Consumers flock to the online retail giant because of its wide selection and more importantly, its return guarantees.
But some unsavory sellers are taking advantage of Amazon’s customer communication system, luring trusting shoppers into a scam.
John Sagona of Oakhurst said he fell victim to a hustle when he made a purchase through the site. What’s worse, he said, Amazon refused to help.
In March, Sagona decided to buy a generator for his home. During Superstorm Sandy, his house had no power for five days, so a generator seemed like a smart investment.
Sagona said he looked around, and saw Amazon and its third party merchants offered new generators in the $1,700 range, and used ones on the same page for about half that price. Knowing he was a handy guy, Sagona opted for a used one for $798. It was listed by a seller called “S T O R E333.”
“I had email-type correspondence — only through the site — back and forth from the vendor as to shipping and condition of one of the used generators,” Sagona said.
The communication included delivery information and a button to click to pay with a credit card.
Sagona decided to buy, so he clicked the button, which sent him to the Western Union web site, he said. He followed the instructions and wired the money to the seller on March 27.
The delivery date came and went, and he never got the generator.
Sagona emailed Amazon.
“Amazon claims that it is not their problem as they cannot find the order and that this is not their order number,” he said. “Amazon said I had not ordered through them, although I was on their site and I have printouts of my order, of my delivery date and of my order instructions.”
So Sagona reported the problem to the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs, which directed him to Washington state’s consumer affairs department, because that’s where Amazon is located. He said he forwarded all his paperwork and emails to that office, which said the investigation would take four to six weeks.
“They later advised the business did not choose to respond, and so they can do nothing,” he said.
So Sagona went back to Amazon, which again said it had no record of the transaction.
“They also lost my complaints, but then later found them,” he said. “Then they told me, again, that they could find nothing and that I must have been defrauded and they had nothing to do with this.”
In May, finally, Amazon acknowledged in an email to Sagona that the merchant was one of its sellers, and said it was escalating the case.
But by July, Sagona didn’t hear anything back, so he emailed again. When Amazon replied on July 27, again, it said it couldn’t help.
“I do not understand how Amazon can then say they had nothing to do with this,” he said. “The Amazon-approved vendor has apparently defrauded me of my money and I placed my order through Amazon.”
AMAZON SPEAKS (SORT OF)
We examined Sagona’s correspondence with Amazon and with the mysterious “S T O R E333” seller.
As Sagona said, his back-and-forth with the seller was all through Amazon’s messaging system, and the Western Union payment button was part of that.
We asked Amazon to review his case.
A spokesman thanked us for sharing, and said, “We will review the details and follow up with the customer directly.”
We asked about Amazon’s policies, its relationship with third party vendors, what terms govern such arrangements and whether this vendor was still selling on Amazon.
“Amazon has a longstanding policy of not discussing publicly individual buyer and merchant accounts for privacy reasons,” the spokesman said.
Got that. So we tried talking generally, asking for help in how to search for a vendor by name because our search for the elusive “S T O R E333” came up empty.
“The Amazon search experience is designed to help customers discover a vast selection of brand items and specific product offers to browse,” the spokesman said. “We do not have a search process for individual merchants.”
We then asked Amazon to share purchase safety tips for customers, but it didn’t respond to the request.
So we went back to the site. It promises to protect customers with its “Amazon A-z Guarantee.”
“We want you to buy with confidence anytime you make a purchase on the Amazon.com website or use Amazon Payments; that’s why we guarantee purchases from third-party sellers when payment is made via the Amazon.com website or when you use Amazon Payments for qualified purchases on third-party websites.”
Sagona didn’t use Amazon Payments, but that’s because he was seemingly duped by the seller into using Western Union. The payment button on the Amazon-sponsored communication is what sent him there to pay. It’s not like the seller sent him a note behind Amazon’s back that said, “Psst. Hey, customer, pay me outside of Amazon.”
We don’t know how many other customers have fallen for this kind of ruse, but complaints abound on consumer chat boards — even Amazon’s.
We reached out to Western Union to get a better idea of how often fraudsters use its money transfer service to swindle customers.
Plenty, Western Union said.
It said its service is primarily used from consumer to consumer, not from buyers to sellers.
Western Union moves some $80 billion a year among 70 million consumers, and the majority are people who send money to family members overseas, it said.
To transfer money via Western Union, the sender gives his name and the name of the person receiving the funds. Then they get a “money control number,” which the receiver needs to show, along with identification, to get the cash.
But scammers, a spokeswoman said, know how the service works, and they often change identifications and use fake ones.
Western Union recommends reporting any alleged cons to the company so it can investigate and see if others have had problems with the same money receiver. That’s so the company could refuse future deliveries to anyone it suspects is using its service for a rip-off, the spokeswoman said.
“But the fraudsters are aware of all these interventions, so all the time they’re changing their modus operandi,” she said.
That means you, the consumer, must be vigilant.
When it comes to online purchases, check merchant ratings and reviews. Of course, some could be fake commentary, but it’s a start. Be suspicious if a vendor is new or has no reviews.
Finally, have a conversation with the merchant before making a purchase. You may be able to get a flavor for the kind of person who is running the store.
If you’re unsure, find a more reputable seller or hit your local stores in person.
MAKING IT RIGHT
A day after Amazon’s non-answer answers to Bamboozled, Sagona received an email from the same customer service rep who previously said Amazon couldn’t help.
“We want customers to buy with confidence when they visit Amazon.com whether they are buying directly from Amazon or a third-party seller,” the rep said. “By asking you to send money outside of the Amazon.com website, the third party seller violated Amazon policies. We take issues like this seriously and this seller is no longer offering products on our website.”
The rep apologized for Sagona’s customer service experience.
“As a goodwill gesture, I have issued a $800 Amazon.com gift card to Your Account,” the email said.
After Amazon’s previous communications with Sagona, that’s a welcome surprise.
“Amazon realized they were responsible,” he said. “I have nothing but gratitude and thanks for the assistance provided by Bamboozled in resolving this matter.”
We’re glad Amazon did the right thing, but it’s a shame that it took some prodding to make it happen. So it goes.
Have you been Bamboozled? Contact Karin Price Mueller at Bamboozled@NJAdvanceMedia.com