The Washigtnon Post - 03.04.2020

(Joyce) #1

A18 eZ re the washington post.friday, april 3 , 2020


the coronavirus pandemic


BY JAY GREENE

Amazon took a hard line
against pandemic profiteering
last month, vowing to remove
product listings that claim to pre-
vent t he c oronavirus.
But third-party merchants that
sell millions of items on the e -com-
merce giant’s marketplace are al-
ready finding ways around that.
The latest gambit: promising cor-
onavirus protection in the gallery
of images that shoppers see next to
the p roduct on the s ite.
A photo hawking Lutos Ad-
vanced Hand S anitizer claims t hat
it will “protect you from CoVID-
19,” without making the claim in
the product description. Agelloc
Hand Sanitizer Soothing Spray
promises “efficient prevention of
coronavirus” i n a photo, t oo.
Avoiding spelling out the
claims in the text helps sellers
skirt algorithms trained to scan
and d elete products that break the
rules.
Consumers’ trust in Amazon
makes that marketing particular-
ly hazardous, said Svetlana Ilnits-
kaya, director of customer strate-
gy of Incopro, a firm that helps
brands protect themselves from
intellectual property and copy-
right theft.
“The claims are false and it’s
really a dangerous place for con-
sumers,” I lnitskaya said.


messages from the seller ac-
counts for the Lutos and Agelloc
products said the items were
aimed at helping consumers stay
safe. Neither merchant, nor sever-
al others making assertions about
preventing the coronavirus, com-
mented on using photos to make
those claims.
Amazon removed the product
listings after T he Washington Post
asked about them. The company
requires sellers to provide accu-
rate information, and it has devel-
oped digital t ools for t he c oronavi-
rus outbreak “to scan the hun-
dreds of millions of p roduct detail
pages for any inaccurate claims
our i nitial block may have missed,”
spokeswoman Cecilia fan said in
an emailed statement. All told,
Amazon has blocked or removed
more than 6.5 million products,
she s aid.
(Amazon founder and chief ex-
ecutive Jeff B ezos owns The Post.)
Amazon has struggled for y ears
to police its marketplace. That’s i n
large part because third-party
merchants, not Amazon itself, ac-
count for the majority of physical
merchandise s old o n the site. That
amounted to as much as 58 per-
cent in 2018, Bezos wrote in a
letter to shareholders l ast year.
The company routinely grap-
ples with a scourge of counterfeit
products, so much so that the
Trump administration an-

nounced plans in January to begin
imposing fines and other penal-
ties on merchants, warehouses
and e-commerce marketplaces
such as Amazon that facilitate the
import and sale of counterfeits.
The company forbids the sales of
cannabidiol on the site, but cre-
ative sellers have figured out how
to bypass Amazon’s detection,
making CBD products easy to find.
former executives have said the
company prioritizes selection
over preemptively blocking mer-
chants who might v iolate r ules.
Since the outbreak began, Ama-
zon has worked to police rogue
sellers w ho engaged i n price goug-
ing on vital items such as face
masks. And the company has
struggled to keep pace with the
flood of orders from shoppers
leery of venturing out of their
homes during the p andemic.
In february, Amazon warned
sellers about “false claims in re-
gards to CoVID-19,” a nd said then
it had blocked or removed more
than 1 million products for sus-
pect or misleading claims. The
company also stopped letting sell-
ers bid o n the w ords “ coronavirus”
or “covid- 19 ” as a keyword in
search results. In mid-march, the
company said it suspended more
than 3,900 U.S. selling accounts
for violating its fair pricing poli-
cies.
Despite those measures, sellers

have sidestepped Amazon’s detec-
tion for coronavirus-protection
claims with images that run along
their products. The seller of
flightbird Disposable Hand Sani-
tizer Gel, for e xample, included a n
image that claims the product “ef-
fectively inhibits new coronavi-
rus.”
In a message, that seller said
“the product effectively keeps
hands c lean.”
Just as the coronavirus pan-
demic is e xposing cracks in s ociety
— everything from sick leave for
gig workers to Internet inequality
for d igital l earning — it’s also h igh-
lighting the shortcomings of Ama-
zon’s limited vetting of sellers on
its platform, said Juozas Kaziuke-
nas, chief executive of the e-com-
merce research firm marketplace
Pulse. The company requires sell-
ers t o submit b usiness documents,
among other items, to get on the
platform.
But the ability to obtain those
can vary by country, and that’s
allowed some dubious interna-
tional sellers on Amazon’s U.S. e-
commerce s ite, K aziukenas s aid.
“The coronavirus has resur-
faced a bunch of issues we’ve seen
about Amazon in the last several
years,” Kaziukenas s aid.
Amazon’s fan said the compa-
ny’s v etting p rocess u ses “a propri-
etary system that analyzes hun-
dreds of unique data points to

identify potential counterfeit or
infringement risk.”
Consumers, desperate to ac-
quire hand sanitizer, haven’t been
kind to the off-brand products on
Amazon that have made c oronavi-
rus claims. Some of the listings
were so new they didn’t have cus-
tomer reviews. But one review for
a hand sanitizer from Wenasi
called the product “terrible” and
added that bottle appeared to have
already been used by someone.
Another reviewer was even more
blunt: “This is pandemic profi-
teering p lain and s imple.”
Amazon has proved to be a cru-
cial piece of the retail economy
during the pandemic when con-
sumers shop from home to avoid
the possibility of spreading the
coronavirus. The surge of orders
has so overwhelmed Amazon that
it’s racing to hire 100,000 people
to work in its warehouses and
deliver its packages. And its third-
party sellers augment Amazon’s
supplies, even though it still re-
mains difficult to find brand-
name toilet paper and sanitary
wipes on t he site.
Even employees at Amazon
warehouse across the country
have decried the shortage of hand
sanitizer, and other cleaning prod-
ucts, as they’ve raised alarms
about unsafe working conditions.
Workers in at least 21 warehouses
and s hipping facilities h ave tested

positive for covid-19.
Amazon said the company is
aggressively r ooting out sellers e n-
gaged in bogus claims, price goug-
ing and abusing its marketplace.
“When we find a bad actor, we
close their account, any related
accounts they may be using, and
constantly monitor new accounts
to ensure they are not related to a
previously detected bad actor,”
fan said.
Still, they persist. Another sell-
ing tactic to win over customers:
using the branding of trusted
products. The picture for a pump
bottle of hand sanitizer that Kitt
Amino Acid sold was nearly iden-
tical to Purell’s S oothing Gel prod-
uct that’s out of stock on the site.
one difference: The word Jaysu-
ing, the product brand, is in the
spot where Purell’s name normal-
ly would b e.
The food and Drug Adminis-
tration regulates hand sanitizers
in the U nited States as an over-the-
counter product, and because of
those regulations, Purell’s parent
company, Gojo, recommends con-
sumers “purchase hand hygiene
products from responsible and
reputable companies,” company
spokeswoman Samantha Wil-
liams said. While the company is
aware of Jaysuing products on
Amazon, it hasn’t contacted Ama-
zon t o remove t hem, she said.
jay.greene@washpost.com

Amazon has vowed to curb profiteering, but some sellers find loopholes


“There are huge gaps in the
stimulus package,” Emily ray
said. “I could take out a small-
business loan, but right now I
don’t even know if my business is
going to survive.”
Half of small businesses have
only enough cash to cover about
15 days’ worth of expenses, ac-
cording to the JPmorgan Chase
Institute. As the pandemic has
spread to so many sectors, nearly
one out of five small and medium-
sized businesses are at risk of
bankruptcy, said Joseph
Brusuelas, chief economist at au-
dit firm rSm, which specializes in
the midsized market. As busi-
nesses close, they won’t rehire
workers.
“firms with less than 100 peo-
ple are the ones that really need
the help,” he said.
Another factor that could sty-
mie the recovery is that the U.S.
counties hit hardest by the coro-
navirus include large cities such
as New York, Los Angeles, Chica-
go, Seattle and Detroit that have
powered the national economy.
The 50 counties with the most
cases support 60 million jobs and
over a third of the U.S. economy,
according to a new report by the
Brookings Institution.
“The density of these cities
makes it harder to push start
again on the economy until it’s
clearly safe,” said mark muro,
policy director of the metropoli-
tan Policy Program at Brookings.
The economic pain is spread-
ing across the country to cities
that aren’t experiencing a big
outbreak, a reminder of how in-
terconnected supply chains are.
mercedes Addington lost her
job on march 23 at a company
that sells trucking parts and sup-
plies in Kansas City, Kan. Even
though the business was consid-
ered “essential” during the crisis
and orders were still coming in,
the company laid off most of its
employees.
“I am very frustrated and
scared,” she said. “I have bills to
pay soon and I was counting on
this money to get by.”
Addington, 21, lives in a mod-
est apartment with her boyfriend.
They pay $800 in monthly rent.
The landlord was willing to give
them a break in April, but only if
they could prove Addington had
applied for Kansas unemploy-
ment benefits.
She applied right away and
received a notice saying she was
approved. But when she checked
the website again this week, it
said her benefits had been “tem-
porarily suspended,” l eaving her
in limbo for rent and other bills.
repeated calls to the Kansas
unemployment office went unan-
swered. She is now unsure what
to do.
“If I don’t risk it and go back to
work somewhere, I’m not sure
that I’ll still have a home to come
back to,” s he said.
heather.long@washpost.com
abha.bhattarai@washpost.com

andrew Van dam contributed to this
report.

sites crash and phone lines are
swamped.
Congress allocated nearly
$1 billion to states to help them
beef up their unemployment in-
surance offices, plus $260 billion
to increase weekly unemploy-
ment checks by $600. But the
Labor Department is scrambling
to get that money out as the
federal government struggles to
move at the speed necessary to
address the crisis.
for many Americans, the latest
round of economic distress comes
just as they were beginning to
rebuild from the last recession.
Emily ray, 54, and her husband,
Steven ray, 61, both lost jobs in
the last recession.
“We were finally starting to
save. Debt was finally getting paid
off,” said Emily ray, who runs a
small pain management massage
business in mystic, Conn. “A nd
now we’re watching everything
go to crap again.”
Now, she and her husband are
out of work again.
Steven ray was furloughed in
mid-march from his job as a
lighting director at a mohegan
Sun casino. He applied for unem-
ployment benefits two weeks ago
but is still waiting for his applica-
tion to be processed. Emily ray
has had to lay off the three em-
ployees at her massage business.
In addition, her two sons, ages 23
and 21, are back at h ome, too. one
was laid off, the other is home
from college. Neither will qualify
for the $1,200 relief checks.

for unemployment benefits for
days but has yet to get through.
Economists think the true
number of laid-off workers is
probably higher than the nearly
10 million who filed jobless
claims in march, since so many
people have not been able to
complete their application as
state unemployment office web-

“Everything happened so
quickly,” said Sanchez, who is
planning to apply at local gro-
cery stores to make ends meet.
“I’m just taking this day by day.
Everything is so unsure right
now.”
Sanchez lives with his parents
and said money has been tight for
them as well. He h as tried to apply

loughed from his job as a wheel-
chair assistant at orlando Inter-
national Airport two weeks ago,
shortly after Trump announced
restrictions on international trav-
el. managers took his badge but
said they would be in touch when
business picked up. Earlier this
week, he got an email saying he’d
been laid off permanently.

cords in a sign this economy has
skipped recession mode and
moved deep into the depression
zone,” said Chris rupkey, chief
financial economist at mUfG
Bank.
The unprecedented job losses
are a big reason the Treasury
Department said it will start
sending electronic payments to
Americans as soon as April 9, as a
part of the $2 trillion aid package
Congress passed in march. many
economists say that will help, but
Goldman Sachs still predicts a 9
percent contraction in the first
quarter and a 34 percent contrac-
tion in the second quarter. About
half of those losses could be re-
covered by the end of the year, as
Americans eagerly start eating
out and getting hair cuts again.
But there will still be a lot of pain
left in the economy.
Hotels, restaurants, malls, hair
salons and theaters have been
among the hardest hit. on Thurs-
day, J.C. Penney began furlough-
ing the majority of its 90,
employees. Now, industries con-
sidered recession-proof, includ-
ing white-collar education,
health care and transportation,
are experiencing furloughs and
layoffs. Aerospace giant Boeing
on Thursday began offering buy-
outs to nearly 100,000 U.S. work-
ers, and radio broadcaster Enter-
com Communications said it
would lay off or furlough a “signif-
icant” portion of its 2,800 em-
ployees.
The U.S. unemployment rate
has probably jumped to 10 per-
cent already, economists say, put-
ting it on par with the worst
month of the Great recession and
the 1982 -83 recession. It’s a mas-
sive and abrupt spike from febru-
ary, when the rate was at a half-
century low of 3.5 percent.
“Without further assistance
from the federal government,
there are going to be huge nega-
tive effects,” said economist Ben
Zipperer of the Economic Policy
Institute. “When workers lose
their jobs or businesses are forced
to shut down, the losses add up.
It’s harder for someone to get a
job in the future. Debt piles up.
And that leads to horrible health
and psychological effects.”
The Labor Department is slat-
ed to release the march unem-
ployment rate on friday, but
economists say it won’t r eflect the
true picture since that data comes
from march 12 — before Trump’s
national emergency declaration
or most of the statewide shut-
downs.
Unemployment really started
spiraling downward these past
few weeks, and the stunning data
out Thursday doesn’t even cap-
ture the most recent furloughs
from this past week of macy’s,
Gap, Kohl’s and the mall operator
Simon Property Group. Some fur-
loughed workers are beginning to
find that temporary furloughs are
turning into permanent job loss-
es.
Steaven Sanchez, 26, was fur-


Jobs from A


With most recent losses, jobless rate m ay be at 10 percent


christopher smith for the Washington post
Mercedes Addington, 21, lost her job on March 23 and has applied for u nemployment in Kansas, but her benefits remain in question.

paul sancya/associated press
“For sale by owner” and “Closed Due to Virus” signs sit in the window of Images on Mack, a salon in
Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich., on Thursday. The outbreak has triggered a stunning workforce collapse.

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