The Scams of Amazon


Our world is complicated. More information has been documented in the past 20 years than, reportedly, in the entirety of human existence. The massive libraries of the past may have housed vast stores of knowledge, but even the most impressive ones pale in comparison to a massive server farm. Though digital storage and Internet-enabled sharing are fantastic accomplishments of humanity, the scale of information we have today has become problematic for one major reason—we can’t wrap our heads around it.

Imagining our Place

As members of our planet’s most intelligent species (probably), we possess an ability that has allowed us to thrive in all kinds of environments with many different challenges. This ability is imagination. Our brains allow us to forecast new situations and imagine ourselves in the lives of others. Comparatively, a goldfish can’t imagine the other side of its tank. Chimpanzees, with whom we share most of our DNA, can only imagine a world around 2 miles in diameter.  

Us homo sapiens sapiens, on the other hand, are capable of envisioning an entire globe of diverse places. We’re not usually 100% correct as to what a new place is like, but we generally aren’t 100% wrong either. We live in a vast universe which is mostly comprised of empty space and conditions we will never experience. We live on a planet where we have only explored small fractions of what there is to know. And we use a tool, the Internet, which funnels almost everything we know into the palm of our hand. When it comes to things as abstractly large as space, deep time, or the Internet, our brains are simply not equipped.

Complex Beyond Imagination

As we create more complex systems that live on the Internet (more accurately, on servers), we compound the complexity to a point where no one is entirely sure how much stuff is on the web at any given point. On a smaller scale, companies like Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google seem to have reached a point where their virtual ecosystems have become too much to manage—even with giant teams of certifiably intelligent people. 

In these highly complex systems, regulating what goes onto a user’s feed has become difficult—especially when it comes to scams. 

A Faulty Platform

Recently, Amazon was served with a lawsuit alleging that they aren’t being proactive about weeding out counterfeit or fake products. We’ve experienced it ourselves at the Studio. In a recent search for high capacity microSD cards on Amazon, we were surprised to find a product advertised as a 256 gigabyte microSD card for around $20. (Here’s the link. Please don’t buy it…) We’re lucky here to have had experiences which reminded us that microSD cards don’t really have 256 gigabyte capacities...and even a card with 64 gigabytes should retail for more than $20. The review section confirmed our suspicion. Several people had purchased the item, discovered it was only around 5 gigabytes, and outted it as a scam on Amazon.

That should have been the end of the road for the vendor selling the counterfeit cards...but it wasn’t. Even though some of the reviews were nearly two years old. Days after looking at the fake product, we received a promotional email prompting us to add the item back to our cart. The fake product still ships with Prime. This is not an isolated issue. 

A Cut of the Crime

In a recent Atlantic article, small business owners shared stories of their trademarked products being knocked off in a similar manner. The functional integrity of the knock-off products may or may not have been similar to the original product, but the revenue from their sale did not go to the rightful owner of the trademark. Amazon has responded to overarching concerns of online product fakery, but the message was essentially, “we prevent these incidents almost every time.”

That is simply untrue. 

Not only do counterfeit items find their way to Amazon in large numbers, the purveyors of these products are protected by a thin layer of regulation with which Amazon burdens shop owners. Fake names, addresses, and other phony credentials are often left unverified, shielding the real people behind the crime from the repercussions of their actions. Amazon argues that they are not responsible for the actions of storefront owners, but when the company is profiting from a percentage of counterfeit sales you have to find fault in their practices.

Amazon is not Alone

Apple’s App Store is also filled with “fake” or misleading products. Paid apps that suggest some function that turn out to be functionless are not uncommon. Other apps have been exposed as knockoffs, or simply phishing scams. For those of us who are immersed in technology on a regular basis, these apps might not be hard to spot, but the App Store is made for those new to technology in addition to us digital natives. Regardless, the presence of disingenuous software on Apple’s App Store and hardware on Amazon reveals a concerning inability (or lack of interest) for these companies to self-regulate their ecosystems.

So where do we go from here?

As we generate increasingly incomprehensible amounts of data, we need to be looking towards smarter, more granular, and more transparent systems to prevent nefarious actors from interfering with consumers. Artificial intelligence seems to be the most obvious choice for parsing fraudsters, but we may be waiting for that solution for longer than we would like. For now, the simple fix would be for Amazon and Apple to tighten their review process for products, apps, and vendors, and prioritize customer reviews and rating to sort the junk from the jewels. A more complex and long-term solution would be to strengthen security measures for those who sell products on Amazon, ensuring they’re real people who can be held accountable for selling counterfeit or bogus products.

A Complex Future

We began this article with a reminder that we are only human. It’s a solemn fact knowing that, no matter how advanced we build our technology, a single human mind won’t be able to truly control it. Even a team of experts working full-time would not be able to fully patrol the vast sea of information on Amazon—there are simply not enough hours in the day. This problem isn’t going to get better on it’s own and, in the future, companies like Amazon will need systems that help us sort out what’s real and what’s fake. For now, the burden of determining whether something is a scam lies with consumers (the old ‘buyer beware’), and our limited imagination to suss them out.