The 148th most popular book on Amazon Wednesday wasn’t actually a book at all: It was a package of 50 disposable face masks–the kind that shoppers have scrambled to buy amid the coronavirus pandemic. Surging demand for masks, as well as supplies like hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes, has emptied store shelves, and in some cases led to skyrocketing prices on Amazon.
The box of masks had risen in sales rank from 19,662 to 148 in just one day, according to Amazon’s list of “Movers & Shakers,” or goods that have surged in popularity in a given category in the past 24 hours. A similar scenario played out the next day: The number two Mover & Shaker in the videogames category Thursday morning, beating out The Sims 4 and a gaming headset, was a package of 50 disposable face masks. Both of these product listings for masks appear to violate Amazon’s rules.
“Face masks and hand sanitizers are the number one and number two most searched terms on Amazon. That’s attracting many sellers who are pulling every trick they can think of to get into search results,” says Juozas Kaziukenas, founder of the ecommerce data firm Marketplace Pulse, who first alerted WIRED to the face mask listings.
“Bad actors that attempt to abuse our systems make up a tiny fraction of activity on our site,” a spokesperson for Amazon said in a statement. “We use sophisticated tools, including machine learning, to combat them, and we are making it increasingly difficult for bad actors to hide. These bad actors show a flagrant disregard for our community, our policies, and in some cases, the law, and do not reflect the flourishing community of honest entrepreneurs that make up the vast majority of our sellers.”
The company began cracking down on third-party sellers seeking to exploit the pandemic last month, warning them not to engage in price gouging, or risk getting kicked off the site. By the end of February, Amazon announced it had removed 1 million products that were falsely advertised to defend against or cure Covid-19, as well as tens of thousands of items listed for inflated prices. Senator Ed Markey, the Democrat from Massachusetts, sent a letter to Amazon earlier this month asking about price gouging, and attorneys general across the country say they have received hundreds of complaints about the practice.
Last week, Amazon confirmed to CNBC that it would no longer accept new offers for face masks, hand sanitizer, and other products related to the coronavirus outbreak.
Like many online platforms, Amazon relies on a mix of automated tools and human moderation to enforce its policies. It’s not clear how the face masks that appeared in the Movers & Shakers rankings slipped through, but it may be because both appear to have been swapped into older listings for legitimate products. So-called “review hijacking” is a common form of fraud on Amazon. Here’s how it works: Sellers take an old listing for a different product with good reviews, and swap the picture and description for the new item. Positive reviews help determine whether products will appear higher in search results. The hope is that people won’t bother reading individual reviews before making a purchase.
The third-party seller who listed face masks as a book, for example, appears to have done so by taking over the listing for a real book called Rain of Gold by Victor Villasenor. Many of the face mask’s five-star reviews were years old. While some appeared to be fake, others mentioned Villasenor’s book. “If you are intrigued by the history of Mexico you will like this book,” one reviewer wrote back in 2014.
“Amazon has to step up their game,” Kaziukenas says, “because consumers have no idea about the underlying mechanics of the marketplace chaos.”
The coronavirus pandemic could be one of the most pivotal moments for Amazon yet in the company’s 25-year history. With many people confined to their homes, orders are spiking, and Amazon has run out of essential items like toilet paper. To cope, the company announced earlier this week that it’s currently only accepting items like household staples, medical supplies, and groceries at its warehouses. It’s also hiring 100,000 additional workers and giving existing staff temporary raises.
As the outbreak continues to spread in the US–The Atlantic reported the first confirmed Covid-19 case in an Amazon warehouse Wednesday–pressure on the company to make the right decisions for its customers and its labor force will only grow.
Updated, 3-19-20, 6:15 pm ET: This story has been updated with comment from Amazon.
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