No comment

shutterstock_133415174
By | February 13th, 2016

No comment.

That’s what Amazon said to one of our advocates when she asked about one of our most controversial cases in months.

These were Amazon’s exact words:

Hello from Amazon.com.

To protect the privacy of our customers, we will only discuss account specific questions or concerns with them directly. We’d love to help as best we can, and encourage you to direct customers to contact our customer service team for further assistance.

We appreciate your understanding with our effort to safeguard the privacy of our customers.

Best regards,
Amazon.com Customer Service

We hit brick walls like this all the time when we try to help customers. But it’s what keeps us going that I think you’ll find interesting. And since this week’s most-visited story was the Amazon story, why don’t we go there?

It wasn’t the case that turned this into a story. We suspected Richard Thripp might have engaged in an activity known as manufactured spending, which we believe is unethical.

(Manufactured spending, for the uninitiated, involves buying gift cards or money orders in an effort to collect miles, liquidating the purchases, but keeping the points. Companies frown on this kind of hacking, needless to say.)

As the case unfolded, it became increasingly clear that this was someone who was trying to manipulate the system. But that’s not why we kept going.

It wasn’t the resolution, which we learned about before the article published. Amazon agreed to release the customer’s funds after he threatened to sue and we contacted its legal counsel on his behalf.

Related story:   You'll never forget how your franchise made you feel

Two things made us move forward with the story. First, Amazon was inexplicably keeping some of the customer’s money, even though he was likely engaged in an activity that violated its terms of service. And while its adhesion contract probably allowed it to do so, we didn’t feel that two wrongs make a right. It was still the customer’s money.

But what finally made us pull the trigger on February’s most controversial story was Amazon’s “no comment.”

Amazon is, of course, notorious for giving the fourth estate the silent treatment. Jack Shafer’s 2013 column about Amazon’s penchant for refusing to comment is a classic.

When someone won’t talk to you, what is it that makes you want them to talk to you even more?

Let’s speak in no uncertain terms here. The story was driven by us getting the cold shoulder from Amazon. But the underlying case was based on our belief that even if the customer violated a policy, he was entitled to know what conduct triggered the harsh punishment. The customer should be part of the process, not just a casualty of some indiscriminate corporate enforcement action.

Some commenters on the story accused us of siding with a rule breaker. Others said we had “harassed a business.” Many defended Amazon, saying that Thripp must have been in flagrant violation of the rules and that this wouldn’t happen otherwise.

And if that’s the case, this should have played out like the final scene of Willy Wonka, where an incredulous Charlie is told, “You stole fizzy-lifting drinks … so you get nothing! You lose! Good day, sir!”

Related story:   US Airways, Delta to merge?


  • judyserienagy

    I haven’t read the whole story yet, Chris, but based on your article above, this is exactly the kind of thing we should be doing. The point is not whether the customer did something wrong or not, the point is that Customer Service of any company should not be allowed to tell their customers to take a hike. It’s not right. and you’ve done everyone a good service by making them aware that consumers need not accept this kind of treatment, no matter what they’ve done.

  • Rebecca

    Let’s be fair to Amazon here. This guy, who admitted he broke the rules, threatened to sue and stated he had an attorney. Amazon CAN’T speak to anyone other than his legal counsel. And if they do, they open themselves up to huge liability. And someone that flagrantly breaks the rules is the same exact type of person that sues Amazon because they disclose information and/or communicate with someone other than his attorney. If you don’t believe me, read his comments. Then tell me he wouldn’t turn around and sue Amazon for discussing his account with CE after he’d stayed he was planning on suing them and was retaining an attorney.

  • Rebecca

    I would normally agree. But this guy told Amazon he was suing and hiring an attorney. At that point, Amazon can’t legally communicate with anyone (including the customer himself) other than legal counsel.

  • KennyG

    I am glad Mr. Thripp “possibly” made some admissions to Amazon. Here on your blog he was totally intransigent, quoting case law, blah blah blah. Let me say I agree with your premise that Amazon [or any company] would do well if they communicated with their customer in reasonable specifics if there is a problem of some kind with their account, however, in Mr. Thripp’s case, if Amazon was to make the claim that they believed he was “manufacturing”, they might leave themselves open to some legal repercussions, hence “mums the word”. That being said, my overriding issue is that you seem to have believed from the get go that in fact Mr. Thripp was doing this, yet in going to bat for him you, in my mind, became a willing and knowing co-conspirator of his activities in some ways. What I am saying is, though your motives were good in terms of the consumer community at large, perhaps your advocacy power would have been better spent assisting someone who wasn’t out to game the system to prove the point you felt needed to be made.

  • Extramail

    It was helpful to learn that Amazon has a policy of not discussing issues with the consumer. I, personally, don’t shop on Amazon for several reasons and this just gives me another reason to continue that policy.

  • Extramail

    There are blogs all over the internet that are telling you how to “game” the system, especially concerning manufactured spend and credit card signing bonus miles. Thus, these “contracts” are full of legalese trying to prevent this gaming of the system and protecting the company. In my opinion, that still should not give a company the right to refuse to discuss why they are closing your account and confiscating any money you have in that account.

  • sirwired

    Chris, did you have any information pointing towards “manufactured spend” that was left out of the original story? Certainly a large GC balance tends to point to either manufactured spend or stolen gift cards purchased from a reseller, but the original story was silent on the matter.

    If you DID have information pointing towards unethical behavior, well… if there are a limited number of hours in the day, it’s not a case I would have picked.

  • KennyG

    I said this to Mr. Thripp as did many others, but I will repeat it once again so you might have a better understanding of why my position is what it is. Once someone threatens legal action, calling the attorney general, the Federal Trade Commission, etc, it is incumbent on the company to cut off any and all communications with that person except via their legal staff. Also the fact that there are blogs all over the net teaching people how to game the system does not justify gaming the system. There are also blogs that teach would be terrorists how to manufacture bombs, I guess you think that makes it ok for someone to actually build and detonate a bomb they learned how to build on a “blog”. The fact that Mr. Thripp violated the companies Terms of Service I guess is meaningless to you since it would appear that companies are always wrong and individuals, no matter what they do are always the wronged party.

  • Jim

    I cannot answer for anyone else, but I’ve been shopping on Amazon.com since the site started. On the rare occasion I have had a problem they immediately go above and beyond my expectations. Heck, I updated my credit card for Amazon Prime and they still charged the wrong card one year. They apologized, refunded the charge, and said don’t worry this year is on us.

    So taking my years of experience with their customer service into consideration, he must have done something very “naughty” (since specifics are not disclosed) for Amazon to respond they way they did…

  • AJPeabody

    Sounds like the Yelper extortionists.

  • Pat

    Based on the initial story, Amazon looked like the villain and Mr. Thripp deserved help. But once Mr. Thripp started replying to almost EVERY comment, it became clear why Amazon refused to say anything and Mr. Thripp did not deserve any help. Mr. Thripp was trying to game the system and he thought he knew everything about gift card law.

  • flutiefan

    seriously? you don’t think a company can fire a customer (and in this case, for a very valid reason)?
    wow.

  • flutiefan

    so the real story comes out.
    Thripp was a scammer and this site still helped him.
    great.

  • Rebecca

    This reminded me of a story I know you’ll appreciate. About 20-25 years ago my uncle was an overnight security guard at a large discount superstore. A couple drunk guys came in in the wee morning hours and peed all over the citrus fruits. This happened three times over about a month, with them being arrested each time. The third time, my uncle noticed they had left their car window down, so he urinated all over their front seat.

  • Rebecca

    I would go so far as to say he thought he knew everything about everything

  • Grant Ritchie

    Ha!
    I your uncle’s still around, please give him an “Attaboy” from me. :-)

  • pauletteb

    Gamers like Thripp end up costing the rest of us money. At least his name is now all over the Internet, possibly making it difficult for him to do it again. Karma would be whatever credit card(s) he used to make the Amazon purchases cancelling his account.

  • AMA

    I have never had anything but top-notch service from them, either. From time to time they have refunded me and not even had me return the defective item.

  • sirwired

    Wow. I didn’t know there was so much fun in the comments; just read them. Yeah, Chris is welcome to advocate for whomever he chooses, but it’s not a case I would have touched with a ten-foot pole.

  • Éamon deValera

    It is prudent not to comment whilst litigation is pending. Amazon did the right thing. Even if there weren’t absent a release from the consumer I would hope a business would decline to comment. Conversely with a release they should feel free, perhaps even obliged, to respond.

  • Éamon deValera

    Indeed I share the same high praise of Amazon.

    In the interest of full disclosure I hold a small equity position in Amazon. So small that I probably spent more on fast food last year than the value of that stock.

  • Éamon deValera

    If you consent to (or sign) a contract you are bound by that contract. If you don’t like it and sue you certainly can’t expect the company to talk to you or your agent outside the courtroom.

  • Éamon deValera

    Should grocery stores be able to ban shoplifters?

  • Extramail

    You totally missed my point so I will try to explain. My point was that, regardless of the legalese, I believe a customer should be told why his account is being taken away and his funds are being confiscated. In other words, we are still bound by due process regardless of what a contract may say. If someone did build and blow bomb learned from the Internet, that person is still not automatically thrown in jail and left to rot for all eternity, even if that is what he deserves. He is arrested, tried and either convicted or acquitted. And, to suggest that anyone, especially me, thinks it is ok to build and detonate a bomb is to use false analogy as an extreme argument.

  • KennyG

    And you also missed my point. I agree with your basic premise that a customer should be told why/what/when happened with his account/orders/funds/etc. However, no reasonable company will continue to have anyone but their legal department have any communication with that “customer” once the “customer” has said/implied/threatened legal action, FTC involvement, Attorney General involvment. And as far as the bomb building analogy, yes, it was a bit over the top, but you seemed to be using as an excuse for Mr. Thripps actions the fact that there are many blogs online that give instructions as to how to do what it would appear Mr. Thripp was doing, hence would you accept as an excuse for someones building a bomb the act that it was all on a blog? Nowhere did I say in either case, that due process should be thrown out the window, and in this case, it would appear, that once Mr. Thripp came down off his high horse, and Amazon’s legal department was able to “speak” with him, the matter was settled to his satisfaction.

  • Extramail

    My comments have said NOTHING about his threat to contact a lawyer and his subsequent contacting a lawyer. And, I was not defending what he did. Quite frankly, I don’t understand how all the machinations work to game the system and, thus, have no desire to waste my time gaming the system. Bully for him that he thought he could and did. I still stand with my basic premise that he did not give up his due process rights just because he signed a contract full of legalese.

  • KennyG
  • Fishplate

    “I believe a customer should be told why his account is being taken away and his funds are being confiscated.”

    It’s entirely possible that Amazon did just that. How would we know? They won’t talk to us, and they aren’t in any way obligated to do so.

  • Fishplate

    I should add that, deserving or not, Amazon hasn’t been rated very high in the press recently. I’m not sure I can blame them for not arguing with people who buy electrons by the barrel…

  • Grant Ritchie

    Oh, God!
    I probably should delete that, but damn, it’s funny. Thanks for the laugh out loud. :-)

  • KennyG

    Grant: My apologies, I just couldn’t help myself, and it seemed to state particularly accurately my point of frustration. I will try to control myself a bit better …Ken

  • Grant Ritchie

    Don’t you dare. This job already provides too few opportunities for a good laugh. :-)

  • Éamon deValera

    He invoked his right to his day in court, due process as you call it, when he sued the CEO. It is simply improper to argue a court case outside of the courtroom. He can’t have it both ways, sue or negotiate. When you sue someone you tie their hands.