Monday, August 21 , 2017, 8:40 pm | Fair 65º

 
 
 
 

Susan Estrich: The Amazon 1-Star System

I'm not dumb enough to believe that all the reviews you read on various sites are authentic. I know that if a product no one has ever heard of has thousands of five-star reviews, something is amiss.

Real customers aren't claiming a skin cream "takes years away in just minutes!" The only thing that does that is plastic surgery. 

I know that companies pay not only to have good reviews posted but also to have bad ones removed. And I know that these "reviews" are not done by Consumer Reports (which seems like a careful and legitimate business). 

I could only laugh when one site contacted me to tell me that the only one-star review I had ever written was not being posted because "it failed to adequately describe (my) experience."

Really. There are many things I don't do well, but explaining an experience in plain and clear language is simply not one of them. My clients pay me a small fortune to explain their experiences — in motions and briefs to the highest courts in the land.

"If you want your review to get posted," my son told me, "select two stars, and then explain why you really think they deserve one."

But I never expected to have my name given to a seller on Amazon to whom I gave one star — especially because all my "privacy settings" are set to protect me against just that.

Some background: My stomach hurts from a botched surgery (peritonitis and sepsis from perforating my colon and nicking my spleen) two years ago. And my back hurts from a more recent surgery, which was successful but still major.

So, unable to sleep on my side, and still having severe stomach pain from the surgery two years ago, I looked on Amazon for help. And there it was: a pillow originally targeted to pregnant women but said to be a miracle for back pain, stomach pain — a miracle for me.

And it had hundreds of five-star reviews.

Originally priced at nearly $200, it was "marked down" to around $50 (I later discovered it's available on Alibaba for $3). Even better, because Amazon fulfilled the orders, it would arrive sooner than similar products. One click and it was on its way.

Calling this pillow "junk" would be putting it gently. From the minute I opened the box, I knew it would be going back. The zipper was broken. The cover felt like horsehair. The pillow was hard as a rock. Sleeping with it was impossible.

I did what I have never done before on Amazon. I gave it one star.

But it wasn't "Susan R. Estrich" who wrote the review. I used a pseudonym for privacy, a combination of my two grandmothers' names. Almost every other rating I've given has been five stars — written simply to support people who are working hard and writing good books or selling good products at fair prices.

This was none of the above.

But then what's not supposed to happen happened. Within an hour, the seller emailed me, telling me they had already given me a full refund, that I could keep the pillow (it now occupies the space in my garage for things I can't give away because no one wants them) and to please take down my one-star review.

I wrote right back to the seller. I had only one question: "How did you find out my real name?"

They answered: "Amazon gave us your name."

Amazon gave you my name. And Google will tell you where I live, what I do, how many children I have and how to find me. I took down the review. 

Write to Jeff Bezos, my son told me. I did.

That got me to the "Executive Consumer Support Communities," to a customer-support representative named Amanda, who offered me $50 credit and said she was just "stumped" by what happened. She said she would have to investigate, and she gave me a phone number to call.

No one answered the phone. That was weeks ago. I wrote and wrote. I asked over and over how it was that my privacy settings were completely ignored. They were "stumped"; they were investigating; they didn't understand.

I called and called, and no one called back. A month later, they are still working on it.

And a month later, I'm telling you: Buyer beware. It's not just money that you risk losing. It's your privacy.

Susan Estrich is a best-selling author, the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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