Andrew didn’t think much about the first package. Or the second. Then they began arriving in droves.
The earliest ones started showing up outside his family home in suburban Colorado in March 2021, addressed only to the “Returns Department.” The packages contained cheap women’s clothing, scarves, kimonos, and underwear manufactured in China. Inside each was an Amazon returns slip.
Initially, he thought someone had screwed up. Andrew runs his own business on the site, selling high-end automotive accessories. Perhaps a customer had mixed up their return addresses. But as the wave of packages grew, sometimes to as many as two dozen a day, he knew something else was going on.
Despairing at the boxes piling up on his front porch, Andrew called Amazon. It wasn’t a mistake, the representative told him. Another seller had listed his residential address as their own: He was saddled with their unhappy customers’ returns.
Beyond that, the company couldn’t — or wouldn’t — help him.
“Phone calls to Amazon were worthless,” Andrew told Insider. “It was a dystopian horror story with soulless pre-scripted responses, and then dumbfounded silence when my answers didn’t fit their script.” To maintain his privacy, Andrew asked to be identified only by his first name.
He was baffled by how another seller could have appropriated his address. Amazon put him through a rigorous security screening when he opened his business’s account. The company even mailed a letter with a one-time password to his corporate address. His account couldn’t have been hacked. But somehow, an unscrupulous seller of women’s clothing had managed to steal his home address for their own.
Andrew isn’t the only one.
Amazon’s failure to verify the identities of many of its Marketplace sellers has allowed fraudsters to steal the information of people and businesses everywhere from Vancouver, Canada, to Pensacola, Florida. Insider spoke to six victims whose identities were used by fraudsters selling everything from bargain-bin clothing to counterfeit goods. Some said that when they reached out for help, the company did nothing.
The result is a surreal ecosystem of frustrated and bewildered people. Angry Amazon customers are buying and then returning dodgy products — and in doing so, they’re bombarding strangers like Andrew with monthslong deluges of mystery packages.
Amazon’s millions of third-party sellers generated $390 billion in sales in 2021 — more than half of Amazon’s total retail revenue. But for individual sellers, Amazon Marketplace is rarely lucrative and incredibly cutthroat. The majority may only see lifetime profits of less than $25,000.
Some sellers use underhanded tactics like submitting false fraud reports targeting rivals, or bribing Amazon employees to scuttle competitors. Others peddle counterfeit or shoddily produced wares.
Amazon bans fraudulent sellers, along with other accounts they’re suspected of owning, and blacklists their business name, physical location, and IP address. But for those in the know, there’s a way around all that.
On Telegram and forums like Swapd and PlayerUp, a gray market for secondhand Amazon seller accounts thrives. Thousands of brokers openly sell accounts, with prices ranging from a few hundred bucks for a new account to thousands of dollars apiece for years-old accounts with established histories.
While Amazon’s policies don’t generally allow sellers to transfer their accounts, not all secondhand accounts are purchased for illegal activities. An Amazon seller’s account could be included in the legitimate sale of a business or be purchased by a new seller looking for larger inventory allowances — but they’re also a good way to evade the company’s security checks.
Amazon also employs a range of security checks for new merchants, from video calls to verification letters like it sent Andrew, but buying an account that has already been verified lets sellers bypass these efforts.
“Fraudsters will buy an established account because it went through the verification checks years ago and has not been flagged in Amazon’s system,” Michael Jakubek, a former Amazon Marketplace fraud investigator, said.
Some brokers are so confident in their ability to evade Amazon’s security they offer a two-week money-back guarantee that the accounts won’t get banned. Others bundle virtual private networks that let buyers mimic their new account’s location.
After an account is sold, some buyers keep the previous owner’s name and address. In other cases, they adopt random identities. These can be piecemeal: a business name from here, an address from there. Sometimes they misappropriate someone’s entire identity.
Amazon is unlikely to scrutinize the changes if they occur over an extended period of time, Max, an operator of an account-selling website called Amaz.markets, told Insider. Max, who lives in Ukraine and is concerned about his safety, asked to be identified by only his first name. Two sellers who wished to remain anonymous said they often get repeat clients and people who buy secondhand accounts in bulk because of the frequency with which their accounts are banned for fraud. Max said he doesn’t feel responsible for what a buyer does with an account after it is purchased.
The victims of identity theft on Amazon vary wildly — from a charity executive in Vancouver who received returns from another cheap-clothing dealer using his address to a Florida nail salon listed as the seller of academic textbooks.
One seller, Your Toy Mart, registered its business address to a two-story home in an upscale suburb of Vancouver. Despite the name, it sold counterfeit books — including a computer-science textbook by the celebrated French AI researcher and Google engineer François Chollet.
When Insider visited the address, the surprised homeowner, Shelley Quarles, said she had never sold anything on Amazon, let alone counterfeit textbooks. An accounting professor, Quarles said she even asks her students not to buy their textbooks online because of counterfeiting concerns. Someone had stolen her address.
The explanation: Your Toy Mart’s original owner, Elizabeth Quarles — no relation to Shelley — had sold the account earlier this year after receiving a postcard that advertised a brokerage service for Amazon Marketplace accounts.
Your Toy Mart’s account had been dormant since 2019, when Elizabeth had shuttered the business and dissolved the LLC to focus on her family. Prior to that, the company had sold intricate modeling sets.
Elizabeth leveraged the account’s decade-long history of positive customer reviews to negotiate a purchase price of $3,000. Under the buyer’s direction, she changed the account’s banking information, address, and business name over several days without raising any red flags from Amazon, she said.
“Amazon didn’t want to know who the new people were. They just processed the request. Which is kind of scary when you think about it,” she said. Elizabeth didn’t know she’d sold her account to a book counterfeiter until Insider informed her of the fact. The information troubled her, she said. Her partner is an author, and she had hoped the account was going to a newer Amazon seller who wanted a leg up.
“Knowing that my man has written three books of his own, it would piss me off if someone stole those works and perpetrated them as their own,” she said.
Academic textbooks, like those sold by Your Toy Mart’s new owner, are an attractive target for counterfeiters because of their high value and the low cost required to print copies. But fakes plague all corners of Amazon.com, and big brands like Nike and Birkenstock have removed their products from the site over counterfeiting concerns. Even the Department of Homeland Security has warned consumers of the risk of being defrauded by knockoff and pirated goods on e-commerce sites like Amazon.
In a statement, Nicole Pampe, and Amazon spokesperson, said that the company aggressively fights fraud on its platform. Last year, the company spent more than $900 million and employed more than 12,000 people “dedicated to protecting customers, brands, selling partners, and our store from counterfeit, fraud, and other forms of abuse,” she wrote. Amazon uses “industry-leading tools to verify potential sellers’ identities and ensure product listings are authentic,” she added.
Despite these efforts, some experts say Amazon has a powerful incentive to overlook how bad actors evade its security checks.
“Amazon is a cash machine,” said Bruce Anderson, a retired cybercrimes investigator who previously worked for a firm tracking fraudulent sellers. “Amazon and the sellers have an interest in keeping the cash flowing.”
Andrew isn’t the only person who said Amazon wouldn’t help them after they complained that their identities were being misused by sellers on the site.
In July 2022, Sally Ashour started receiving textbooks addressed to her jewelry business, Sally De La Rose LLC. A fashion influencer, Ashour was used to getting products from strangers who hoped she would promote them on social media. But books, mainly on psychiatry and management, started stacking up by the dozens in her bedroom.She was confused. She’d never had an Amazon seller account and sold jewelry directly through her website. When she called Amazon, a representative told her there was a business on its site that was using her address and corporate identity. That’s when Ashour got angry.
“It’s just insane,” she said. “Someone can steal someone’s business name with no verification.”
Ashour said Amazon refused to shut down the account, so she tried contacting the IRS. When that didn’t work, she messaged the seller directly, threatening legal action.
“You have my home address displayed in public which you’re putting my family who live at that address in danger,” she warned.
She never received a reply, but the listings disappeared. The last few textbooks that trickled in, she donated to a local college.
An Amazon spokesperson did not directly address the experiences of any of the victims of identity theft, but said if people have “information on suspicious activity on Amazon,” they should report it to the company.
Even authors whose books have been counterfeited have struggled to get Amazon to act. After Chollet, the AI researcher, noticed that his books were being faked by numerous merchants, including Your Toy Mart, he tried for four months to convince Amazon to ban the fraudsters’ accounts.
“Once a fraudulent seller starts operating, Amazon completely ignores reports of fraud coming both from buyers and from authors,” he wrote in an email. “In fact, Amazon actively takes down negative reviews left on these fraudulent sellers, on the basis that the orders were fulfilled by Amazon, that is to say, Amazon had custody of the counterfeit inventory and was in charge of the shipping.”
Finally, in July 2022, he tweeted at Amazon about the problem. It went viral, and the company removed the dubious sellers, including Your Toy Mart. But that fix didn’t last, he said, and other suspicious accounts still appear intermittently, despite his reports.
“Right now, I can see that my book is being sold by Amazon itself (presumably legit),” he told Insider. “But who knows if that will be true tomorrow?”
Amazon has said it identified and removed 10 billion fake product listings in 2020, and that its identity-verification process for new accounts is so stringent that only 6% of prospective sellers passed. “We are constantly monitoring our store for potential infringement,”Pampe said.
But critics argue the company isn’t doing enough.
“Amazon is asleep at the wheel,” Jason Boyce, a consultant for Amazon sellers, said.
“What they will tell you is that they spent however many millions of dollars to stop counterfeiting. What they won’t tell you is that that’s .000000 zeroes ad nauseam of whatever Amazon is earning off their platform,” Boyce said.
Partway through 2021, Andrew relocated his auto-parts company. After updating the address on his seller page, Amazon made him go through a second round of verification, including another code mailed to the new address.
Meanwhile, the packages of women’s clothing continued to pile up on his porch. He labeled several “return to sender,” but mailing them back became a full-time job. He began to throw out packages, but his trash cans quickly overflowed — on some weeks with more than 30 pounds (14 kilograms) of unwanted garments.
Amazon still refused to help. He called over and over. “I couldn’t get anyone to understand what was going on,” Andrew said. One representative eventually let slip that the seller using his address had dismal reviews and an unusually high return rate — but the information provided little solace, and meanwhile, the boxes kept on coming.
Several months later, a chance conversation with his bemused UPS delivery driver about the mounds of packages sparked a partial solution. The driver’s manager created an automated interception system to block the deliveries, seemingly succeeding where Amazon had failed, though some returns using USPS still made it through.
By autumn 2021 — after six months and many hundreds of packages — the flood slowed to a dribble. This summer, Andrew and his family moved into a new home. They haven’t received another package since.
Got a tip? Contact reporter Rob Price via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, phone or encrypted messaging app Signal at +1 650-636-6268, or on Twitter at @robaeprice.
Contact reporter Katherine Long via mail at email@example.com, phone or the encrypted messaging app Signal at +1 206-375-9280, or on Twitter at @_katya_long.
Andrew didn’t think much about the first package. Or the second. Then they began arriving in droves.