Investigating eCommerce Scammers on Amazon using OSINT

Introduction

There’s a lot of information out there related to OSINT investigations.  Not nearly enough as there should be, considering the amount of free tools and guides available, but a lot nonetheless.  One thing that isn’t talked about online is the intersection between OSINT and eCommerce.  Now, the tools and processes in this article are very well known in other circles, such as Amazon sellers and competitive intelligence analysts, but they aren’t spoken of frequently in traditional OSINT circles.  There are two things in the eCommerce world that I believe may be of interested to traditional OSINT folks.  The first is online scammers and counterfeit producers.  The other is theft from organized or unorganized crime that is then flipped online for profit.  This article will discuss the first topic.  I will go into the second at a later time, with a possible OSINT investigation.  This article will lay out the tools used to extract OSINT from Amazon which can then be exploited to reach a particular goal.  This article is similar to another one I’ve written on the topic.  I’d consider that one to be an introduction to this topic whereas this one is more of a beginner+ piece.  Make sure to read the original article first before reading this one unless you are familiar with eCommerce, specifically Amazon, terminology already

Tools

Fortunately, all of the OSINT tools we will be using here are free.  They all just so happen to be Chrome extensions, well all but one.  Here’s a list of the tools required along with a link to the Chrome Web Store where you can download them. Since there’s quite a bit of money to be made in the Amazon selling world, there’s a wide variety of free and paid tools on the market.

Keepa

Keepa is a tool that extracts all sales data from a product listing. We will use this tool to find more information about a product including sales velocity, historical pricing metrics, and more.  You can also find out when a product was first listed using Keepa. This information is useful to determine whether or not the price of a product is unusual (high or low) and whether or not the inventory level of a product makes sense or not (if they have 20 in stock but on average only 1 sells a month, they’re an idiot or worse!)

Download this Chrome Extension

DS Amazon Quick View

DS Amazon Quick View is a tool that gives you a snapshot of the data you’d find with Keepa but in the search results instead of the product page.  This includes sales rank and the level of fulfilled by amazon (FBA) sellers on the listing page.  The quick snapshot is useful for comparing similar products at a glance.  We will use this tool to identify products that have a high sales velocity as well as save us a bunch of time by showing us how many sellers there are so we don’t have to click on multiple links and then return back to the search results.

Download this Chrome Extension

FBA Calculator

FBA Calculator is a tool that will take a listing price from Amazon and show you how much profit there is left to make after taking into account Amazon’s fees.  This tool is useful for identifying the logic behind a seller’s price.  If the seller is taking a loss on all of their products, it may raise red flags as to the legitimacy of their account.  This requires a multivariate analysis, however.

Download this Chrome Extension

Inventory Spy

Inventory Spy will show you have many units a seller has in stock of a particular listing. After finding out sales velocity, level of competition, and profitability, knowing how much inventory a seller has in stock may be useful if combined with other information.

Download this Chrome Extension

ReconBob

ReconBob is a tool for SELLER reviews.  It won’t reveal how many are suspected to be fake, but it will categorize the negative reviews received by “concerning reviews” and “shipping issues”.  It will also give a suggestion on the possible location of the seller. This could reveal a smoking gun during an OSINT investigation.

Download this Chrome Extension

Jungle Scout Estimator

Jungle Scout estimator will estimate how many units of a particular product will sell every month based on its sales rank.  This is useful for determining sales velocity and general demand for the product.  When combined with other data it is very useful.

View Jungle Scout Estimator

Ground Rules

Now that we have all of the tools downloaded, let’s talk about a few of the ground rules. Here are a few things you need to understand.

  1. When you see “prime” under a product listing, this doesn’t mean it is sold by Amazon.  It means that the product is fulfilled by Amazon. This can include Amazon products, but it can also include third party sellers. The way this works is a seller ships their products into Amazon’s warehouse, then when a customer purchases the item, Amazon fulfills the order using their two day shipping.  Let me tell you from personal experience, they don’t vet anything other than obvious damage.  I’d get customer feedback saying things didn’t work all the time, especially with electronics. This process is referred to as simply FBA in the Amazon selling community.
  2. All other products on Amazon that don’t feature the “prime” badge are called “fulfilled by merchant” (FBM) in the Amazon selling circle.  This means when you purchase the item, the seller fulfills the order themselves from their residence, similar to eBay.  Amazon collects a fee from this transaction after the sale, but they have virtually no oversight over the shipping process.
  3. While most scams will come from FBM sellers, this doesn’t exclude FBA sellers from malicious intent.  FBM sellers will be the ones who take your cash and never send you anything, FBA sellers will be selling the fakes.  Like I said, Amazon has virtually no oversight or accountability of this.  The best they’ve done is set up barriers of entry of certain categories of products and restrictions on certain brands (Nike, Apple, etc.).

Red Flags

Let’s talk about a few red flags to look for when considering a scam account. Counterfeits are more difficult to discover, but more on that later.

  1. Look out for sellers who are labeled as “Just Launched”.  This means the account is brand new and they haven’t received any customer feedback yet.  This is an early indicator that the account may be fishy.
  2. Look out for seller names that are shady. If the account name is something like “.BEFORE ORDER CONTACT: CLAYTON. 14D (at)GMAIL COM”, you might have found a scammer.  Similarly, if a “Just Launched” account is simply named “Sally Jones”, you might have found a scammer.
  3. Look out for sellers with poor reviews. Most sellers are 95%+ on Amazon.  Amazon is very strict on their sellers when it comes to account performance.  You know that excellent customer service you get with Amazon as a customer?  Yeah, that doesn’t extend to the sellers.  If you slip for too long on account health, Amazon will suspend your account and you have to pay an arm and a leg using a third party service that specializes in appeals to get it reinstated. That being said, customers with 80% or lower on their seller rating are a cause for concern.  Below 50% and you’re looking at a potential scam.  You better archive that page because they’ll be gone soon!
  4. Look out for sellers who have thousands of products in their storefront. This is especially true for sellers with poor ratings, no ratings, or not that many ratings.  It takes about 5-15 minutes to set up a product listing on your seller profile.  Having thousands of products on a newer account screams with bot, child army, or worse!  Head on a swivel, my dudes.
  5. Look out for sellers who ask for your contact information. All transactional data should be sent through Amazon and be anonymous to the seller.  If they’re telling you to email them, PayPal them, or anything else, you’ve got yourself a scammer.

Methodology

Now that we’ve gone over the tools you’ll need, the ground rules and basic terminology of Amazon selling, and a few red flags, let’s get our hands dirty!  I’m about to take you step by step through the process of an OSINT investigation on Amazon.  But first, let’s set our bearings.  Ask yourself these questions.

  1. What season are you in?  January, May, and August are peak seasons for textbooks.  Q4 is huge for almost every category, but especially for gift-related items such as toys, games, electronics, etc. Summer is big for clothing (t-shirt, shorts, etc.).  Holidays of all varieties present seasonal products worth looking at.
  2. What market are you in?  Products in the UK, DE, MX, CA, etc. will slightly different than the US.  The customer base will also be different.  All of the examples in this post will discuss the US market, but there are some really interesting things going on in foreign markets when you’re looking at scams.

Let’s get started.

Step 1 – Product Category

For this example, I’m going to use textbooks.  There’s a large variety of textbooks available on Amazon, a rather inelastic demand curve, and a very naive audience.  I’m going to specifically look for textbooks for people who aren’t tech savvy.  Let’s look at ceramics textbooks (sorry, no offense!).  Type in ceramics textbooks into the search bar on Amazon.com. Your first result should look something like this.

Screen Shot 2018-11-29 at 7.07.01 PM

Step 2 – Selection

The first thing you’ll notice is the DS Amazon Quick View pop up you’re not used to seeing when browsing Amazon normally.  It reveals the sales rank of the book as well as the fact that there is more than 1 seller, including Amazon itself. When entering that rank into Jungle Scout Estimator, you’ll find that ~147 units of this book sell per month.  Keep in mind, this is an estimate, not a fact.  Sales rank is based on sales per hour so it’s not static and is subject to change.  Because of high demand and a high volume of sellers, this is a potential candidate for an investigation.  Let’s dig deeper.

Step 3 – Deep Dive

Now that you’re on the product page, most of our Chrome Extensions will work. Before we start clicking, there’s useful information already added on the page! If you scroll down, you’ll run into a chart produced by Keepa that looks something like this.

Screen Shot 2018-11-29 at 7.17.23 PM

If yours looks a bit different, don’t worry, you likely don’t have the right settings toggled on the right hand side.  Copy the selections I’ve displayed in the image above (Sales Rank and “Year” are the most important).  Here’s a few key takeaways from this chart. When the green line drops closer to “0”, that means the product sold more.  When it goes higher (closer to 1 million) that means demand has gone down.  You’ll notice the largest, most consistent drop in January, directly in line with textbook season. You’ll also notice 2103 days under the “All” section on the right hand side.  That’s how long it’s been on Amazon. Lastly, if you know anything about economics you know that when supply is high and demand is low, price drops.  The black line shows the price of used books over time.  Demand has gone down over time, resulting in a steady price drop. This information is useful as it helps you understand the behavior of the product in relation to its customers.  That will be helpful background information when evaluating seller profiles that sell it, which we will cover in a minute. One more thing.  Hover over the “statistics” selector on the chart. This will show you average price and average sales rank over both a 30 and 90 day period.  Very useful stuff to test whether or not the current price or demand of the product matches the historical trend. That’s enough of Keepa for now, let’s move on.

Step 4 – Product Listings

Navigate to the top of the product listing and select “Buy Used”.  Then, select “X Used From” to pull up the list of sellers. This will take you a page that only lists price of an item, seller rating, and with the help of our little friend Inventory Spy, a list of the total number of units each seller has in stock. Go ahead and click on the Inventory Spy Chrome Extension to populate that information now. Now that we have all available information at our fingertips, it’s time to do a little bit of manual labor.  Look at the seller rating of each seller.  Keep in mind we are really only looking for 80% or lower.  The lower the better. Most of the sellers for this book, at the time of this writing, seem legit.  The lowest available option is Max_Book_Stores which is listed at 84%, though they have a large number of views.  Their listing looks something like this.

Screen Shot 2018-11-29 at 7.32.09 PM

Go ahead and click on their seller profile to learn more about this seller. Ignore ReconBob, he’s cautious about everyone.  We’re more interested in what he has to say rather than how he feels.

Step 5 – Profit Analysis

It’s obvious that at a price of $159.89, this seller is going to make a profit if they sell it.  But for the sake of demonstration, let’s see how this would work.  Go back to the main product page.  Navigate to your FBA Calculator tool and enter $159.89 and select FBM with the slider (the product listing doesn’t have the Prime logo). Your result should look something like this.

Screen Shot 2018-11-29 at 7.51.28 PM

It looks like this seller has the potential to make $133.35 dollars after Amazon’s fees.  It also indicates that this product sells 0 – 5 units per day.  This is consistent with the Jungle Scout results we received earlier.  This doesn’t raise any red flags to me.

Step 6 – Seller Analysis

Here’s where things get interesting and we begin to see the fruits of our labor. Let’s find out why this seller has an 84% instead of a 95% or higher.  Your seller page should look something like this.

Screen Shot 2018-11-29 at 7.31.41 PM

 

There’s a few things I want to point out here.  First, ReconBob things the seller is from Florida.  Second, Amazon provides you with the percentage of negative reviews the seller has in a defined time frame.  You’ll also find “Max_Book_Stores” storefront page which we’ll look at in a second.

Note: “is committed to providing each customer with the highest standard of customer service.” is the default description for sellers.  If you Google Dork this you will waste your time!

Keep scrolling down to find more of ReconBob’s recommendations. Here you will find “All Reviews”, “Concerning Reviews”, and “Shipping Issues”. It should look something like this.

Screen Shot 2018-11-29 at 7.37.00 PM

The first thing I notice is a lot of 1 star reviews.  Go ahead and read through a few to get a general idea of the feedback customers have given this seller and look for any trends or patterns that emerge.  Be cautious of fake reviewers though!  Competitors on Amazon are notorious for trying to crush their competition by leaving fake, poor reviews.  This is usually one scammer trying to crush the other.  Look out for poor grammar and misspellings. It looks like this seller just sucks. They don’t list their products in the proper condition and don’t ship on time. They also seem to be potentially dropshipping their products without reporting it.  I don’t believe this seller is a scammer, so for now I’m going to move ahead to the next step for the sake of brevity.

Step 7 – Storefront Analysis

If you go back to the Max_Book_Stores Storefront link under the seller profile, it’ll take you to all of their product listings.  This is a huge account, with over 90,000 listings.  You can find that in the top left corner of the page under the Amazon banner.

Screen Shot 2018-11-29 at 7.45.46 PM.png

Now, this seller has over 2400 reviews on the seller profile, so having this many listings is not abnormal.  Had this seller only had 10 reviews, 90,000 results would be a huge red flag. This is why having the back pocket information about products, seller, etc. is useful when doing analysis of the big picture.  If you just went by the rule of thousands of listings means potential scammer, you’d go down a sour rabbit hole here.

Conclusion

We’ve gone over the tools needed to investigate scammers on Amazon, numerous red flags, and the methodology of searching through Amazons index for scammers.  I may do another article showing how to look for counterfeit sellers using similar methods in the future.  I may also do a real investigation of a scammer or counterfeit seller on Amazon using this method to demonstrate its utility in the future.  Make sure to experiment with this process to see if it can add any value to your work.  This is useful for competitive intelligence, marketing, law enforcement, and more.  If any of this has been confusing, make sure to reach out to me @jakecreps on Twitter or drop a line in the “Contact” page. Thanks for reading!

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