Season 1, Episode 82

Preparing for Black Hat Attacks with Norm Farrar

Black hat attacks are rampant during Black Friday/Cyber Monday. Chris McCabe talks with Norman Farrar about ongoing brand struggles with abusive attacks, what to watch out for and how to prepare yourself before abuse comes knocking on your door at the worst possible time.

Show Notes


[00:00:07] Chris: Hey everybody, this is Chris McCabe of ecommerceChris, and I’m here with Norm Farrar of Lunch with Norm, famous podcaster, thought leader with a pretty good reach into the Amazon community. 

How’s it going?

[00:00:22] Norm: Good, how are you? 

[00:00:23] Chris: Good. We wanted to get this out today or recorded today and posted very soon because this is the week, right? It’s a week of fantastic revenue growth in sales, but it’s also the week where strange things happen.

 Abusive attacks, anti-competitive behavior spikes, historically in the Wednesday into Thursday, Thanksgiving, and then Black Friday timeline but lately we’ve been seeing attacks the week before, a few days before and that’s why we’re going to hurrily post this, in the next 24- 48 hours.

So I guess I would start before I get into my list of the crazy new things, new attacks that we’ve seen sprouting up. I wanted to kind of pick your brain for what you’ve seen in terms of brands questioning, you know, is this just an Amazon screw up? Is this an attack? Do I know the difference? You were saying that you saw a relatively new creative black hat method.

[00:01:17] Norm: Yeah, yeah. So, you know, this is my Love/Hate relationship with Amazon because I love selling on it, but sometimes when this stuff comes up it’s hard to resolve. But anyways, one of the things that we’ve been seeing lately is people giving us 3, 4, 5 star and mostly four five star reviews. they give us praise, but then they put in a really negative comment like oh, I love the product the customer experience was awesome, packaging was great, but my dog could have choked or could have a choking violation. And then right after it comes the same choking violation, oops. There goes my mic. Anyway, it’s happening. People are getting suspended and they’re doing it in a very positive way.

[00:02:06] Chris: Well, it’s a backhanded compliment, right? It’s, oh yeah, I loved it. But I mean, it sounds like there’s two intentions. One is to hide within the review negative comments. And then secondarily, they have other buyer accounts on other orders that leave a choking hazard or a safety hazard review, that mentions the same stuff.

Choking. Harmful, whatever it might be in a negative review. Maybe they follow that up with a one star or two star with the same kinds of, is that fair to say, with the same kinds of comments? 

[00:02:38] Norm: Yeah, I think that’s fair, I did notice, and this was overkill, but on one listing I saw 23 of these come in in a week and they were all over the board. But I’ve seen it where it’s only been a few, but this is something that started happening this year and leading up to black Friday, I’m sure it’s gonna happen frequently. 

[00:02:58] Chris: Yeah. The black hat fraudster type sellers and services get creative around this time of year for a reason. If it’s an older style, obviously fake complaints, bogus intellectual property. Complaints that have nothing to do with the kind of product it is, like they’ve just copied and pasted negative comments they made on a totally different item. Sellers have all month or all year to figure out how to defend themselves against those, but people don’t necessarily figure out within days or hours how to contend with these newer kind of creative attacks and that’s a problem because there’s no established appeals path. People panic, open a bunch of cases, call account health reps for advice that account health reps won’t have because they won’t know much about it yet or they’ll just start writing to Jeff, right?

[00:03:47] Norm: And how does that go?

[00:03:48] Chris: Well, I think Jeff’s getting ready to send his girlfriend into space right now, and Jeff has many other competing priorities and how, you know, how the numbers look at the end of Q4. First of all, Amazon’s already publicly capitulated that they think the numbers will be down this Christmas. Whether it’s down from last year or down overall is another story.

But what we’ve seen lately, in addition to what you and I just discussed, is requests for inventory to be pulled due to a product recall that doesn’t exist and I can get into the weeds on that one in a minute, but just to go through the rest of the list. Fake food or safety complaints for consumables when the items aren’t even consumables and just generally mystery stuff where there’s a message that asks you for something. Certificate of analysis, ISO certified lab tests for the products that these people sell, that’s got nothing to do with it. So they’re being asked for compliance documentation, basically that has nothing to do with their product.

And what it looks like to us is that people are abusing the reporting process by making up fake complaints, sending it to abuse teams, and the abuse teams at Amazon are just rubber stamping them as valid or legitimate, and looking at the seller for two seconds and saying, okay, well just take the listing down and send a warning. That’s incredibly alarming at this time of year. So I guess my question to you would be, do the brands you hear from work with and so forth, do they know this stuff? Do they know that they might get an off the wall accusation that has nothing to do with their product, and will they just assume it’s a glitch or a technical issue and start opening cases, or will they understand that they’re being attacked?

[00:05:35] Norm: Well, I’ve seen this happen about two years ago, but they would come up with a compliance issue and the brand I was working with would come back and, and do a plan of action and show that they’re under compliance. Everything was good and then around the same time, and this always happened Black Friday or Prime Day, same compliance issue came up. We don’t know why, we don’t know how, but it always took us outta the game for that period of time. These are things that as a seller, you’ve gotta be aware of that it can happen. If it does, you’ve gotta try to solve it somehow and it’s part of being resilient.

I mean, there are gonna be times that this happens, but the main thing is, to figure out what happened and then create a risk, risk evaluation plan so if it does happen the next week or the next year, you can go and do it very quickly. So that’s what we’ve tried to do when we’ve had some issues and we know it’s either a plan of action that got us taken care of, or we just had the right wording, done the right way. We use a project management tool called called Teamwork, and we just put it in a notepad so people can go and and check it out.

[00:06:54] Chris: Yeah. And one of the reasons we’re talking is like a past example was the idea that people were making ASIN contributions in other marketplaces. The brand didn’t even sell in Mexico, Canada, UK, whatever, but their listings were getting taken down in the US because of ASIN contributions or flat file overrides to vacant fields in the ASIN contributions in other marketplaces. I mean, and Amazon wasn’t even hip to this for the longest time. Abuse reporting is what pointed it out to Amazon. They were kind of slow on the uptake, so you have to be prepared to kind of look in these, you know, open, open these areas up that you don’t think about every day. Look under a few rocks, right? Because sometimes this is going on and you’re not even like aware of why Amazon’s asking for stuff. That’s what concerns me the most. Some sellers just say, well, this is just a mistake. This is just wrong. And they, and they open the case and they bang on the table saying, fix your stupid mistake Amazon, they don’t realize that to Amazon eyes, it looks valid initially. 

[00:08:01] Norm: Yeah. And it’s funny that we’re talking about this today because I hadn’t looked at my email and then I, I just sent you a message saying, give me a minute. I saw that one of my products are suspended so I gotta see what the problem is after this call. 

[00:08:17] Chris: Yeah, so I mean, initially there’s an evaluation process as we saw with the pesticide problem last year, the year before. Some of the sellers we worked with did have language in their listing that had to be deleted, and they had been properly flagged, at least within the parameters of how Amazon wanted to flag listings but they had terms like antimicrobial, antifungal. They did have terms that were keywords for their pesticide investigations, right? So we could delete that language from the flat file, update the listing with catalog, petition for reinstatement and that would work. If it didn’t work, you could, you could fix that easily with a couple of appeals.

But there were people who were flagged for pesticide who didn’t have that language in their listing. Somebody had gone in and monkeyed with the ASIN contributions and terms that would get them flagged, you know, back end keyword abuse simply by putting the word pesticide in. I mean, among other terms, and we’re still seeing that like a year and a half later, keyword abuse is still rampant. It still works. The only difference is it can be solved a little bit quicker because Amazon itself knows more about the problem and the nature of the abuse. So hopefully we’ll see less of that this year, 2022 than we did in 2021 because last November we were dealing with it constantly but there is that immediate moment where it’s like, well, is this me or is this somebody else doing something or is it actually like a technical issue? I mean, if it’s a technical issue, fine. Open up a case with support, get a ticket opened, have somebody research it but just I would caution people to keep in mind, don’t assume it’s a technical issue for one thing. And secondly, sometimes Amazonians will tell you whether it’s support or any other reps.

Even account managers will say, I think this might be technical in nature, but it’s because they don’t understand that you’re getting attacked and they don’t understand abuse and they don’t understand how it happens. So do some Q & A before you dive in and say, Hey, Jeff, you know, Help me out here, jump off that 500 million yacht. Help me fix this, pass this on to executive seller relations. I mean, what do you see people doing, I guess is my question? Do they escalate it right away? Do they ask themselves tough questions? Is it a hybrid? 

[00:10:40] Norm: Yeah, it’s a bit of everything. So it might be opening up a case right away. It might be doing some examining. It might be getting somebody to try to either reinstate or figure it out, you know, contacting you and trying to figure out what’s going on because especially if you’re a mid to more advanced seller. Every day that you’re down is costing you big bucks.

So, I’d rather get it solved right away and out of the way. But sometimes even the simplest things like we just talked about it, the simplest things seem to take the longest amount of time to get the listing back. 

[00:11:20] Chris: Even the catalog corrections, I mean, you can call into catalog, let’s just say there’s terms in your listing, in your title, in backend, keywords, whatever. You have to delete them. You go do that. You get on with catalog, you’re like, Hey, I need to make sure that these corrections take before I do the appeal, because if the corrections don’t take, and numerous brands didn’t understand this and were getting denied repeatedly in appeals without knowing why. The corrections hadn’t gone through catalog hadn’t approved and confirmed the corrections. So of course they got an appeal saying, we fixed this. They looked at it and said, no, you didn’t, and they rejected it, and that caused ridiculous amounts of friction last year into this year. I’m hoping this time around people do the catalog correction step and then they appeal it as opposed to just opening the case and saying, we’ll do this on our side, but you gotta reinstate the listing and then we’ll fix it or something like that. Some of the nuance of the flat file corrections, maybe were lost on a few people, but those details matter, like you just said. Skipping steps, while I completely understand, you’re losing 10, 12, $14,000 a day. For some people it’s an hour during Black Friday on some of these ASINs, your top selling products.

Temptation is there to skip steps, but you absolutely can’t do it. It, it just costs you.

[00:12:41] Norm: And you gotta give Amazon what they want. One of the other things, I think we’ve talked about this before is you can’t be aggressive, you can’t talk aggressively to Amazon, either, it won’t get you anywhere. So if you’re thinking that, you’re going on the defense right away and you’re screaming and yelling and you think the more you scream, the faster your problem’s gonna be resolved, it doesn’t work that way

[00:13:06] Chris: yeah. We’ve seen that with people who are spamming the queues or spamming certain execs at Amazon, their emails, putting all caps all over the place or just sending them a bunch of emails. We’ve heard from sellers who got suspended for code of conduct violations for inappropriate contact for that. So Amazon doesn’t take kindly to that. , I usually say feel free to act more aggressively, professionally aggressively, appropriately aggressive. If you have confirmed that you are, that you’ve already made the corrections or that you are in the right and that Amazon screwed something up, they should still correct whatever went wrong, but as a right way to do it in a wrong way to do it. Not sending out the same email. The other problem is people write one appeal or one escalation, and then they just send it a million places. Which is kind of like, they group them together and group ignore them because they can see it’s the same contact going all over the company. So they’re not happy with the spam part of it, number one.

Number two, that means they can pass the book. No one needs to actually read it because somebody else is gonna read it because you sent it everywhere. And that’s the seller psychology. I understand the desire to put it in front of as many eyeballs as possible, that’s just human nature. The critical thinking element is absent because it’s not actually moving your cause forward.

[00:14:25] Norm: That’s a great point. 

[00:14:26] Chris: Well, we’ll talk about that next time for now, if people see and hear these things and need your counsel and your advice, best place to reach you is. 

Just, cuz that’s Amazon, right? A Right. And I’m Chris,

We’ll spread this far and wide and we’re trying to get the message out, to as many brands and as many sellers as possible because we know that this can happen earlier in the week, in this peak holiday of Black Friday, cyber Monday week. and it could be more aggressive. And as norm pointed out, there are new creative tactics being used that Amazon won’t necessarily know yet.

And a lot of other sellers don’t have comparable resolution or success cases yet. And you might have to kind of get creative on your side and, and compose some unique content to fight it. So thanks again, norm for joining me. 

[00:15:28] Norm: You’re very welcome. 

[00:15:30] Chris: We’re always talking about this stuff, so I’m sure I’ll talk to you again soon.

Hosts & Guests

Chris McCabe

Leah McHugh


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