When Donald Trump visited Louisiana earlier this month, he was greeted with an unexpected hairy surprise. Billy Nungesser, the state’s lieutenant governor, got dressed with the commander-in-chief in mind that morning. With the president and news cameras as his witness at the airport, Nungesser joyfully lifted the leg of his pants to reveal a goofy pair of socks: Each ankle bore Trump’s face, complete with a signature tuft of fake blond locks waving daintily in the breeze. The bizarre-looking socks quickly went viral and were covered by a smattering of news outlets. Stephen Colbert even mentioned them on The Late Show.
For Erica Easley, all the attention was great, at least at first. Easley is the founder of Gumball Poodle, a small Los Angeles–based sock company that originally came up with the hirsute design during the last presidential election. “They went really viral, beyond anything we’d ever experienced before,” she says about the aftermath of Nungesser’s photo-op. “And these socks have been on Rachel Maddow, The View, a bunch of things in 2016.” Wholesale orders started ticking up. Several media outlets linked to Gumball Poodle’s Amazon listing, and soon the Trump socks reached Amazon's best-seller list for men's novelty socks.
About a week passed before Easley noticed that something had gone horribly wrong. Dozens of third-party merchants, most of whom looked to be from China, had jammed her Amazon listing with what Easley believed to be knockoffs, selling for a fraction of the original $30 price tag. (Included in that price, for the record, is a tiny comb, to style your socks' hair. Everything is made in the USA.) To make matters worse, Amazon had chosen one of the frauds as the default seller, shutting Gumball Poodle out. Meanwhile, other third-party sellers appeared to have taken Easley’s photos and set up their own, much cheaper listings.
Louise Matsakis covers Amazon, internet law, and online culture for WIRED.
Easley had done everything to protect her business from exactly this kind of attack. Her hairy sock design is patented in the US, and her logo, which is stamped on the bottom of the socks, is trademarked. What’s more, Gumball Poodle is enrolled in the Amazon Brand Registry, an enhanced suite of tools the company provides eligible brands to protect their intellectual property. But Easley found Amazon’s protections weren’t enough, and she says the company largely ignored her pleas for help. Only after WIRED reached out to Amazon for this story were the counterfeits removed.
“Amazon strictly prohibits the sale of counterfeit products and we invest heavily in both funds and company energy to ensure our policy is followed,” Maxine Tagay, a spokesperson for Amazon, said in a statement.
Contending With a $1 Trillion Industry
Gumball Poodle isn’t alone. “There are thousands of other trademark owners who face the same kind of nonsense every single day,” says James Thomson, a former Amazon employee and a partner at Buy Box Experts, a firm that consults with Amazon sellers. “Amazon does have a problem with counterfeits.”
Counterfeiting is a booming, trillion-dollar industry that costs businesses around the world billions of dollars a year. Its growth has been fueled by the rise of ecommerce, which a government report says has led to “a fundamental change in the market for counterfeit goods.” That report, published last year by the Government Accountability Office, found that the volume and variety of counterfeit goods seized by officials has grown year after year, and it’s increasingly difficult to distinguish knockoffs from the real thing. It also notes that fraudulent goods are sold on a number of different ecommerce platforms. The Trump administration has signaled it wants to take the issue more seriously. In April, President Trump asked the Justice, Commerce, and Homeland Security Departments for recommendations on potential regulatory and legislative fixes to address counterfeits on third-party marketplaces.
But on Amazon, counterfeits can be uniquely devastating, in part because of the site’s sheer scale. Half of all US ecommerce sales go to Amazon, and the site is also where about half of all product searches on the web begin. Not many companies can afford to avoid it. If they do stay away, they risk letting other sellers determine how their brand is marketed on one of the biggest online retailers in the world.
Another problem is the way Amazon is designed. Unlike on eBay, Etsy, or other online marketplaces, a single Amazon product listing can feature offers from dozens of independent sellers. The company uses an algorithm to decide which merchant’s goods should be the default, based on factors like price and shipping speed. Winning the default slot, referred to as the “Buy Box,” gives sellers an enormous advantage. Customers can “Add to Cart” or “Buy Now” their products with a single click, while the losers are hidden behind a dropdown menu. The idea is to allow consumers to quickly make a purchase, without needing to sift through every similar option. But the system, experts say, also makes sneaking counterfeits into the hands of consumers easy.
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For years, manufacturers that make all kinds of products, from furniture lifting straps and hippie sandals to electronic charging cables and children’s pillows, have publicly complained about counterfeit versions of their goods on Amazon. Some have tried seeking legal remedy. Three years ago, Apple sued an Amazon wholesaler over fake iPhone charging cables and other phony items it offered. (Apple told The Los Angeles Times last fall that the dispute had been resolved.) Judges have often ruled that Amazon isn’t liable for the fakes being sold on its platform, arguing that the company itself is not the seller.
Amazon is aware there may be fake products on its site, and warned investors for the first time last month that it “may be unable to prevent sellers in our stores or through other stores from selling unlawful, counterfeit, pirated, or stolen goods.” The company has also fought back against counterfeiters by filing lawsuits in partnership with brands like Vera Bradley and Otterbox.
In March, Amazon unveiled a new program called Project Zero that allows some sellers to automatically remove counterfeit listings, without needing to go through the typical bureaucracy. It’s not yet widely available. “In order to detect bad actors and potentially counterfeit products, we make significant investments in machine learning and automated systems,” Tagay, the Amazon spokesperson, said in a statement. “We employ dedicated teams of software engineers, applied scientists, program managers, and investigators to operate and continually refine our anti-counterfeiting programs.”
But at Amazon’s size, some issues can still fall through the cracks, and cases like Gumball Poodle’s end up happening. “What Amazon is publicly saying about what they’re doing about helping patent holders and trademark holders to protect their brands, it’s still not working, and [Gumball Poodle] is a perfect use case of how it’s not working,” says Thomson.
Navigating the Labyrinth
Easley says she tried contacting Amazon to alert them to the knockoff listings multiple times. She filed four complaints in its Brand Registry portal starting on May 21, none of which the company took action on. At one point, she says, Amazon told Easley that her complaints amounted to only a dispute between distributors. Her lawyer also tried reaching out, and Easley says he was initially ignored as well.
Part of the problem is that Amazon’s reporting tools can be incredibly cumbersome to navigate. “It is very time-consuming when you have so many fake listings,” Easley says. “I have to go through and send Amazon each seller, each link to a fake listing. It’s not just ‘Hey, I think there’s a problem with my product, you deal with it.’”
A cottage industry of consultants has emerged to help guide sellers through Amazon’s bureaucracy. Amazon also runs its own forum for sellers to trade advice and information. “The forms do change, and if you don’t get it right it can be very difficult,” says Rachel Jones, who started a brand protection monitoring service called SnapDragon after her own invention, a portable fabric high chair, was copied by counterfeiters.
Part of what Easley found so frustrating is that Amazon had been great about quashing a fake version of her product before. Last fall, she says she noticed an Amazon listing for socks that also ripped off her Trump design, and reported it to Amazon. She estimates it was taken down in 24 hours. It’s hard to know what might have been different this time.
Thomson believes Gumball Poodle may have lost thousands of dollars in sales from the Buy Box alone, although it’s impossible for anyone outside Amazon to know for sure. Meanwhile, the brand suffered in other ways. Easley says a wholesale deal with a major brick-and-mortar retailer fell through in the last few days, after the company noticed her product on Amazon selling for significantly cheaper than the list price. In the coming weeks, Easley may also need to contend with customers who begin receiving the counterfeits they unwittingly ordered. If they leave bad reviews, that could impact the company’s bottom line too.
“All those customers, one, have been duped, they’re not getting the product that they saw the Lieutenant Governor of Louisiana wearing, they’re not getting the Gumball Poodle product that is made in the USA,” she says. “I have no way to contact them and say that garbage you received isn’t ours.”
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