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The Season

How Amazon’s counterfeit problem reached a bird feeder manufacturer in Rhode Island

Marielle Segarra Nov 18, 2019
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Can you spot the fake hummingbird feeder? It's on the left. Counterfeit products sold in online marketplaces often bear the same name and trademarks as the legitimate brand.
John Happel/Marketplace

In 2016, Trisha Torres, vice president of a small Rhode Island-based company, received a phone call from a customer.

Her company, Aspects, makes bird feeders, and this customer had bought what Amazon had listed as an “Aspects” hummingbird feeder.

Trisha Torres of Aspects, which manufactures specialty lawn and garden products in Warren, Rhode Island. (John Happel/Marketplace)

“It’s a clear bowl that holds the nectar for the hummingbirds to feed from, and then there’s a red cover that kind of just snaps on the top,” Torres said. “And what happened was it just was not snapping on.”

Aspects products come with a lifetime guarantee. Torres told the customer to send the feeder back. She then sent it to her supplier in Massachusetts, who called Torres the following day.

“They came back to us with: ‘We didn’t make this,’” Torres said.

The hummingbird feeder was a fake, albeit a convincing one. It even had her company’s name and phone number on it.

“A lot of sleepless nights started with that phone call, saying: ‘how did this happen?’” she said. “And, ‘What do we do now?’”

Torres checked Amazon and realized there were a lot more fakes. She ordered some and could see the giveaways: a word spelled wrong, faded packaging. But customers would never know the difference — until the product started to fall apart.

When we think of Amazon, “we have in our minds the image of a giant warehouse, from which initially, books, and later everything we could possibly want in life, flows to us directly,” said Susan Scafidi, director of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham University.

“But, in fact, any number of sellers are selling products on Amazon that Amazon never touches, has no control over.”

Even when these products are delivered by Amazon, the retailer doesn’t detect that they are fake. 

“Third-party” companies use Amazon as a sales platform; they’re a huge part of Amazon’s business model. In 2018, almost 60% of Amazon’s product sales came from third parties.

They sell fake Louis Vuitton iPhone cases, fake sneakers, fake T-shirts, fake dietary supplements, and fake bird feeders.

Torres tried to figure out what to do next. Aspects has been in business for 40 years, and it holds multiple trademarks and patents.

She called in the company’s patent lawyer. Aspects went on to pay nearly $10,000 to file its existing trademarks in the databases for U.S. and Chinese customs.

A couple of months later, officials blocked a container of 3,800 counterfeit Aspects products headed from China to an address in the Bronx. Then another container.

Aspects has fewer than 20 employees and brings in less than $10 million in sales per year. (John Happel/Marketplace)

Even so, Aspects kept getting phone calls from disgruntled Amazon customers who thought they had bought its products. They would complain, for instance, that the suction cups on their bird feeders stopped sticking.

“People will just be like: ‘Well, just send me the suction cup, just send me the suction cups,’” Torres said. “And I’m like: ‘OK, we can, but the problem is I’m replacing parts, now, for a product that I didn’t manufacture.’ You know, it’s like a snowball effect.”

Aspects’ customers service representatives would tell callers that the company didn’t make the product and that they should return it to Amazon. That didn’t go over well.

“Their knee-jerk reaction was that we were just being dishonest and not standing behind that lifetime guarantee,” Torres said.

An Aspects employee uses a stencil to screen print details onto window thermometers. (John Happel/Marketplace)

Torres says the ordeal has done irreparable damage to Aspects’ reputation. She estimates that her company has lost about $1.5 million in sales to counterfeits on Amazon over the past few years — roughly 4% of its revenue in the same period. 

The company has asked Amazon to intervene, Torres said, and the retail platform does take down listings of counterfeit products. But, she said, it’s a game of whack-a-mole. 

“Joe Bad Guy can already have started another storefront by the next day,” she said.

Amazon declined an interview but said in a statement that it blocked more than three billion suspected “bad listings” from its site last year.

Companies have sued Amazon, saying it doesn’t do enough to keep counterfeits off its site. So far, though, courts have been reluctant to hold Amazon responsible.

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