Amazon (AMZN) Bribery Scheme Could Be Tip of the Iceberg

Illustration: Tomi Um for Bloomberg Businessweek Illustration: Tomi Um for Bloomberg Businessweek It sounds like…

relates to How an Amazon Bribery Scheme Became a $100 Million Swindle

Illustration: Tomi Um for Bloomberg Businessweek

It sounds like the plot of a made-for-Netflix crime drama. A Brooklyn businessman stuffs $8,000 in cash in a suitcase and calls an Uber to send it to accomplices. Hundreds of thousands of dollars crisscross the globe via MoneyGram, PayPal, and foreign bank accounts in a plot to swindle more than $100 million from the world’s most valuable internet retailer and its customers.

But it’s the real-life story of a small ring of e-commerce consultants and former Inc. employees who federal prosecutors say bribed Amazon workers for more than three years to gain access to the company’s most sensitive secrets, according to a 38-page indictment released on Sept. 18. The accused allegedly rigged in their favor its web store, where shoppers around the world spend hundreds of billions of dollars a year. Six people have been charged with allegedly conspiring to pay bribes, according to the Department of Justice.

The length and scope of the scheme are a statement about Amazon’s size, that a scam can flourish for years without detection. (The company released a statement saying that it cooperated with the investigation and that it hopes the actions of a few bad actors don’t detract from the honest efforts of all the good ones.)

Amazon became the world’s largest online retailer with a search engine that lets shoppers sift through millions of products to find what they want at the best price and have it delivered to their home. Its algorithm considers factors such as the reputation of the seller and customer reviews of a product.

Amazon loves to broadcast heartwarming tales of small-business people being propelled to new heights, like the security guard who launched his own barbecue sauce and the mom who sells hand-dipped candles. But the indictment reveals a much darker picture of a Wild West atmosphere rife with cutthroat tactics.

The ring stole terabytes of confidential company data and devised ways to game the system so some merchants would get more business while their competitors got shut down, according to the Justice Department. Some scammers got products Amazon had removed for safety reasons put back on the site. Shoppers were unaware that their purchasing decisions were being influenced by bribes and kickbacks. For a few hundred dollars you could get an Amazon insider to erase negative customer reviews about your products. And $5,000 would buy a “takedown,” in which company consultants conspired to eliminate a competitor from the site by buying its products and leaving negative feedback that they knew would trigger a suspension of the product. The enterprise scammed more than $100 million from Amazon and its customers by way of these and other “competitive benefits,” according to prosecutors.

The list of defendants is a who’s who of the e-commerce consulting world, a close-knit group that hosts live events and virtual forums on LinkedIn and Facebook to swap tips and attract clients. One of them is Ephraim Rosenberg, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based e-commerce consultant. Prosecutors allege he used an Uber to send a cash-filled suitcase to accomplices as payment for confidential Amazon information. Rosenberg has said he will continue to run his business: “I cannot comment on the allegations but when I can things will be clear to all,” he wrote in a LinkedIn post.

Two of the defendants are former employees who worked in seller support positions in India and now run their own consulting businesses. Rohit Kadimisetty, who now lives in Northridge, Calif., allegedly sent the first bribe to an Amazon worker in 2017. Nishad Kunju, based in Hyderabad, is accused of cultivating Amazon employees and contractors willing to infiltrate company networks in exchange for bribes. Kadimisetty didn’t respond to requests for comment. Kunju, who has no attorney listed in court documents, couldn’t be reached for comment.

In 2018 another defendant—Joseph Nilsen—and Kunju allegedly plotted an attack on a client who hadn’t paid for their services. They obtained access to the client’s Amazon account and uploaded an image of a smiley face giving the middle finger on a page that should have featured a $50 fleece blanket. “NO PAY – NO PLAY,” Nilsen told a colleague in a WhatsApp message. He didn’t respond to LinkedIn and emailed requests for comment.

The indictment also suggests the investigation is continuing to seek other perpetrators. “Amazon is showing an ability to track down bad behavior and take action, but the big question is what’s the next step,” says Chris McCabe, a former Amazon employee who’s now an e-commerce consultant.

A federal investigation into an alleged Amazon bribery scheme gives a behind-the-scenes look at fraudulent practices hurting consumers.

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