The Center for Data Innovation spoke with Mary Beth Westmoreland, Vice President of Brand Protection at Amazon. She discussed how Amazon uses analytics and data to identify bad actors on its platform and protect consumers from counterfeits.
Daniel Castro: What are some of the challenges Amazon faces in protecting consumers and brands on its retail platform?
Mary Beth Westmoreland: Counterfeit is an industry-wide, global issue, that affects all retail channels. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) estimates that pirated and counterfeit products make up 2.5 percent of world trade—that’s $464 billion a year, or roughly the gross domestic product of the country of Belgium. Counterfeiters deprive brand owners of the value of their intellectual property and compete unfairly with honest entrepreneurs. They are criminals and they engage in a wide range of illicit behavior, including using falsified names and contact information to hide their identity, using fraudulent invoices and infringing packaging, opening and closing their accounts in an effort to evade our detection efforts and colluding with each other.
A key factor in the fight against counterfeits and particularly counterfeiting in online stores is effective collaboration between multiple stakeholders. We all share the common objective of ensuring our customers are protected from counterfeiters. It is by working together with brand owners, third-party selling partners, industry associations, law enforcement agencies, and more that we can ensure our store is one where customers can continue to shop with confidence.
I’m pleased to share that Amazon recently released its second Brand Protection Report, which highlights Amazon’s commitment to the authenticity of goods sold in its store and to fighting bad actors so that customers can shop with confidence. We remain focused on the same three key areas of our strategy that we mentioned last year: powerful and highly effective proactive efforts to protect our store, industry-leading tools enabling rights owners to partner with us to better protect their brands, and holding bad actors accountable. In addition, we are emphasizing our commitment to educating and supporting customers on how to shop confidently and avoid counterfeit products.
Amazon is known for its customer-centric culture, and a critical part of that is a focus on earning and maintaining our customers’ trust. We know that trust is hard to earn, and easy to lose, which is why we are so focused on creating a trustworthy shopping experience each and every day. In 2021, Amazon invested over $900 million and in over 12,000 people—including machine learning scientists, software developers, expert investigators, and more. And, while we are proud of the progress we have made, we know that many counterfeiters are sophisticated criminals that are tied to criminal organizations and will not stop trying to deceive consumers. We will need to keep investing and innovating to stay ahead of counterfeiters until we have driven counterfeits to zero.
Castro: What are some of the proactive measures Amazon uses to stop bad actors from abusing its platform?
Westmoreland: Selling in Amazon’s store opens a world of opportunity for entrepreneurs. We make it straightforward for entrepreneurs to set up a selling account but very difficult for bad actors to do so. Amazon has built industry-leading tools to verify potential sellers’ identities by using a combination of advanced technology and expert human reviews. A key part of our account verification process that helped make this possible is our in-person verification program, which requires prospective sellers to have one-on-one conversations with one of our team members to verify their identity and documentation. This verification is further enhanced through verification of the seller’s physical location and payment instruments.
We also leverage machine learning models that use hundreds of data points about the prospective account to detect risk, including relations to previously enforced bad actors. Amazon stopped more than 2.5 million attempts to create new selling accounts, preventing these bad actors from publishing a single product for sale. This is down from more than six million attempts the prior year, as robust seller and product vetting along with efforts to hold bad actors accountable are deterring them from attempting to sell on Amazon.
In 2021, we continued to scale in-person verification. One hundred percent of new sellers are required to pass this verification if they want to sell in our stores in the U.S., UK, Canada, EU, Japan, and several other stores.
We are also constantly monitoring our store for potential infringement. Amazon’s automated technology scaled in 2021, scanning more than 8 billion attempted changes to existing listings daily for signs of potential abuse, compared to more than 5 billion in 2020. And we analyze every potential new listing before it’s published. For example, in 2021 Amazon blocked more than 4 billion bad listings before they were listed in our store. These listings were suspected of potentially being fraudulent, infringing, counterfeit, or engaging in other forms of abuse.
Castro: What are some of the innovative ways that Amazon helps brands combat counterfeits?
Westmoreland: Amazon has industry-leading anti-counterfeiting tools to protect brands. These tools are powered by Amazon’s advanced technology and the unique knowledge that brand owners have of their own intellectual property. By working together with brand owners, we can more effectively detect and stop counterfeiters and better protect customers.
In 2017, we launched Amazon Brand Registry—a free service for brand owners regardless of whether they sell in our store—giving brands the ability to manage and protect their brand and intellectual property rights on Amazon.
Brand owners can search for, identify, and report infringements and subsequently track their submissions within a dedicated dashboard. Brand Registry also allows Amazon to more effectively safeguard brands through automated protections that leverage machine learning and the information brands provide us in Brand Registry. Our automated protections continuously scan Amazon’s stores to surface potentially infringing products. In 2021, Brand Registry grew to include over 700,000 active brands, an increase of 40 percent from the prior year. At the same time, the average number of valid notices of infringement submitted by a brand in Brand Registry decreased by 25 percent from the prior year.
Additionally, Amazon IP Accelerator helps businesses more quickly obtain intellectual property rights, which helps brands protect their IP in every store, everywhere, not just on Amazon. Securing intellectual property rights can be confusing and costly, but it is a necessary step for brands to protect their name, logo, product designs, and other aspects of their brand. IP Accelerator connects businesses with a curated network of trusted IP law firms, which provide high quality trademark registration services at competitive rates. This tool is especially well received by small and medium-sized businesses. In 2021, we connected more than 5,900 of them worldwide to our network of trusted law firms.
Another tool, Project Zero, combines Amazon’s advanced technology with the sophisticated knowledge brands have of their own intellectual property and how best to detect counterfeit listings. Project Zero provides the unprecedented ability for brands to directly remove listings from our store. We have more than 20,000 brands enrolled in Project Zero in 2021.
And, Amazon offers a product serialization service called Transparency that prevents counterfeits from reaching customers around the world. Brands label every single unit of a selected product with a unique code, which can be scanned to verify the unit’s authenticity throughout the supply chain. In 2021, more than 23,000 brands were enrolled in Transparency globally, enabling the protection of more than 750 million product units.
Castro: How does Amazon work with law enforcement agencies to hold those engaging in illegal activity accountable?
Westmoreland: We continue to focus on ensuring counterfeiters are held accountable—stopping them from abusing our store and those of other retailers across the industry. In order to increase our litigation efforts and collaboration with law enforcement around the world, we established the Amazon Counterfeit Crimes Unit (CCU) in 2020. CCU has disrupted counterfeiters and their networks through civil suits and joint enforcement actions and seizures with law enforcement worldwide – stopping them from abusing Amazon’s stores and those of other retailers across the industry.
Amazon’s CCU team is made up of former federal prosecutors, FBI agents, experienced investigators, and data analysts. CCU, customs agencies, and law enforcement share information to track down counterfeiters, shut down bad actors’ accounts, seize counterfeit inventory, and prosecute those involved. CCU has disrupted counterfeiters and their networks through civil suits, along with joint enforcement actions and seizures with law enforcement worldwide, including against suppliers, logistics providers, social media influencers, and fake invoice providers.
In 2021, Amazon filed civil litigation against more than 170 counterfeiters in U.S. courts and sued or referred more than 600 criminals for investigation in the U.S., UK, EU, and China, an increase of more than 300 percent over 2020.
We partnered with brands including Yeti, GoPro, Hanesbrands, Valentino, Weber, Salvatore Ferragamo, Whirlpool, and Procter & Gamble, to pursue counterfeiters globally. We also identified, seized, and appropriately disposed of more than 3 million counterfeit products, preventing them from harming customers or being resold elsewhere in the retail supply chain. This includes counterfeits that were attempted to be sent into our fulfillment network and situations where we worked with brands and law enforcement to find counterfeiters’ warehouses and facilities, and get them shut down.
Building on our learning and progress in protecting our store, we’ve published a blueprint for public and private sector partnership to stop counterfeiters. This included the importance of information exchanges in the private sector to stop counterfeiters across retailers, partnering with customs to protect the borders, and the importance of increasing resources for law enforcement to prosecute counterfeiters. While it is still early in this journey, we are excited that this has helped spark productive dialogue with others.
Castro: What more can be done to educate customers about how to shop safely and protect against buying counterfeits?
Westmoreland: While we are proud of the progress we’ve made, we will not stop until we drive counterfeits to zero. Since opening our doors in 1995, trust has been at the foundation of everything we do. Twenty-seven years later we are more effective than ever at protecting customers, selling partners, brands, and our store. It is the combination of our tools, collaboration with brands and work with law enforcement that is helping us drive counterfeits down.
Despite our robust brand protections, we are not perfect and rare occurrences remain when a customer purchased a counterfeit in our store. For decades, our A-to-z guarantee ensures customers can get a full refund for any item they purchase, regardless of whether they bought the product from Amazon or a third-party seller. If we identify that a customer purchased a counterfeit from Amazon or from a third-party seller, Amazon proactively contacts the customer, informs them that they purchased a counterfeit product, and fully refunds their purchase – without the need for the customer to take any action. We built this program because it is the right thing to do to protect customers.
In addition, we partner with various stakeholders, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, to educate consumers on how to shop confidently and ensure they buy authentic products. For example, before the 2021 holiday shopping season, Amazon partnered with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Global Innovation Policy Center (GIPC) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to educate consumers on how to shop confidently and avoid counterfeit products. The campaign identified the top 10 tips to shop smart, to protect consumers from the danger of counterfeit goods.
We also recognize that informing younger consumers on the topic of counterfeit is increasingly important. In 2021, Amazon partnered closely with the International Trademark Association’s (INTA) Unreal Campaign and the Girl Scouts of Greater Los Angeles to create a consumer awareness program called Unreal Patch Program, reaching thousands of Girl Scouts ranging 13 to 18 years of age. Through this collaboration, the young participants were challenged to build a brand, to safeguard their invention through trademarks, and then explain what it would mean to them should an individual try and steal their idea. Upon completion, the Girl Scout would receive a limited-edition patch. The Unreal Patch Program promoted the value of authenticity, entrepreneurship, and the importance of trademarks and brands.
We continue to be inspired and motivated by the industry-wide partnerships and collaboration, and we are excited about what we can do together to strengthen brand protection across the entire industry.