Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Amazon's Confusing Automated Accusations

Image CC0 via Pixabay

Like it or not, writers are affected by Amazon. Amazon will sell our books. Reviews on Amazon can encourage people to buy our books. So it is quite scary when an author receives an email from Amazon that threatens severe penalties (such as not being able to sell books) - without even specifying what it is the author has done to receive the warning, or offering any appeal. I experienced this recently, and it was a stressful situation. It is the equivalent of police warning you that "If you, or someone you know, continues to do something which we won't specify, then you'll be locked up, and you can't appeal against our decision or question what you're supposed to have done or what evidence we think we have." Then add to that the fact that you haven't done anything, but seem to be targeted for an act someone else (unknown to you) has done. Bizarre, isn't it? But when organisations like Amazon get so big they start to rely on software algorithms to flag things up - especially when that software is flawed, or creates false positives - things get worrying.

This is the shocking email I woke up to a couple of weeks ago:
From: review-seller-appeals@amazon.co.uk
Sent: 05 April 2017 04:08
Subject: Policy Warning

Hello,

We have determined that your account is related to accounts that have written Amazon customer reviews for products that you have a financial interest in. This may include products that you or your competitors sell. Family members or close friends of a seller on Amazon may not write reviews for the seller’s items or negative reviews for items sold by that seller’s competitors. Sellers are not allowed to manipulate ratings, feedback, or customer reviews.

If this problem continues, we may not allow you to sell on Amazon.co.uk.

To learn more about this policy, search for "Prohibited Seller Activities and Actions" in Seller Central Help.

Sincerely,

Seller Performance Team
Amazon Services
I have no idea what it refers to, and still don't - Amazon refused to reply to any of my follow up emails. All I know is that it must be a false positive. I am not an Amazon Seller, and am unable to even login and see any contents in Seller Central Help - which is one of the huge warning flags that Amazon is incorrectly sending out automated warnings.

In case it is of interest, this is the reply I sent to Amazon nearly two weeks ago. As stated, I didn't get a reply, or even acknowledgement of their error. All that stands is the threat to my livelihood if their software creates another false positive. I write horror, but this is scarier than anything in my books. Has anyone else received a message like this?
From: Karl Drinkwater
Sent: 05 April 2017 10:14
To: review-seller-appeals@amazon.co.uk
Cc: Jeff Bezos
Subject: RE: Policy Warning

Dear Amazon,

Please can you give me some more information.

The only products I "have a financial interest in" are my books. But my family do not write reviews. I only have two friends on Facebook, and they don't read my work. I have many followers on Facebook and Twitter and Goodreads, but they are fans of my work, not "close friends". I do not leave negative reviews for other authors - if I don't like a book, I just don't mention it. I do not write reviews for the books of close friends.

Therefore, please can you tell me _something_ about the review or user this relates to. Being told that Amazon will close your account if you do something a second time, without defining what that thing is or giving any indication of it (even though you obviously have a particular time/circumstance/review/user in mind) is unhelpful. Further, I can only assume this message has come about as a misinterpretation of something, such as a person wrote a review of one of my books, became a fan, and now follows me on Twitter.

These Policy Warning messages should include:

1. What the person is being accused of (specifically), and
2. A chance to point out if the accusation is incorrect (since the warning flag has probably generated by an algorithm rather than a person).

To send such dire warnings without the recipient having any way of avoiding further warnings or punishments (such as account closure) is stressful and unhelpful.

I do not, and never would, "manipulate ratings, feedback, or customer reviews": and I disagree with those that do. I support Amazon fully in trying to fight against that kind of unethical behaviour. But obviously you are also flagging up false positives, and there needs to be information and an appeal process for these cases. Otherwise your algorithms cannot improve, bugs will not be spotted, and genuinely innocent authors - the ones that you should be supporting - will be caught up in these false presumptions.

Further - your email says "To learn more about this policy, search for Prohibited Seller Activities and Actions in Seller Central Help". There is not even a URL included. I Googled that and found this address https://sellercentral.amazon.com/ - a site I have never seen before - but the site won't let me log in, saying "Welcome. You don't have access yet." Obviously something has gone wrong with your system if you are directing users to policies they cannot view, on systems they do not use. And again, the lack of information and an appeal opportunity makes this even more stressful and confusing.

I hope this is a misunderstanding or bug, and that I can help you get to the bottom of it before it causes problems for other users.

Yours faithfully,

Karl Drinkwater

Update: 19th April 2017

Just before I wrote the post above, I had copied my email to Amazon once more. Well, I did get a new reply last night. This.
-----Original Message-----
From: review-seller-appeals@amazon.co.uk
Sent: 18 April 2017 17:46
Subject: RE: Policy Warning

Hello,

Thank you for taking the time to contact us in response to the policy warning.

Our investigations have shown that your account is related to the accounts of customers who have reviewed your book. Our policies state that family members or close friends of authors on Amazon may not write reviews for that author’s book.

We want to call your attention to this policy because violations may result in the removal of your Amazon.com KDP selling privileges.

To learn more about this policy, please see our Customer Review Guidelines Page for Authors (https://www.amazon.com/gp/community-help/customer-review-guidelines-faqs-from-authors).

We cannot share any further information about this warning and we may not reply to further emails about this issue.
I was flummoxed. I have no problem with their policy. If someone who knows the author writes a review, fine, delete it. But it's me being threatened with punitive measures and pointed to policies I can't access, not the unknown person who wrote a review. And, due to the lack of information, I'm still betting this is a false positive, that they are misinterpreting something as a "related account" e.g. I used to send ARC - Advance Review Copies - to bloggers via Amazon; maybe Amazon then takes that to represent a "related account", assuming it was a gift and therefore the person was a friend? Someone who follows me on Twitter? A “Friend” fan on Goodreads? Did some author I'd reviewed in the past go on to read and review one of my books? Who knows. Amazon make it impossible to do anything but surmise.

I was quite stressed by this, and replied.
-----Original Message-----
From: Karl Drinkwater
Sent: 18 April 2017 21:09
To: review-seller-appeals+A31C2CR2VCF8EE@amazon.co.uk
Subject: RE: Policy Warning

Thank you, but this is so bizarre.

I don't know which book, or what person, or when this applies to. There seem to be only two options.

1. Someone who knows or follows me wrote a review. I have no idea who, and I have no control over anyone writing reviews, or any ability to stop them, yet I could have my account closed for something I have no control over.

2. Amazon has mistakenly created a false positive, and since I am not given any information to help Amazon check that, I could have my account closed for something that hasn't happened.

Whichever is true, I am given no information as to what happened, and am not allowed to appeal against it anyway.

Does that not strike you as incredibly unfair?

"We cannot share any further information about this warning and we may not reply to further emails about this issue."

As a literary editor, I have to point out that sentence is incorrect. Amazon could do both of those things. It is Amazon's choice not to provide any useful information that could help to identify a false positive, or to improve your processes.

This is incredibly depressing and scary. I cannot tell you how stressed I feel right now having been accused of something I am completely unaware of. I really am knocked for six by the unfairness of it.

Karl Drinkwater
I have no control over this. No author does. This is what happens when we become connected to large organisations that minimise their accountability via their guidelines and terms and conditions/EULAs. You have no say, no matter how bizarre or unfair the issue. Pretty scary stuff. It's probably why many people keep quiet about these cases, for fear of the organisation lashing out for you having the temerity to ask what you are accused of. All authors who publish to Amazon can be held hostage in this way. Amazon customers are generally our largest market. So, there's nothing we can do. Just accept that our livelihoods, and that of our family, can be taken away for infractions we have no control over, and no way of stopping.

To end on a more positive note, I've been discussing this with fellow authors, and some of them managed to reassure me.

"Wow. That's getting crazy. I'm not saying it doesn't make sense that they don't want bogus reviews. But how do you prevent someone you may know from reviewing your book?"

"A few of my friends posted reviews when I first started and I got the same threatening email and vague responses. Amazon is a little over the top sometimes."

"Make sure your Facebook email and Amazon email are separate. Amazon and Kobo are known to delete reviews from "friends" on Facebook, whether they are real friends or not, whether they live across the world to somewhere you've never been. Apparently you aren't allowed to socialize with your readers. Kobo email and Facebook email as well.  I've had a few of mine deleted of an author who lives in the UK whom I've never met, but I love his books."

"I had my 5 year old KDP account terminated 2 months ago after my best month. So did 4 others in the same group I was in. Not much of an explanation given."

"It hasn't happened to me, but I've heard of it happening to others. I've also heard of authors being dropped from KDP Select for sudden increases in page reads. The way they handle these things is less than encouraging."

"I've heard of similar letters: they're form letters sent out when Amazon thinks they've detected unusual activity, and as you surmised, it's probably a false positive. It's also a hollow threat. I don't know of any author who's been permanently banned from selling on Amazon, though I've heard of two who were permanently banned from leaving reviews. (In both cases, Amazon's actions were harsh, but justified — there were shenanigans by the authors.) And in the cases where authors have been banned due to other issues, like KU anomalies, they've been restored on appeal (e.g., Pauline Creeden). I wouldn't lose any sleep over it."


So I'm going to hope this never recurs and I can just get on with writing and selling fantastic books.

Update: 20th April 2017

I did get a final reply. Unfortunately, despite escalation, it just reiterates what has already been said, something I have found many times with Amazon. There are no answers to any of my questions. I am still in a position that I had no control over. I'll include the email anyway, for completeness.
From: Amazon.co.uk [mailto:review-seller-appeals@amazon.co.uk]
Sent: 20 April 2017 16:13
Subject: **JB Escalation**CTC 24465749586 CID501075982

Message From Customer Service

Hello Karl,

Jeff Bezos received your email and requested that I research this issue and respond on his behalf.

Our investigations have shown that your account is related to the accounts of customers who have reviewed your book. Our policies state that family members or close friends of authors on Amazon may not write reviews for that author’s book.

Due to the proprietary nature of our business, we do not provide detailed information on how we determine that accounts are related.

We want to call your attention to this policy because violations may result in the removal of your Amazon.com KDP selling privileges.

To learn more about this policy, please see our Customer Review Guidelines Page for Authors (https://www.amazon.com/gp/community-help/customer-review-guidelines-faqs-from-authors).

We cannot share any further information about this warning and we may not reply to further emails about this issue.

Warmest regards,

Your feedback is helping us build Earth's Most Customer-Centric Company.

Update: 30th May 2017

I let it drop after the email above, but bizarrely, over a month later, I got ANOTHER final reply - with almost the same wording. It shows that people just copy and paste the same text. And still no answers to any of my questions, just the warning that my account can be closed for something I have no control over and they won't tell me about. Surreal!
From: Amazon.co.uk [mailto:review-appeals@amazon.co.uk]
Sent: 30 May 2017 19:09
Subject: FW: Policy Warning

Message From Customer Service

Hello Karl,

Jeff Bezos received your email and requested that we research this issue and respond on his behalf. Thank you for taking the time to contact us in response to the policy warning.

Our investigations have shown that your account is related to the accounts of customers who have reviewed your book. Our policies state that family members or close friends of authors on Amazon may not write reviews for that author’s book.

We want to call your attention to this policy because violations may result in the removal of your Amazon.com KDP selling privileges.

To learn more about this policy, please see our Customer Review Guidelines Page for Authors (https://www.amazon.com/gp/community-help/customer-review-guidelines-faqs-from-au...).

We cannot share any further information about this warning and we may not reply to further emails about this issue.

Warmest regards,

Your feedback is helping us build Earth's Most Customer-Centric Company.


Update: 13th June 2017

I don't believe this! Another email (see below). I have never done anything to "manipulate ratings, feedback or reviews", but Amazon bots keep accusing me of this and giving no further information which might actually help identify what is creating these false positives. Or, if someone has actually done something, tell the person what they've done specifically, so they can stop doing it!
-----Original Message-----
From: review-seller-appeals@amazon.com
Sent: 13 June 2017 04:47
Subject: Notice: Policy Warning

Hello,

We understand that you may have manipulated product reviews. Authors on Amazon.com are not allowed to manipulate ratings, feedback, or reviews.

Violations of our policies may also violate state and federal laws, including the Federal Trade Commission Act. Amazon tries to maintain customer trust and provide the best possible shopping experience. For this reason, Amazon investigates if it learns that sellers, vendors, or others have attempted to manipulate reviews. It also investigates if it learns that third parties have offered reviews in exchange for compensation.

If this problem continues, we may not allow you to publish on Amazon.com.

To learn more about this policy, please see our Customer Review Guidelines Page for Authors (https://www.amazon.com/gp/community-help/customer-review-guidelines-faqs-from-authors) and see our Anti-Manipulation Policy for Customer Reviews (https://www.amazon.com/no-manipulation).

Sincerely,

Seller Performance Team
Amazon.com
I wish I knew what was going on, so that I could at least then help others in this situation! In the absence of any information from Amazon, these seem to be the only possibilities:
  • I used to send ARC - Advance Review Copies - to bloggers via Amazon; maybe Amazon then takes that to represent a "related account", assuming it was a gift and therefore the person was a friend? If that is the case then the lesson is clearly that no author should ever send anything bought via Amazon. But to be honest this seems increasingly unlikely, or at least can't be the only false trigger, because I am still getting these warnings and haven't sent a book through Amazon for years.
  • Did someone who knows me (or rather, Amazon thinks knows me), leave a review? I'm not aware of it, and certainly didn't ask them, so it wouldn't be anything I can control.
  • Maybe a follower on Twitter or Goodreads wrote a review of one of my books, and Amazon incorrectly flags contacts on those social media sites as "friends" and therefore assumes they are biased? That would be silly on Amazon's part, there is no connection between who you follow and who you know. I follow Stephen King on Twitter; he doesn't even know I exist.
  • Amazon always asks me "Was this review helpful to you?" Occasionally the nagging gets too much for me and I click yes or no. But maybe that's a trick by Amazon, and if you give in to their request they then accuse you of review manipulation? I think that would be surreal and unlikely - if it was something so petty it would be ridiculous for them to keep the reason so secret that they would refuse even to comment on it. They would just state that you are meant to ignore their requests about review helpfulness. Nah, doesn't seem likely.
  • Or maybe an ARC reviewer added a standard line such as "I received a copy of this book in exchange for a review" and Amazon interpreted that as me bribing people for good reviews (giving away books is allowed, and is standard practice - but we have no control over the wording that reviewers use, and the recommended wording keeps changing, so that what Amazon ignores one year, could be grounds for review deletion the next).
  • I have heard that Amazon tries to track and link email addresses and keep data about it, and this could lead to even more false positives. Some authors advise against using your main professional email address or your newsletter address for anything connected to Amazon.
  • Maybe it is revenge. Amazon being spiteful. See, I left a review of the Kindle Fire 7 and pointed out that you have to be very careful which version you get, or you will have ads plastered on your screen. The very next day I got this email from Amazon, threatening to close my account. Amazon won't give any information, so it can't be ruled out, though I'd like to think it isn't the case.
  • That only leaves false positives. I can't do anything about those because Amazon won't discuss them. Presumably they won't discuss it because they don't want people to know how widespread this problem is, and how buggy their algorithms are, or how flawed their assumptions prove to be. I can only assume this is the real reason. It's worrying that Amazon show no interest in identifying false positives, and give no appeal. They seem to be threatening authors' livelihoods based on errors. It's a sad conclusion to reach.
Amazon will not clarify the issue, either because they know their assumptions are flawed, or because it might reveal some element of spying that that shouldn't be doing. I agree on cracking down on dodgy behaviour, but as usual, their software-based assumptions also leads to false positives, but no way of defending yourself against them.
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6 comments:

Danny said...

I'm sorry you've had to go through that - Amazon is like speaking to an answering machine at times, and equally as dense and unfriendly.

Trish said...

This makes me pretty mad. I'm in the reviewer community, and it is increasingly confusing what you are meant to say or not say so that Amazon doesn't delete your reviews. It changes all the time. So much confusion about it. I can see it's just as bad for authors!

Anonymous said...

That's so unfair. Especially the way they say they'll close your account if you do something again, but don't tell you what that thing is.

Noelle Kelly said...

That's just mad... And frustrating I would imagine!

Karl Drinkwater said...

Aye to both!

Anonymous said...

Hello,
I have the same situation as you have. Let me know, if you have some updates.

thanks.