidelines about when products should be grouped together and we have guardrails in place to prevent products from being incorrectly grouped, either due to human error or abuse.” Shortly afterThe Vergecontacted Amazon, the hijacked listings were taken down.
The hijacked Pinzon page was a battlefield. The copy appeared to be taken from another weighted blanket company, called Weighted Idea, also registered to a Chinese company. Reverse image search shows that a photo was taken from another Amazon weighted blanket company called ZonLi, registered in Jiangxi, China. Farther down the page, the text shifts to describing an iPhone adapter from Eigeliu, the same company that hijacked the AmazonBasics cable. Clicking the warranty button still brought up Amazon’s Pinzon policy. In the reviews, customers complain that they bought clothes-folding implements only to have the listing change. It had 3,691 reviews, averaging 4.2 stars.
“It’s totally chaotic,” says Greer. There are more than 2 billion listings on Amazon, she says, and they never die. When a product is discontinued, the listing just sits there, ready to be hijacked, and in the sea of goods, abuse is rarely noticed — even when it concerns Amazon’s own brands.
“The system they built, the self-service nature of it, and the fact that it’s always expanding makes it really difficult to do anything with,” she says. “I don’t pretend to know what Amazon should do, I just know the problem is way bigger than people realize.”