Amazon: We Love the Cheery Smile, But Does It Have a Darker Meaning?

July 13, 2020

Who needs the Dark Web when one has Amazon? The Markup reveals, “Amazon’s Enforcement Failures Leave Open a Back Door to Banned Goods—Some Sold and Shipped by Amazon Itself.” Investigators at The Markup began combing the site for banned goods after a series of deaths and illnesses attributed to one counterfeit pill maker. The fake-Percocet maker, now in prison, revealed he’d bought his pill press right off Amazon. The journalists were dismayed to find nearly 100 dangerous and/or illegal items readily available on the site. All of these products are explicitly banned in Amazon’s third-party seller rules and prohibitions for the U.S. market. Reporters Annie Gilbertson and Jon Keegan write:

“The Markup filled a shopping cart with a bounty of banned items: marijuana bongs, ‘dab kits’ used to inhale cannabis concentrates, ‘crackers’ that can be used to get high on nitrous oxide, and compounds that reviews showed were used as injectable drugs. We found two pill presses and a die used to shape tablets into a Transformers logo, which is among the characters that have been found imprinted on club drugs such as ecstasy. We found listings for prohibited tools for picking locks and jimmying open car doors. And we found AR-15 gun parts and accessories that Amazon specifically bans. Almost three dozen listings for banned items were sold by third parties but available to ship from Amazon’s own warehouses. At least four were listed as ‘Amazon’s Choice.’ The phrase ‘ships from and sold by’ appeared beneath the buy button of five of the banned items we found, which two former employees confirmed means those products are, in fact, sold by Amazon. In addition, one of the sellers we were able to reach also confirmed it sold the items to Amazon.”

Of course, “Amazon’s choices” are often chosen by algorithm, which is part of the problem. The site does have a process for finding and removing banned products, but the human reviewers cannot keep up with the onslaught of third-party uploads. The journalists found several products that evaded detection by being listed as something they are not—like the AR-15 vise block masquerading as a desk accessory, complete with paperclips and pencil erasers in the image. Other items simply avoid telltale keywords, but are plain as day to anyone who views the listing. It is apparent even the algorithm has a clue because it frequently recommends items related to the product at hand. See the article for more examples.

What will Amazon do about this alarming issue? Well, if we take spokesperson Patrick Graham’s responses as a guide, the answer is it will downplay the problem. Seems about right.

Cynthia Murrell, July 13, 2020


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