A $3,800 textbook caper is latest sign of Amazon’s arrogance


Earlier this week, I published a post I wish that I’d never had to write. It was about how Jeff Bezos — a man who clearly is a brilliant technology innovator and disruptor — and the massive company that he created, Amazon, have lost their way.

For me and my law partner Barry J. Cooper Jr., the trigger was our own, still unresolved battle with the Seattle-based technology giant. If you’ve read the earlier post, then you know about the mind-boggling series of events in which Cooper’s Amazon account was hacked by a fiend who was then able to charge about $9,000 worth of so-called crates of virtual assault rifles for video games. (You can read the original post here.)

That this happened — reflecting the type of corporate data breach that is becoming far too common in modern-day America — is horrible enough.

But Bezos’ Amazon has spent months adding insult to injury. Rather than work to identify and punish the hackers, the company has been relentlessly going after Cooper for stopping the credit-card payment on the fraudulent purchases. They blocked his account, then – incredibly – also blocked mine because I was “associated with a closed account.” (Obviously that of my law partner Cooper, although they wouldn’t say so.) And Amazon has ignored our many entreaties to resolve the matter and reopen our fraudulently hacked accounts.

But let’s be clear: One reason why I’m writing about Amazon –and why our law firm has notified them of our intention to sue over both the data breach and for violating state and local fair-trade laws — is that I’m also aware that thousands of other customers across America and around the world have had similar problems in dealing with the online retailer. As Amazon has captured more and more of the marketplace, Bezos’ company has spiraled out of control, drunk on its own power and the lack of meaningful oversight.

Just a day or so after I revealed our horror story in dealing with Amazon, I read another tale of the company’s arrogance out of the Philadelphia region that makes your skin crawl, and screams out for real regulation of this tech monopoly.

In the Philadelphia Inquirer, reporter William Bender produced a simply mind-boggling article about how Amazon got away with charging a customer more than $3,800 for a college textbook worth only about 1/30th of that staggering sum.

The whole saga started when a 19-year-old student at the University of Delaware named Amelia SanFilippo rented a textbook from Amazon (Cultural Anthropology: A Toolkit for a Global Age) for $62.70, a savings over the purchase price of just over $100. When her course ended, she gave the textbook to her father to return to Amazon, but he was on a business trip and by the time he mailed it the tome was a couple of days overdue.

Needless to say, SanFilippo and her dad were stunned to receive the email from Amazon reporting that because the book hadn’t been returned, she was charged the “buyout” price of $3,800.60. “The item is now yours to keep,” the email stated. The father and daughter assumed the email was little more than a threat, and so the dad was stunned again when he checked his bank account and learned it had been completely cleaned out by Amazon.

“I was shocked,” Amelia SanFilippo told the Inquirer. “That’s a big chunk of change, especially when the book is $100 to buy.” But – if you’ve had any recent dealings with Amazon – you won’t be surprised to learn that resolving the matter took a lot more than one phone call. Instead, the SanFilippos spent days of dealing with unhelpful or misleading service reps until finally the money was returned into the father’s account. The company (which had warned of the $3,800 “buyout” price in the fine print of the email when the college student initially rented it) never did explain how it reached such an extortionary price. But its ham-handed handling of the matter and bullying of the very people who form the company’s loyal customer base is par for the course.

As I noted earlier this week, if the issues raised in our case against Amazon are not addressed. Cooper and I will convert this case into a class action suit, which would mean multi-district litigation in which Amazon’s violations of the law would go before federal judge and possibly a jury. That would be a terrible development for Bezos and Amazon, but there’s also no reason it should come to that. All we’re asking is for Amazon to return to its 1990s roots of good customer service — to listen to its consumers, and to do right by us. Anything less than that is an open invitation for Congress to pry the company.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
Cooper Law Firm

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