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Banned from Amazon: Shoppers who make too many returns

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 5/22/2018 Khadeeja Safdar and Laura Stevens
© Uli Deck/Zuma Press

It appears even Amazon.com Inc. has its limits. 

The e-commerce giant bans shoppers from the site for infractions such as returning too many items, sometimes without telling them what they did wrong.

Amazon has cultivated an image as a customer-friendly company in part by making it easy for shoppers to send back items they don’t want. The site’s lax return policies have conditioned consumers to expect the same treatment from other retailers, adding to pressure on brick-and-mortar chains. But shoppers are finding out there are some customers Amazon has determined aren’t worth keeping.

Nir Nissim received an email in March notifying him that his account had been closed because he violated the company’s conditions of use agreement. “You cannot open a new account or use another account to place orders on our site,” Amazon wrote in an email.

The 20-year-old, who works at an ice cream shop in Israel, said he had a $450 gift card balance that he could no longer use. “I contacted them almost every day for a week or two,” he said.

Eventually a customer service agent told him that his account had been closed due to his return activity. Mr. Nissim said he has returned just one item this year—a computer drive—and four items last year. He sent more messages to protest the ban, including one to Chief Executive Jeff Bezos. An Amazon employee—responding on behalf of Mr. Bezos—notified him he was reinstated.

“We want everyone to be able to use Amazon, but there are rare occasions where someone abuses our service over an extended period of time,” an Amazon spokesman said. “We never take these decisions lightly, but with over 300 million customers around the world, we take action when appropriate to protect the experience for all our customers.”

The spokesman said Amazon encourages customers to contact the company if they think they have been mistakenly banned.

Shira Golan, 23, said she spends thousands of dollars a year on Amazon, buying everything from clothes and shoes to groceries and toiletries. She said she has asked for refunds in the past on clothing and shoe orders, some of which she says were damaged or the wrong items. “I didn’t think it was so significant especially considering how much I buy,” she said.

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Earlier this month her account was shut down without explanation, she said. The actuary, who lives in New York City, said she called and emailed the company to learn a reason for the closure. On May 10, she received a response saying she was terminated permanently because she “reported an unusual number of problems” with her orders. “I didn’t get any warning,” she said. “If I knew this would happen, I wouldn’t buy clothes and shoes on Amazon.”

Dozens of people have complained on Twitter, Facebook and other online forums that Amazon closed their accounts without warning or explanation. Amazon doesn’t tell customers in its return policy that their return behavior can get them banned, but the company says in its conditions of use that it reserves the right to terminate accounts in its sole discretion. Some people said they have also received email alerts from Amazon about their return activity.

Amazon declined to disclose how many customers had been subjected to such a ban.

Retailers lose billions of dollars annually because of return abuse or fraud, which includes behavior such as requesting a refund for items that are used, stolen or bought somewhere else. The Wall Street Journal previously reported that chains such as Best Buy Co. and J.C. Penney Inc., have hired a third-party firm called Retail Equation to develop a “risk score” on each customer for the purpose of policing returns.

According to former Amazon managers, the company terminates accounts for behaviors including requesting too many refunds, sending back the wrong items or violating other rules, such as receiving compensation for writing reviews. Cases are typically evaluated by a human after algorithms surface the account as suspicious, they said.

It tends to happen when “you’re creating a lot of headaches for Amazon,” said Chris McCabe, a former policy enforcement investigator at Amazon and now a consultant at EcommerceChris LLC.

Shoppers also are more likely to get flagged if they mark an atypical reason for their returns. For example, an account could get flagged if a customer says an item didn’t arrive as described when the other 99% of customers who made the return did so simply because they didn’t want it.

“If your behavior is consistently outside the norm, you’re not really the kind of customer they want,” said James Thomson, a former senior manager at Amazon and now partner at brand consultancy Buy Box Experts.

In past years, customers have received closure notices that explicitly say they have returned too many items. In 2015, Amazon sent Paul Fidalgo an email saying that the company was permanently closing his account because of excessive returns.

“We have closed this account because you have consistently returned a large number of your orders,” the company said in the email. “While we expect the occasional problem with an order, we cannot continue to accept returns at this rate.”

The 40-year-old communications director, who lives in Saco, Maine, said he returned multiple smartphones within a short period, not knowing there would be consequences. He pleaded with Amazon to let him back, but the company didn’t budge.

For a year, Mr. Fidalgo said he fragmented his shopping, visiting several sites in place of the one-stop destination. He could access books he had purchased for his Kindle but wasn’t allowed to buy new material. “It was dizzying and disorienting,” he said. “You don’t realize how intertwined a company is with your daily routine, until it’s shut off.”

He finally got back on the site after receiving credits that he asked Amazon how to redeem. “Most people think Amazon is so extraordinarily generous, but that’s until you realize you have crossed the line.”

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