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Amazon.com just closed my seller account. No warning, no details. (kavlie.net)
305 points by akavlie on Dec 13, 2011 | hide | past | favorite | 77 comments

I've seen this and yes there are false positives. It is unfortunate they have no reasonable appeal process. Amazon will ban you with no recourse if two selling accounts appear to login from the same network/same computer. It does not need to be a banned account. At least that's what appeared to happen in one case I've seen. Maybe it is cookies too, who knows.

Two internet merchants in the same family. Both have separate businesses, separate tax IDs, separate locations, etc. One family member is older and needs a lot of help with IT stuff. The younger family member comes over on the weekend to help with network/computer problems and happens to login and check their orders. Amazon sends an email to both of them demanding that one of the accounts be immediately closed or they will both be terminated. Again, they tried everything to get a human being to listen. No help from Amazon. The older family member closed his account and lost 50% of his revenues because he felt responsible for the entire situation. The younger seller 's account remained open. It was extremely heavy handed.

I have close relationships with both of these people and I am 100% sure neither of them are involved in any fraud.

Heaven help Amazon if merchants ever had the idea to do an entrepreneurial workshop and had dozens of accounts all logging in from the same area as part of the conference.

I don't know exactly what sets the flag off, but it is something like IP address, cookies, hardware, or some combination.

I also got the impression from the way they described the multiple phone calls to Amazon CS that the decision was made by an algorithm or some bunkered third party security firm that CS could not contact.

I'll have to check with these folks and see if they are willing to do a blog post about it. The one that is still selling is justifiably afraid of what could happen to that business.

Strange. I expect this impersonal stuff from Google, but always thought of Amazon as being better than that.

UPDATE: Amazon just reinstated my account (with an equally impersonal email). I updated the post to reflect this.

A partial victory, but it's still not really satisfying. Had I not taken the effort to blog about this, and gotten lucky by hitting the top spot on Hacker News, I don't think Amazon would have reinstated my account.

No question about that.

After all they did say:

"Further correspondence regarding the closure of your selling account may not be answered. The closure of this account is a permanent action. Any subsequent accounts that are opened will be closed as well."

I would still consider doing the PR angle with this ending as the story hook. You went to all the effort of doing a blog post and you got everyone talking about it here. It would be unfortunate if this wasn't able to result in some reasonable systemic change to the Amazon practice.

I have no experience doing a PR blitz as you've suggested in your other comment; it would be tough to fill in all the details you didn't spell out. Might be worth it, but it sounds like a lot of work.

"We're getting bad PR? Ok, time to be reasonable..."

It seems like public shaming is the only way to get auto-reply customer service companies to talk to you. See the Paypal/Regretsy fiasco. I never feel good about them because you just know for every Regretsy/HN vet who can get some swirl going, there are a thousand helpless users who can't, and thus get the full length of shaft.

Yeah, customer service is expensive, but automating it all and essentially saying "fuck 'em" unless the victim can get outrage built is incredibly shitty.

sad that it has to take a frontpage on HN to get them to notice their error...

It's disturbing to see that this is an all-too-common pattern with the large internet companies. Stories abound of companies like Google, eBay, PayPal, Facebook and Amazon closing down accounts with what I would characterize as "violence". No explanations. No recourse. No way to reason with a human being. The approach seems so "anti-internet" that it is hard to come-up with justification for the behavior.

One argument is that they have to deal with so much fraud that they have no choice but to be somewhat pragmatic and, yes, totalitarian about it. The counter argument to this is that if your company is so big that you have to hurt honest customers because you can't afford to do it right, well, maybe you are too big. I've red about cases where an individual's only source of income was summarily cutoff overnight with no recourse whatsoever. That's plain wrong.

It's a bit of a catch-22, though. People buying items on the Internet tend to prefer to buy via a well-established, highly-structured and secure marketplace. From a buyer's perspective, buying through the big companies you're talking about provides some measure of perceived safety in the transaction.

Sellers and buyers would both benefit from "small company" levels of customer service. However, marketplaces run by smaller or newer companies don't have the same perceived levels of trust and security as the bigger, more established marketplaces.

I know it's only a matter of perception but, in this case, perception is reality in terms of buyer comfort.

>It's disturbing to see that this is an all-too-common pattern with the large internet companies. Stories abound of companies like Google, eBay, PayPal, Facebook and Amazon closing down accounts with what I would characterize as "violence". No explanations. No recourse. No way to reason with a human being. The approach seems so "anti-internet" that it is hard to come-up with justification for the behavior.

it is doesn't matter internet or B&M as [quasi]monopoly is a monopoly. Just imagine how it would feel if your electric/gas company decided to "close your account forever". Because of such great power they weild, they are regulated as public utilities. The platforms you mentioned are formally not yet there [mostly i think because the standard metric of what monopoly on the Internet is hasn't been yet determined], so they allow themselves all kind of behavior that is no-no in the other well established areas of business.

What's the economic incentive to provide better support? You don't make Amazon much money, but an appeals process would cost them money. So why would they do it?

The economic incentive is increased business. Amazon may not need the business, which is up to them, but "service" is pretty much the only difference between Home Depot and Lowe's, as far as I have been able to tell, to provide one example.

Sorry about going off topic, but I'm curious. Wuhich of Home Depot and Lowe's do you feel has better service? I've never considered either for their service as my local Home Depot and Lowe's have equally poor customer service. The locally owned stores are the only places to get service for hardware stores near me.

To me, Lowe's is Home Depot with employees who don't avoid customers.

And that might be a compelling argument if there was a competitor to Amazon who offered the same value proposition plus better service as a differentiator.

In this case, I don't think there's really anywhere obvious for the traffic to go, so the "increased business" is fairly minimal.

We didn't think there was anywhere for the traffic to go either. -- AOL, 1989-2001

Right, that's the "Amazon may not need the business" part.

It seems like the alternative is some entity using "violence" to force large internet companies to do business with people they don't want to.

I'm an Amazon seller. I sell a small ebook. I think my wife sells a few things too.

So you guys are saying if she logs on to her account from my computer suddenly neither one of us can sell on Amazon ever again?

Does this seem a little draconian to anybody besides me? Random rules -- no doubt put in place for good reasons to prevent fraud -- haphazardly applied to people and resulting in a lifetime ban from being a seller?

I have no problem with Amazon running a clean shop. In fact, I wish they'd do more to make it that way. What I have a problem with is systems of rules that are put up without any feedback mechanism in place. So instead of some real, live person listening to complaints and eventually coming to an understanding that this is totally whacked, thousands get dumped in the trash can until somebody finally manages to make a public relations case out of it? Completely unsatisfactory.

This is just poor systems design, Amazon. This is exactly the same systems problem many are having with PayPal, and for exactly the same reason. Be as strict as you like, but always include the possibility that you might be wrong. Because if you have no self-correction mechanisms, people aren't going to like you much. I know I just started thinking very carefully about my relationship with Amazon. I'm sure a lot of other folks did too.

Assuming the story is correct (and based on how others have vouched for the OP here I have every reason to believe that it is) the crime that Amazon has appeared to commit here (I like to reduce things down this way) is that according to the story there is no reasonable appeal process.

We regularly get fraud orders and we follow a certain procedure to yank those but you can call us or email us and you will get a response.

We are actually very interested in knowing whether we've made a mistake so we can refine the process further. (As PG said he wants to know the future success of companies YC rejected for the same reason.)

Just guessing what type of stuff you do, and also guessing how the organization at Amazon is set up, many times the guys at some level really do want to know where things went haywire. The problem is that they farm out this support work with scripted callers and such limited options for a real conversation that you've effectively shot yourself in the foot (if not shot your entire leg off)

At some high level of abstraction, 50-thousand-feet or so, the message is "support work is overhead which does not directly effect the structure of operations. Their job is to run the business machine that we've created. So we'll cost this as any other overhead, find the cheapest, best way of providing it, and do the correct thing."

But the problem is that anytime anybody talks to the customers, there is all sorts of information exchanging that's not in some policy book. This nuanced and in some cases subtly-patterned information is extremely difficult to manage in a traditional fashion. In this case, the message from Amazon is clear: we do not trust you, we will not tell you why, and we will never do business with you again. While that's a great message for Sammy Spambot and his legion of Makov-chain-generated ebooks, it really sucks for all those false-positives real human beings sitting in their living rooms trying to make buck during a tough recession.

So yes, I can understand very well that people in every business want systems that self-correct, and put in places ways for that to happen. The problem is that for all their good intentions, the end result for most of them is a structure that's rigid and communicates important customer opinion data poorly. But it's created that way usually for what seems like very good reasons. We have met the enemy and he is us.

How true. In a small organization the distance from the source of discontent to someone with a brain is short. So even if the person who answers the phone is stupid the caller senses that, complains and gets someone higher up who might give them what they want just because otherwise they can't finish lunch.

Additionally the distance from between aggravation to a person who can do something (or it becomes their problem) is also very short. Large organizations can put something in place because the person who has to fend off the anger (front line) is far removed from the person at 50k feet who thought up the policy.

There is also a lack of empathy. In a previous business I owned I did all the jobs (ran equipment, worked sales, counter work the whole thing). So I had empathy for the people doing those jobs. I knew what it was like to stand and deal with an angry customer. But the people that I hired had never done any of those jobs in many cases (they had only managed). As a result they didn't have empathy and made all sorts of jobsian "just do it" policies and rules.

Some things people do though make you laugh and there is no "information ... in some policy book" for every situation. We had a charge policy with a minimum floor charge of $10. One day I found out that someone came in and owed us $.25 on some invoice. So the counter person rang up a $10 charge and gave them $9.75 in change.

This makes me scared to use Amazon for selling stuff. I don't think I have the web presence required to prevent my account being locked down because of false positives. It looks like there really is no other option if their automated fraud detection system flags you...

> Random rules -- no doubt put in place for good reasons to prevent fraud -- haphazardly applied to people and resulting in a lifetime ban from being a seller?

Well, you're both private parties entering into a contract on "mutually agreed" terms, so you get what you sign up for.

Of course, where there's such an imbalance in size and power, it's unlikely that the mutually agreed upon terms are going to be anything but unfavorable to you, the little guy, so your only real option is to simply not play the game.

As a seller on Amazon, do not expect the same level of service and efficiency you receive as a buyer. I had a client selling on Amazon that had all kinds of surprises. On one occasion, they took down listings because the product was selling too well - it took days to resolve, and the launch's momentum was killed.

Here's the key to getting these issues resolved: 1) Always use phone support, not email support. Email support will almost always paste the easiest reply - it may as well be automated. Phone support gets you a a real human being on the phone who will actually listen and understand what's going on. 2) Keep escalating. If they deny your appeal, appeal again. There is absolutely no consistency in how they handle these situations. One person may say there's nothing that can be done, the next will push a button and instantly make the problem go away. And the more you annoy them, the more it's worth their while to actually look at and resolve your problem.

Good luck.

I received a warning from Amazon about illegally having two seller accounts and they threatened closure. I believe they picked up on the fact that my girlfriend had a seller account and used my computer to update it. We ended up closing her account down rather than trying to explain to Amazon that they might possibly be wrong.

So depending on where you've managed your account from, you might be associated with all sorts of unsavory characters.

I guess the moral of the story is that with Amazon, never manage your account from a shared anything.

When a farmer drives his harvester through a field, most ears of corn get profitably harvested. [Work with me, I'm a city boy.] A few ears get trampled and destroyed. The farmer doesn't grieve for the trampled ears, and he does little to nothing to reduce trampled ears, because overall his harvesting method is the most monetarily efficient one available to him. He's happy, and doesn't give the trampled ears a single thought.

Amazon, Google et al. have discovered that millions of ears of corn will line up to be harvested. Virtually none leaves voluntarily.

Welcome to the produce section.

I've been an Amazon customer for many years, several of those as a paying Prime member, and I've been generally happy ... until this past fall.

I don't know what's going on, but in the past three months I've had several issues and complaints requiring customer service intervention. The most recent of which was when I signed up for Amazon Student with time remaining on my paid (full price) Prime membership.

My Prime was cancelled without warning (more likely, simply overwritten by Student), which downgraded my privileges on their site (no more Prime video, for example). The service rep was unable to simply cancel student and reinstate my Prime membership for the remainder of the paid term. I ended up with in-store credit for a buck or so more than the difference.

Anyway, a company that had previously provided me exceptional service (for example resolving issues with a fraudulent 3rd-party seller) has really let me down this past little bit. With the negative reviews for the Kindle Fire and now this incident, I (hyperbolically) wonder whether this is the beginning of the decline of Amazon (not as a corporate behemoth, but as a 'good' company that cares for its customers)?

"The only idea that came up was to plead your case to jeff@amazon.com (Jeff Bezos’s email address), with plenty of detail including the reason my account might have been banned."

I would write to PR at amazon amazon-pr@amazon.com.

If that gets no response I would fax to that department.

If still no response fedex copies of the above two attempts to Bezos or some high up VP. At some point someone will take notice.

If not it will make a good story during the holiday season. I've had good luck with holiday and event specific interest by the media. Timing is everything.

If it were me, after trying the above, I would package the story and send it all over actually.

Edit: When you send to the media make sure to package with choice HN comments to, um, make their job easier.

What makes this story extra silly is the fact that so many non-Amazon APIs have banned (either temporarily or in some cases permanently) the entire block of AWS IPs because of a few bad actors who have abused APIs from AWS instances.

You'd think Amazon of all companies would be hip to the dangers of assuming that everyone behind a certain IP block is the same person, but I guess not.

The scariest part of all of this is that they can tell which physical computer you log in from.

Sounds like a business opportunity: a proxy not only for your IP address, but for your browser / cookies / history / operating system. I look forward to the day when all billion of us appear to be arriving from the same place.

Expecting unique client machine/network profiles for each seller account seems fundamentally incompatible with a web-based access model. Then again, maybe it's merely incompatible with a Good web-based access model.

Modest proposal: Distribute smart cards and readers to sellers, and use mutual-auth TLS for everything. Or offer this as an option to anyone willing to pay $xxx for their initial sign-up fee.

> Distribute smart cards and readers to sellers

Jeebus, this makes too much sense.

If Blizzard can hand out OTP generators for it's users, surely Amazon or retailers can do the same for it's sellers.

Hell, look to Google and their Authenticator app or SMS-based 2-step login (out of band auth channel would be better).

This already happens on college campuses. I've seen IP bans on websites take down access to every student in the dorms because of their NAT setup.

To see how easy is to identify your computer, go to the EFF site: https://panopticlick.eff.org/

Why would you want that? It seems like both Amazon and the user come out ahead. Anyway you could just use a whitelist for cookies and set your user-agent string to something really generic.

Like the Google Search Bot. That's always fun (and strangely unlocks a lot of sites).

> "I look forward to the day when all billion of us appear to be arriving from the same place."

Yeah nothing bad could happen there could it rolleyes

Failed to provide details why they closed your account is kind of unacceptable. The least they could do is telling you why the account was banned.

They did more or less say why: that their algorithms determined he was a dupe account of another banned seller. Presumably they don't want to give more details so people who really are making illicit duplicate accounts can't use the data to tune their avoidance strategies. But if there are false-positives, that's definitely super-frustrating.

This happened to me as well:

My brother's college roommate is banned --> brother gets banned as a result of a false-positive dupe account --> when brother gets home and logs into amazon I get banned.

I was on the phone for hours trying to fix this, nothing ever happened.

Google and eBay get a bit of flack for poor customer service availability and seller relations and they have improved as of late. Hopefully amazon can change for the better too.

Must be fun and confusing for people checking their accounts from a coffee shop or from home if the dhcp from their ISP assigns them a "bad" ip.

That's what I was thinking reading these replies. Amazon must be checking if you log in from the same IP as another seller, but how is that reliable in determining if it's a dupe? Why even allow users to log in from different computers if the only way they check for duplicate seller accounts is if someone else logs in from the same machine?

It seems like the author logged in to his seller account from a public wireless network (coffee shop, office) where another, previously-banned seller account had logged in from at one time, and Amazon assumed both accounts were from the same guy. Maybe they sold the same type of products.

I'm sure they get a lot of sellers who get their account closed and just try to make a new one, but I'd rather have Amazon not catch the sellers who are dumb enough to create an account from the same IP than catch them and get legitimate sellers banned in the process.

All of my weekend listing was done from home. Don't remember accessing my seller account anywhere else recently.

Does your ISP give you a static IP or is it dynamic?

Not completely sure, Cox (my provider) says in the small print:

"Static IP addresses may be required or dynamic IP addresses may be assigned without a static IP request, depending on location."


I don't take notice of my IP address much, so I can't say if they assigned a static IP address in my case. If they're filtering on IP addresses, I imagine that they get a lot of false positives.

If they are filtering on IP and you're not paying for a static IP address, then Cox's DHCP server could have given you a new IP address that matched someone else who had been banned. Not out of the ballpark of possibilities when IP is used for selection / banning.

Would you have accessed it outside of your home at any point? It could be possible that Amazon keeps a record of where you log in, you shared an IP with a previously banned account at some point, and then you listed an item the other seller had listed.

I'm sure there's a simpler explanation, though. That seems fairly complex.

Terrible. I've been thinking about selling a few items on Amazon but now I'm wary. Thanks for sharing your story, I hope you can somehow get your situation resolved.

I've acquired a growing distrust of Amazon's seller accounts in the past year. For a while, I was making my rent on used books I'd acquired over the years. However, I found Amazon was more likely to side on the buyer side, even when there was a preponderance of evidence that I had done nothing wrong. So, Amazon closing a person's account and giving no reason is right up their alley.

Tim Bray said it back in 2003: don't be a sharecropper.


" There was a listing on Amazon.com for the X220 with a couple of other used listings, so I thought it wouldn’t hurt to give it a shot. I listed it Sunday night for $725."

I am not sure if the author means there was a listing for 'the X220' or 'a similar X220'. Whatever the case, it is really appalling that big internet companies refuse to treat their users like how they wish to be treated.

However, I have had only very excellent experiences with Amazon customer care. Maybe they value customers more than suppliers?

Unlike eBay or craigslist, items on Amazon are listed under fixed, pre-existing products, with variations (in condition, included accessories, etc.) noted in its comments field. On a baseline seller account, it's not even possible to create a listing for a new item that doesn't already exist on Amazon.com.

So I found an X220 listing with different specs, and noted the specs of mine in the comments. The other two used listings had done the same.

Sounds like the old suppliers' adage about WalMart applies here: "Not doing business with WalMart is awaiting death. Doing business with WalMart is inviting death."

"Amazon.com staff — seriously, just look at this from the customer’s point of view, and try to tell me this is a customer friendly process."

I don't believe Amazon views any seller, let alone someone selling used items occasionally, as a customer. The buyer is their customer. 3rd party sellers are mostly interchangeable. If you are a professional seller with enough volume however, you have a direct human account rep who can at least provide more insight into processes such as this.

I find it sad that one of the questions I asked myself before clicking the link was "Did he do business with Wikileaks?"

My experience with them. First they close your account, than they keep your money for six months (you agreed to such terms). Few months down the road, Amazon will start selling the product you were selling themselves.

Companies like this are turning the world further into a Kafkaesque nightmare every day. In this case there isn't even a labyrinth of bureaucracy to navigate as last resort, it is a permanent action and they're unable to even tell you why.

The only thing that works is getting a lot of attention behind you in the media on a site like this, it appears. I don't like this at all. It also reminds me very much of that recent Paypal "fraud detection" mess-up.

I've experienced this as well: my seller account was closed with no appeal possible, Then, later, my parent's (completely separate and valid) seller account was also closed, again with no appeal possible. This wasn't a business for either of us (we were each selling used books), so we simply left Amazon and sold through eBay/Half.com and never had any problems.

Just posted another update, with a snapshot of Google Analytics visitor count by service provider. Amazon.com Inc. ranks at #2 with 350 visits.

This does not surprise me.

I've been selling on Amazon for the past 5 years and they have only gotten worse. As an example, September-mid-November had bugs and glitches that caused sellers to lose sales (customers literally couldn't check out).

Amazon (like always) denied there was even a problem. Another thing that I don't like is their feedback system. Customers can leave feedback for any reason, but if it doesn't fall into a stock set of reasons, a seller can't ever get it removed.

During the Amazon glitch-fest, an item I cancelled wasn't removed from my listings. A customer ordered it and I had to cancel their order. They then left negative feedback. Amazon wouldn't remove it. If I get enough negatives, my account could get banned.

Customers will also almost always win in any dispute, which makes it very easy for scammers. You also can't block customers from buying.

I also love the fact that amazon charges you to collect sales tax (in addition to having to buy a $40/month account, you need to pay 3%).

The only reason I stay is because by far, they have the most amount of traffic and I get sales as a result.

Luckily, I have other sources of income.

Amazon charges you to collect sales tax, but Amazon doesn't actually add sales tax to purchases, right? How does this work exactly?

Starting next year, they'll collect sales tax on your behalf for a 2.9% surcharge: http://www.internetretailer.com/2011/11/03/amazoncom-play-ta...

I thought Amazon was arguing that it was too complex for them to collect sales tax for all of the states? Wasnt that their whole argument in their right with three state of California?

They've made the "too complex" argument in the past, but I believe their real bottom line is they don't want to be at a disadvantage vs their online competitors.

Pro-merchants have had this ability for awhile now.

I get how frustrating this is but when you provide this kind of service to the general public like Amazon has you're taking a huge risk. They have to be extra cautious about the slightest hint of abuse and because of that these things happen. If you really want aweso,e customer service you're better off with a regular merchant account and payment gateway. Contrary to popular belief, just about anyone can get one. I feel for the author but I just can't get behind the boycott the author calls for.

Having worked for a listing service and particularly working on keeping it secure and safe for members, I have little sympathy for the author.

Frankly, I just don't believe him. It's possible he tripped a false positive, but in my experience -- and I have to believe the people working at Amazon had more resources at their disposal than I did -- it's much, much more likely that he's lying.

So, he's likely lying based on the fact that you "have to believe" that Amazon uses some undisclosed super-elite ninja tech, rather than yet another hokey algo based on IP address and other hopelessly unreliable data?

That is not an argument. It's a pointless assertion that you believe in Amazon being correct, in the absence of any actual evidence.

If the author is lying, what does he have to gain?

I don't know akavlie personally, but he's been on HN for a long time. I think he's a rational person based on his discourse here.

Obviously he's trying to garner public pressure against Amazon to get his account reinstated.

I'm not saying he's not a rational person. Rational people lie all the time.

Wow, you sound like a fun person. Since your paranoia is so heightened by the OP's assertion, what exactly do you think he was doing? You're so sure of yourself, you must have some hypothesis.

How is it remotely paranoia? It doesn't affect me. If anything it's cynicism, but certainly not paranoia.

I have no idea what he was doing, but it seems most likely to me, based on experience and the facts at hand (that Amazon reviewed his account and still insisted on the revoking of his selling privileges) that he's lying.

In other words, like Amazon says, he probably had a previous seller account that got suspended for some reason and he's gotten by with this new one for a while but trying to sell the higher dollar item got his account flagged for review which resulted in him getting busted.

I'm no big fan of Amazon, and it's possible they made a mistake. But it's more likely -- in my opinion -- that he is lying and trying to garner public sympathy to put pressure on Amazon to reinstate him.

It's great you have so much faith in others, but we've seen this many times -- often in the case of people insisting they weren't cheating on Steam and they have no idea what Valve is talking about -- but I've seen it myself in my previous security work for a marketplace site.

I could be wrong, I don't know. I was just sharing my opinion but apparently the HN community decided that it was unwelcome.

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