Photographer: Kevin Lee/Bloomberg
Amazon's War on Fake Eclipse Glasses Trips Up Newbie Merchant
Jason Wright wanted to make a quick buck selling eclipse-viewing glasses on Amazon.com Inc. before the moon blocks the sun in a rarely seen cosmic spectacle next week. He loaded up his credit cards to buy thousands of pairs from a manufacturer, enlisted family and friends to pack and ship them from his parents’ Salt Lake City home and watched the orders pour in. Then Amazon suspended his account.
Wright, 35, had been caught up in an Amazon crackdown on fake shades that could damage people’s eyes. Now he’s worried about paying his rent, let alone turning a profit. "After the eclipse these glasses are worthless," says Wright, who invested about $4,000 in cardboard eyewear that resembles 3-D movie glasses. "I’ll just throw them in the trash."
The "Great American Total Solar Eclipse" will darken the skies from Oregon to South Carolina Aug. 21 in a cross-country eclipse the likes of which won’t happen again until 2045. The need for special eye protection to watch the eclipse creates a challenge for online marketplaces like Amazon since there is a sudden surge of demand for a product not usually sold. Amazon is designed to let virtually anyone quickly create an account and begin selling items, making its inventory more free-wheeling than a typical brick-and-mortar retailer.
"Sellers of fake solar eclipse glasses have a unique opportunity to exploit the weaknesses of e-commerce websites in a short period of time," says Craig Crosby, publisher of The Counterfeit Report, which monitors websites for fake products. "The problem is that anybody, anywhere, can sell just about anything on Amazon and eBay, including counterfeit glasses that may be dangerous. Buyers won’t discover their error until after the eclipse, or they suffer serious or permanent eye damage. The sellers will be long gone."
Faced with the prospect of having people around the country staring at the sun with unsafe eyewear, Amazon issued a warning and refunds to customers who purchased glasses deemed potentially unsafe. It requested documentation from merchants to prove the glasses they were selling had been tested and were deemed safe for viewing the eclipse; those who didn’t comply risked being suspended.
For his part, Wright got an email Sunday morning that his account had been suspended due to a large number of sales without much buyer feedback, which Amazon deemed suspicious. Wright doesn’t ordinarily sell on the site, so the sudden surge in sales from a new merchant triggered scrutiny.
With the eclipse a week away and thousands of pairs of glasses left, Wright panicked. He emailed Amazon. He called Amazon. And when he wasn’t satisfied, he booked a one-way flight to Seattle, spent the night at a Motel 6 near the airport and arrived at company headquarters at about 9 a.m. He had invoices from American Paper Optics, an eclipse-viewing glasses manufacturer approved by the American Astronomical Society, determined to prove his goods were authentic. He didn’t get past reception.
"I just walked in the front door and talked to the person at the front desk," Wright says. "He gave me the numbers and emails I already tried. I’m going to lose my shirt."
Wright says he left a business card and threatened to call a press conference at the company’s headquarters if his account wasn’t reinstated. He got an email Monday afternoon from Amazon informing him that he could continue selling glasses on the site through his account Moon Vision Products.
"In our efforts to protect our community, we sometimes err on the side of caution," Amazon wrote to him in an email. "We are sorry for any inconvenience this has caused." In a statement, the company didn’t comment directly on Wright’s experience and said it was asking third-party sellers of solar eclipse glasses to “provide documentation to verify their products were compliant with relevant safety standards.’’
Meanwhile, Wright worried aloud whether there was still time to sell the glasses or if he would be shut down again. A few hours later his sales were picking up, and he booked a return flight to Utah. Then on Monday night he was asked for authenticity documentation he’d already emailed but Amazon couldn't open.
"I’m on the edge of making a few bucks or falling behind on my rent," he says. "It’s stressful. I’m very grateful to Amazon. But it would be really nice to have better escalation features when things go wrong."