When folks hear the words “Amazon” and “crimes” in the same sentence, it’s usually referencing the giant’s potentially criminal anticompetitive behavior or its shitty-enough-that-it-should-be-criminal warehouse working conditions, rather than Amazon sellers scamming their way onto the DOJ’s watch list.
But 2020’s been full of surprises, and today, that’s exactly what happened: the Justice Department indictment six individuals working as consultants for Amazon’s third party sellers. Per the DOJ, the paid north of $100,000 to bribe Amazon employees and contractors to leak them internal intel or otherwise help them gain “an unfair competitive advantage” as part of a scheme stretching back to at least 2017.
“The ultimate victim from this criminal conduct is the buying public who get inferior or even dangerous goods that should have been removed from the marketplace,” said U.S. Attorney Brian T. Moran, in a statement. The DoJ estimates that this ring of of fraudsters bought their way to “more than $100 million of competitive benefits” not only by boosting their own products, but also by damaging the reputations of competitors.
There’s a few different ways these payed-off-employees were manipulated, all equally slimy in their own way. First, they were asked to reinstate products or accounts that Amazon had previously suspended—or outright banned—from doing business with the platform for what seem to be very legitimate reasons. Some of these products, per the DOJ, were outright dangerous: consumer electronics that would catch fire, or supplements that weren’t necessarily approved for human consumption. Some of these accounts were caught manipulating reviews of these (and other) products. Shamelessly, the group bribed Amazon workers into both writing and then “approving baseless and fraudulent merchant appeals.” One of the six people named in the indictment, Nishad Kunju, originally took these kickbacks while working on Amazon’s seller-support side while based out of India, before joining the others in order to to recruit more contractors—and more bribes—instead.
Aside from this, the Amazonian co-conspirators “facilitated attacks” against the sellers that competed with the consultancy’s customers. In some cases, these takedowns would mean sharing intel about those competitor’s revenue, customer base, or suppliers; in others, it’d mean using their insider access to flat-out suspend those competitors accounts. The suit also describes how the six were given access to top-secret marketplace algorithms that gave the ability to flood these competing product listings with piss-poor reviews. These cheat codes in hand, the consultants were able to swap out some listings’ photos with “lewd” and “offensive” content meant to “drive away consumers and intimidate the victims.”
The examples the DOJ provided—a listing for a blanket that was swapped out with an emoji flipping the bird, and a pet supplement swapped out with a Guy Fawkes mask—aren’t necessarily offensive. But they would make selling the blanket or pet food a whole lot harder.
The sellers doing all this alleged bribery and fraud, meanwhile, were given other rule-breaking perks: like more space for storage in the company’s warehouses. They also finagled their way into receiving approval to sell restricted products, like makeup, lockpicking kits, and bongs. Amazon’s workers who were in on the scheme also instructed these sellers how to run a successful ad campaign on the platform, and which kinds of listings tend to turn the biggest profits.
In addition to the massive competitive advantage previously stated, these machinations also earned each named individual four separate charges: wire fraud, conspiracy to commit wire fraud, conspiracy to use a communication facility to commit commercial bribery, and conspiracy to access a protected computer without authorization.
These hefty charges come packaged with some hefty fines. All things considered, these six could be facing more than two decades behind bars for their business venture, while also shouldering a fine worth half a million dollars.
We’ve reached out to amazon for comment on the case. It’s certainly not the first time the company has tried to grapple with its own workers leaking valuable seller info in exchange for cash, which, as the Wall Street Journal noted back in 2018, is trend that’s “particularly pronounced” among contractors in China. That year, sources chocked it up to a skyrocketing number of local sellers, along with bottom-rung salaries and awful factory conditions for Amazon’s own staffers in the region. Contractors for the company are still treated terribly and discarded thoughtlessly.
Meanwhile, the third party seller side of Amazon’s business is netting the company more now than ever before.