Amazon alleges in a new lawsuit that a group of unnamed individuals used the tech giant’s name, trademarks and branding to dupe people into clicking on links with the promise of fraudulent Amazon gift cards and other rewards that would never come.
The company says in the suit that the defendants profited off email marketing campaigns they built to drive traffic to a series of advertisers and websites. On their own, email campaigns are a common and legitimate way to drive web traffic. However, the lawsuit alleges the defendants impersonated Amazon in these campaigns, by doing things like referring to people as “Amazon shoppers” to confuse them and send them to marketers, advertisers and websites to ultimately buy products with no relationship to Amazon.
“Defendants are engaged in a widespread, fraudulent marketing scheme that bombards victims with unauthorized emails and abuses Amazon’s brand to generate traffic,” according to the suit. “Defendants then profit from fees for this fraudulently generated traffic paid to them by affiliate marketing networks and advertisers.”
The suit, filed Tuesday in federal court in Seattle, represents Amazon’s latest effort to combat fraud to protect its name and reputation. Over the years, Amazon has cracked down on product reviews, banning most reviews done in exchange for free and discounted items and suing numerous groups it believes authored fake reviews.
Amazon has also sought to identify and ban counterfeit goods on its platform. In June, Amazon teamed up with Nite Ize, a Colorado-based maker of mobile accessories and LED products, to sue 11 individuals and business entities across three countries for selling counterfeit goods on the tech giant’s online store.
However, Amazon has also struggled to police activity on its platform. Last month, an investigation by The Wall Street Journal found more than 4,000 products on Amazon’s third-party marketplace that had either been banned or declared unsafe by regulators. The company responded by publishing the steps it takes to make sure third-party products are safe.
“Amazon works hard to delight our customers and we take aggressive action when we see bad actors attempting to misuse our brand to deceive unsuspecting customers,” an Amazon spokesperson told GeekWire on Wednesday. “This suit will hold these bad actors accountable and help us protect customers.”
The alleged “scheme” starts with the initial email. Emails with subject lines like “Congrats on your Amazon Loyalty Voucher!” and “We just added a one-time-credit to your Amazon account” come from addresses such as “firstname.lastname@example.org.”
The messages aim to entice customers to click on a link. Once that happens they are re-directed through several different domains to the ultimate destination, a survey page that mimics Amazon branding.
Amazon noted in the suit that the re-directed domains “also hide Defendants’ identities, protect their infrastructure from being flagged as fraudulent, and help track the traffic.” Amazon has not identified the individuals behind the alleged scheme, referring to defendants in the lawsuit as “John Does 1-50” who get paid for sending people to websites. However, Amazon did include information about domains used in the alleged fraud as well as a unique identifier for the Google Analytics account for the defendants.
If the customer clicks all the way through and completes the survey, they are again sent through a series of re-directed domains to claim their “reward.” Instead of getting a free reward, they are sent to another site “where victims can purchase the product they selected on Defendants’ ‘reward’ page,” according to the suit.
The suit notes that the surveys include a disclaimer in tiny type that the website is “not affiliated with or endorsed by Amazon.”
“In fact, the inclusion of this language demonstrates Defendants’ knowledge of Amazon’s exclusive right to use the Amazon Trademarks, and admits that Defendants lack any right or authority to use them,” according to court documents. “This purported disclaimer also demonstrates that Defendants’ design, display, and use of the Amazon Trademarks on their survey page is intentional and willful.”
Amazon wants the court to bar defendants from using its trademarks and branding. The tech giant wants to know how much defendants made off these marketing campaigns, force them to return the profits and pay damages.
Here is the full lawsuit: