Author Topic: Amazon takes aim at scammers - you won't believe what happens next  (Read 9155 times)  

Offline PhoenixS

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Yeah, yeah, clickbait headline ;)

While David Gaughran is waiting for further evidence that KDP is making a firm commitment to shut down scamming operations before posting such to his blog, I think it only fair for me after pointing an accusing finger Amazon's way over one of the problems a couple of weeks ago, to point a more favorable finger at some of the clean-up that's taken place since.

The internet marketing/black hat scams we've seen so far are like the multi-headed hydra -- cut one head off and another two grow in its place. Quelling them all seems an insurmountable problem, but hey, Hercules defeated the hydra in the end.

The following is a review of some of the more readily identifiable and egregious scams we've been seeing in the KU space, along with acknowledgements of where we've seen improved action by Amazon. This is by no means a deep and exhaustive investigative report, just an observational editorial (and why I'm posting it on Kboards) in which to give fair acknowledgement to Amazon for the corrective measures it has already taken and to indicate areas where I hope to see further action.


1. New Release Closed-Loop Scam

Problem: Hundreds of these titles were being uploaded daily, taking over the new-release search lists. The books are filled with gibberish that's been either run twice through a translator (say, English to Russian and back to English again) or through a synonymizer. The books are not targeted to ANY real customers but are only there for the scammers' clickfarms to download, page through/click to end, and reap the KU monies, all while by-passing any real -- what are they called again? -- oh, yeah, readers.

Remedy: Several thousand (!) of those titles were hit in the wee-est hours of April 23, US time. Some of those titles still remain. It's possible Amazon took them down at the account level. It seems as though they may have targeted and caught up to 80% of those closed-loop scammers; perhaps they'll hit the others later.

We do know somewhere between 30K and 35K titles were caught up and removed (about 80% KU, 20% not) between the 22nd and 23rd. One author I'm in contact with compared a capture of numbers of titles in a few given categories at the height of the problem -- where nearly 80% of the titles in the first few pages of the new lists (even without the KU filter) were scambooks -- with a new capture after the purge to get an idea of the scope of the numbers.

I also have a control book in the #2M rank range that's affected ONLY by the flux of titles in and out of the ecosystem that saw a very sharp, pronounced rise of 30K-ish ranks overnight from the 22nd to the 23rd.



Enough pieces of documentation have been put forward by various savvy authors that, combined, paint a fairly good portrait.


2. Freebie Scam

Problem: A number of these type of scammers appeared to be going for bonus money, publishing large catalogs of non-fiction titles, such as cookbooks under a single, generic American name, or a bunch of illustrated kids books where the bonus money is within easy reach. The books have scraped recipes, how-to type advice, illustrations, etc., along with titles stuffed to the gills with keywords, and there seems to be a rudimentary attempt to make the books appealing to real customers to entice organic borrows. These guys set the titles free, click-farm them up to a high rank, then likely have a second set of click-farmers borrow them while free so they come off free at a high paid rank, hoping then for a long tail of borrows from real customers.

They unpublish as soon as the tail wanes, then publish them up again under a new ASIN and new title so they can immediately use 5 new fresh days.

Remedy: I haven't seen a mass push of a large number of these titles since the Easter weekend event I documented here:
https://davidgaughran.wordpress.com/2016/04/15/ku-scammers-attack-amazons-free-ebook-charts/

In fact, we just had a successful campaign where 3 of our books landed in the Top 100 Free, with one book hitting #1 Free, and while there were a couple of suspect books mid-list or so, the list seemed fairly clean.


3. Study Guide Scam

Problem: These books present themselves in ways that attempt to fool the customer into believing they're getting the real deal at a bargain price. They're filled with scraped and/or outsourced content, much of which is nonsense. For example, we've seen guides where the well-known author of the subject book is mis-identified as to, say, gender.

Remedy: Amazon has taken an interestingly soft-gloved approach to some of these books, probably since there are many non-scam and useful guides out there too, and it's a manual process for identifying which are which.

Now, I have seen two big publisher names of scam guides get snipped recently. One was in the January All-Star list but disappeared from it right before it changed over to the new month's All-Stars. I'm pretty sure that scammer didn't get paid a bonus for January, but I'm betting they saw bonus money for the months before.

A lot of the scam guides are still up, but Amazon has added language to its Policy Guide that forbids many of the tactics being used (such as the real author name can't be in the Author metadata, the words "Study Guide/Companion/Whatever" on the cover need to be at least as big as the title, etc) and they've also added a standardized warning at the beginning of each blurb about the book being a study guide only and not the real thing. The warnings are likely being inserted manually at the beginnings of the blurbs. Which would be a really good step; sadly this is the warning copy from the All-Star publisher's study guide for TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (whose cover also does not conform to the newly issued guidelines, 'To Kill A Mockingbird' is the book's narrator according to the metadata, and the title includes TKAM's legit publisher):

Quote
Warning: This is an independent addition to Luckiest Girl Alive, meant to enhance your experience of the original book. If you have not yet bought the original copy, make sure to purchase it before buying this unofficial summary from [publisher name redacted because I don't need the reprisals].

You would think remembering to change the book title when you're copying and pasting would be a big part of the process. But no, Amazon is actually adding to the "poor customer experience" itself. BUT I'm happy to see they are at least trying to warn customers by requiring those warnings in the blurbs and, in the case of at least one publisher, at the beginning of the ebook itself. Amazon just has a lot more policing to do still in this area. For example, there's a GO SET A WATCHMAN guide that's doing well whose cover is egregiously misleading and whose blurb doesn't carry the warning.


4. Bonus Book Stuffing Scam

Problem: At the internet marketer level -- i.e., the scammers with click-farmers -- this is the scam that prompted the 3000-page cap on payouts. Generally, there's no indication in the title that there is more than one book inside, but the customer finds, say, 20 other stories stuffed in, many of them not in the same sub-genre, genre, or even language as the one on the cover. Often, the titles are keyword stuffed, looking something like "Regency Romance: Bedding the Archduke (BBW military pregnancy seals menage shifter)".

By itself, that's a problem. But then we also find there are 20 other books with different titles and authors that all have THE EXACT SAME 21 titles in them, just their order is different.

There seems to be two levels to this and other scams -- the black hatters who are not authors themselves and who are simply pushing out content regardless of Amazon policies or the customer experience and who command an army of click-farmers, and the greedy authors who aren't internet marketers, but who see an opportunity and copy the internet marketing tactics. Since the latter don't have click farms to help out, they have to get real customers to download, so their books might have regular, normal titles, but they stuff their entire catalog into each book, with the title book at the end so the reader clicks to the back to read it first.

Remedy: Instituting the 3000-page cap on payouts. That's still $12+ per book. That's still unacceptable. KDP does seem to be running checks on titles to reconcile the number of authors on the cover and in the metadata with the number of authors claimed in the content. My hope is that they are also reconciling the number of titles in the content with those claimed on the cover. (Legitimate bonus content of one or two stories can easily be indicated on the cover.)

KDP now includes this guidance about Bonus Content:

Quote
Bonus Content
If you choose to include bonus content (e.g. other stories, or previews of other books), it should be relevant to the customer and should not disrupt the reading experience. To meet these guidelines, we recommend placing additional content at the end of the book.

Content must meet all program guidelines (e.g., bonus content in KDP Select titles must be exclusive). Translated content must be high quality and not machine generated. Disruptive links and promises of gifts or rewards are never allowed.
https://kdp.amazon.com/help?topicId=A3CFOBV9O6PLD7


5. 'Click Here' Links to the End of the Book Scam

Problem: The way this scam works is by driving readers deep inside the book on first opening it, whether via a link to the end of the book to win a Kindle or other enticement, or to skip a bunch of unrelated front-loaded content to get to the book title on the cover. TOCs at the front that point to a bonus or where the title book is at the back behind a bunch of other non-related bonus content only enables that scam. The bigger problem is that scammers are/were uploading these massive tomes without a logical TOC. They were forcing readers to use the HTML TOC, or simply including links to "contests" at the back of the book.

Remedy: The first attempt at remedy led to the PR faux pas where books with TOCs at the back got pulled down. What I think might have happened there was miscommunication about the issue and the remedy with the reps responsible for dealing with it. It seems like Amazon is now better enforcing the requirement to include a logical TOC. Which should be a quality check before publishing anyway.

Along with the Bonus Content guidance quoted above, KDP guidance on links now includes:

Quote
Warning: Unnecessary or confusing hyperlinks, misplaced Tables of Contents (TOCs), or the addition of disruptive content that takes readers away from the main content of your book can result in a poor customer experience. If the formatting of a book results in a poor experience or genuine reader confusion, or is designed to unnaturally inflate sales or pages read, we will take action to remove titles and protect readers. This also includes disruptive or unnecessary enticement to click on elements within TOCs. Continued addition of these types of elements in your titles could affect your account status, up to and including termination.

Critical Issues
Do not frontload bonus content (e.g. other stories, or previews of other books) at the beginning of a book with a link that takes readers to the actual book at the end.
https://kdp.amazon.com/help?topicId=A1MMQ0JHRBEINX


6. Keyword-Stuffed Titles

Problem: Attempt to manipulate search results and against Amazon TOS.

Remedy: We've seen books with keyword-stuffed titles removed from sale for other violations, then restored to sale when those other violations have been rectified even though the stuffed titling hadn't been touched. Despite the number of reader complaints and poor customer experience this creates -- including books being miscategorized -- Amazon so far hasn't seen fit to penalize this behavior. Of course, we didn't see penalty with the serial republishers who kept resetting their "publish" date in the dashboard until Amazon yanked that ability away from the dashboard completely. Then again, that happened only after some of the worst abusers were awarded Amazon Publishing contracts, so ... mixed messages there.


WHAT WE CAN DO

Amazon PR has encouraged authors to report scammy books. Some reported books have been removed from sale, although whether they were removed because of KDP's internal scam sweeps or because of the reporting is unclear. What is clear is that several reported books that are in violation of Amazon's policies remain published and for sale. Or a reported book is removed but other scammy titles in an author or publisher's inventory are still for sale.

David, Data Guy and I did some quick brainstorming over how publicly scraped data might be useful in identifying the scammers to help with the reporting process and came up with a few "tells" to follow up on. Maybe en masse reporting will be more helpful. Or maybe Amazon already has the publishers who have been reported in its sights and is making cases against these accounts and they'll be caught up in the next sweep of take-downs.

Unfortunately, many of the scammers are already regrouping with more sophisticated-looking product, which seem to be escaping the nets right now. My hope is that the more that are reported, the more Amazon will have the data needed to create the tools -- whether to be implemented by bots or humans -- to identify and remove the majority of the scambooks as the types of scams evolve. Scammers are looking for the sure, quick buck. Better monitoring will pre-emptively help to discourage the scams to begin with.

The KU All-Star list for March looks clean from a cursory peek. Obvious scammers don't appear to be on the list. And a couple of authors who had padded their accounts with multi-author boxes have had those boxes disengaged from the All-Star numbers. All-in-all, things are looking better.
 
Kudos to Amazon for the head-lopping it's already done! May the casualties from ongoing friendly fire be few and far between.

(If you quote anything from this loooong post in your comment, PLEASE remember to snip, snip, snip! :) )
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Offline Lydniz

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Re: Amazon takes aim at scammers - you won't believe what happens next
« Reply #1 on: May 01, 2016, 09:51:26 AM »
Very interesting post, Phoenix, thank you.

Offline Jim Johnson

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Re: Amazon takes aim at scammers - you won't believe what happens next
« Reply #2 on: May 01, 2016, 09:54:43 AM »
Great stuff, Phoenix. Thanks for sharing. One question: you wrote:  Amazon PR has encouraged authors to report scammy books.

Is that Amazon PR asking specific writers, or is it an open request to any authors? Can we start reporting what are clearly scammy books without having to worry about Amazon looking at us as writers reporting on other writers?

Offline PhoenixS

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Re: Amazon takes aim at scammers - you won't believe what happens next
« Reply #3 on: May 01, 2016, 10:05:09 AM »
Is that Amazon PR asking specific writers, or is it an open request to any authors? Can we start reporting what are clearly scammy books without having to worry about Amazon looking at us as writers reporting on other writers?

It seems to be an open request. Keep in mind that Amazon's left hand doesn't always know what its right is doing, though. Still, I haven't heard of any repercussions so far (over the last few weeks, at least) of writers reporting scam titles, so long as the titles are indeed in violation of the policies.
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Offline JennyJ

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Re: Amazon takes aim at scammers - you won't believe what happens next
« Reply #4 on: May 01, 2016, 10:05:42 AM »
Just looking at a category I watch, I am seeing too many of the scam books with those solid colors, poor fonts, that are foreign now. My guess is they can still use their click farms on them, but unless you can read German (example) we won't report them like the others.

Offline she-la-ti-da

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Re: Amazon takes aim at scammers - you won't believe what happens next
« Reply #5 on: May 01, 2016, 10:11:09 AM »
Thanks for all of that, Phoenix. And kudos to Amazon for trying a precision attack rather than taking down everybody who hadn't done anything wrong. Maybe they've retired the nuclear wrecking ball of doom!
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Online Becca Mills

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Re: Amazon takes aim at scammers - you won't believe what happens next
« Reply #6 on: May 01, 2016, 10:18:23 AM »
Thanks for the great update, Phoenix.  :)




Online Monique

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Re: Amazon takes aim at scammers - you won't believe what happens next
« Reply #7 on: May 01, 2016, 10:20:04 AM »
Great summary, Phoenix. Thanks for staying on top of all of this.

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Offline Joseph J Bailey

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Re: Amazon takes aim at scammers - you won't believe what happens next
« Reply #8 on: May 01, 2016, 10:20:52 AM »
If only the scammers' creativity were directed to other endeavors...

Great summary!


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Re: Amazon takes aim at scammers - you won't believe what happens next
« Reply #9 on: May 01, 2016, 10:21:13 AM »
Thank you for that update!

Offline Gentleman Zombie

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Re: Amazon takes aim at scammers - you won't believe what happens next
« Reply #10 on: May 01, 2016, 10:27:37 AM »
Thank you!!! This is very informative.

Offline C. E. Stocker

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Re: Amazon takes aim at scammers - you won't believe what happens next
« Reply #11 on: May 01, 2016, 10:29:41 AM »
Great update, Phoenix--thanks.

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Offline Wolfpack

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Re: Amazon takes aim at scammers - you won't believe what happens next
« Reply #12 on: May 01, 2016, 10:34:23 AM »
Thanks for sharing this Phoenix.

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Offline Seshenet

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Re: Amazon takes aim at scammers - you won't believe what happens next
« Reply #13 on: May 01, 2016, 10:40:56 AM »
Thanks for this report, Phoenix. There will always be scammers, but it sounds like Amazon is trying to stem the flow.

Offline Sonya Bateman

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Re: Amazon takes aim at scammers - you won't believe what happens next
« Reply #14 on: May 01, 2016, 12:16:25 PM »
Thank you for this, Phoenix. It's very encouraging news. :)


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Re: Amazon takes aim at scammers - you won't believe what happens next
« Reply #15 on: May 01, 2016, 12:19:53 PM »
I have a question about the click farms: how is that technically managed?

If someone is reading a KU book they have to do it either in their kindle or in their kindle app. It should be no problem filtering e.g. diverse or genuine installations and kindles from scammers. If those guys sit at their computers and hit the same links over and over again, that is a pattern which should be detectable on a technical level.

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Re: Amazon takes aim at scammers - you won't believe what happens next
« Reply #16 on: May 01, 2016, 12:30:47 PM »
Appreciate it, Phoenix! Encouraging news!

Offline Jan Hurst-Nicholson

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Re: Amazon takes aim at scammers - you won't believe what happens next
« Reply #17 on: May 01, 2016, 12:44:34 PM »
Thanks so much for this info.

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Offline My Dog's Servant

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Re: Amazon takes aim at scammers - you won't believe what happens next
« Reply #18 on: May 01, 2016, 12:55:09 PM »
Thank you, Phoenix. Very encouraging.

I just did a search for "Western historical romance", a search I innocently ran several weeks ago only to run smack into a brick wall of keyword-stuffed titles and garbage content.  I posted a thread here, one of the several discussing the issue.

I just ran the same search and was pleased to see that it's not as bad as it was. Still not good, but there are what look like several "real" books on the first page of results (the very first book, part of a series, actually has several reviews, but they're so simple and sound so much alike that I seriously doubt they're any more honest than the books seem to be).  The first time I ran that search, I only found one "real" book in the first two plus pages of results.  So....it's improving.

Offline My Dog's Servant

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Re: Amazon takes aim at scammers - you won't believe what happens next
« Reply #19 on: May 01, 2016, 12:58:10 PM »
This is slightly off topic, but your post reminded me--where can one find an actual list of All Stars for any given month?

I see mentions of lists, but I've never actually found a real list of names. I started looking when we started hearing about the scammers getting the bonuses, but must have been missing something.

Offline PaulineMRoss

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Re: Amazon takes aim at scammers - you won't believe what happens next
« Reply #20 on: May 01, 2016, 01:00:19 PM »
Quote
Amazon PR has encouraged authors to report scammy books.

Yes, it has. Yet when I recently reported a couple of authors of bonus-content-stuffed books that were repeatedly unpublished and republished, all I got was a form 'thanks for your feedback' email.  :(

On the plus side, I've noticed a definite reduction in scammers in Regency romance, so whatever Amazon is doing, it's working. It's not got rid of all of them, but it's a real improvement.
   

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Re: Amazon takes aim at scammers - you won't believe what happens next
« Reply #21 on: May 01, 2016, 01:05:56 PM »
Thanks for the detailed write-up with data, Phoenix. Excellent analysis.

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Offline Gisele_1169

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Re: Amazon takes aim at scammers - you won't believe what happens next
« Reply #22 on: May 01, 2016, 01:07:32 PM »
Very informative post, Phoenix! Thank you so much for putting this together!  :)

Offline TessOliver

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Re: Amazon takes aim at scammers - you won't believe what happens next
« Reply #23 on: May 01, 2016, 01:21:55 PM »
Thanks for taking the time to do this, Phoenix. Relieved to see some significant changes happening.

Offline Donna White Glaser

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Re: Amazon takes aim at scammers - you won't believe what happens next
« Reply #24 on: May 01, 2016, 01:23:52 PM »
Feeling slightly more reassured than several days ago. Thank you for staying on top of all this, Phoenix. And to Dave Gaughran and Data Guy too.
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