Amazon ran a sting to root out counterfeit textbooks, but some small sellers say they were unfairly targeted

Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos in 1997

Paul Souders | Hulton Archive | Getty Images
Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos in 1997

Amazon upended the book industry more than two decades ago by bringing sales onto the web. Now, during the heart of the holiday shopping season, the company is wreaking havoc on used booksellers who have come to rely on Amazon for customers.

In the past two weeks, Amazon has suspended at least 20 used book merchants for allegedly selling one or more counterfeit textbooks. They all received the same generic email from Amazon informing them that their account had been “temporarily deactivated” and reminding them that “the sale of counterfeit products on Amazon is strictly prohibited.”

Booksellers are among the millions of Amazon’s third-party sellers, a segment that’s now responsible for over half of the company’s e-commerce volume. The fees Amazon charges those sellers for shipping, fulfillment and other services accounted for over $10 billion of revenue in the third quarter, or 18 percent of Amazon’s total sales.

The crackdown on textbook sellers stands out at a time when Amazon is dramatically stepping up its broader anti-counterfeiting efforts, suspending third-party sellers across all its popular categories. Unlike most suspensions, which tend to occur after complaints from consumers or from brand owners who are monitoring the site for counterfeits, these booksellers got caught up a coordinated sting operation run by Amazon.

The mysterious Clara Dufour

According to three sellers who spoke to CNBC, as well as numerous messages on public forums, many of the supposedly counterfeit books had been sent to the same person and address.

When these sellers got the email from Amazon notifying them that their accounts had been suspended, they checked their records and found that the book had been sent to Clara Dufour at 303 S. River Street in Seattle.

If Dufour really exists, she doesn’t seem to work or live at that address, which is home to a 75,000 square foot commercial office space called OpenSquare. A representative at the OpenSquare location said he’d never heard of Dufour, knew nothing of any books arriving there and suggested checking with the “Amazon fulfillment center across the street.”

An administrator at the nearby Amazon warehouse said it was company policy not to disclose the name of any employees at the facility.

Meanwhile, the booksellers have been busy filling out appeals for reinstatement and trying to get someone at Amazon to listen. Several of them have had their accounts reactivated this week, but without explanation.

At the same time, they’re trying to figure out who’s behind Clara Dufour, and have congregated on an Amazon Sellers Forum that’s accumulated 376 comments since the first seller posted about the issue on Nov. 30.

In a statement after the story was first published, an Amazon spokesperson acknowledged that the company was behind the sting.

“Our customers expect authentic product and we have zero tolerance for counterfeits in our store,” Amazon said. “These counterfeit books were caught in a test buy program we operate, which is just one component of our aggressive anti-counterfeiting efforts. The publishers for these books confirmed that these particular books were counterfeit so we took swift action to protect our customers.”


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Loknath Das

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