A U.S. consumer panned a Chinese product on Amazon. Then things got crazy

E-commerce is bringing buyers and sellers together across borders like never before — but it’s not all smooth sailing. Just ask Mathew Garrett of Oakland.

Garrett, who works in IT security, bought an Internet-connected power socket last month from a Chinese vendor called AuYou on Amazon. After trying out the $30 gadget, which can turn on and off other electronic devices using one’s cellphone as a remote, he had some security concerns. So he wrote an 800-word review on Amazon and gave the product one star.

He thought that would be the end of the story. But a few hours later, he started to receive emails from an employee of AuYou asking him to take down the negative review.

In the first email, the employee, who called herself Amy Lee, wrote in imperfect English, “Just now my boss has blamed me, and he said if I do not remove this bad review, he will quit me. Please help me, my dear friend. Could you change your bad review into good? Thank you very very much.”

Emails from AuYou kept flowing into Garrett’s inbox for 12 days, he told the Los Angeles Times via email. In total, he received eight messages from AuYou.

Garrett has written some reviews for Amazon and is not stingy with stars — most of his reviews on the site are three stars or higher. But he refused to modify his review of the power socket.

His review pointed out a security loophole with the device. He noted that if the user is, say, out of the house and attempts to use the device via a smartphone, commands will not be passed to the socket directly, but instead through a server in China.

“If anybody knows the [media access control] address of one of your sockets, they can control it from anywhere in the world. You can’t set a password to stop them,” Garrett wrote in the review. “By default this is stupendously insecure, there’s no reasonable way to make it secure, and if you do make it secure then it’s much less useful than it’s supposed to be. Don’t buy it.”

Garrett tweeted about the emails begging him to remove the review on the same day, drawing attention to his post. Within a week, about 200 people had rated the review as “helpful.” Lee then wrote to him again: “I sincerely hope you can remove this unfair review, otherwise I will report this situation to Amazon,” she said.

Then, TechCrunch reported on Garrett’s experience on July 1. The Paper, a Chinese news portal, translated the story into Chinese on July 12.

The huge attention to Garrett’s one-star review stung the Chinese manufacturer, which apparently didn’t realize the ceaseless emails would draw only more bad publicity to the company. More than 2,100 Amazon users have rated Garrett’s review as “helpful.” As of Wednesday afternoon, he had skyrocketed from Amazon’s 300,000th most prominent reviewer to its 2,354th.

The series of emails ended with a message from a person calling herself Neolia, who said she was Lee’s colleague. AuYou did not respond to requests for comment. It’s unclear whether any AuYou employee was actually fired over the incident. Also unknown is whether AuYou ever contacted Amazon, as Lee threatened the company would, but Garrett said in any case, no one from the company had intervened.

Garrett said the prolonged email exchange had given him pause. “It’s hard to weigh, whether it’s more important to be honest in a review against someone losing their job,” he said.

AuYou has now removed the product from Amazon.  

The incident seems to highlight differing cultural norms between buyers and sellers. In China, it is not uncommon for online vendors to harass customers who leave negative feedback online.

Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce giant, said 8% of complaints on its EBay-like Taobao platform involve customers being harassed by vendors, according to a report published last week by the Chinese news portal Sina.  

Alibaba issued a new rule last month vowing to punish vendors who maliciously harass Taobao customers. The company’s definition of “malicious harassment” now includes “insulting and threatening” words. Taobao has punished 14 vendors for harassing customers since June.

Wang Yi, professor at Beijing Institute of Business Management, said “Chinese businessmen attach excessive importance to customers’ reviews because it’s deeply rooted in the Chinese personality that they don’t want to lose face, or be disgraced in front of other people.”

Pan Jianqiang, a lawyer living in Shanghai, can empathize with Garrett. He bought a pair of pants on Taobao at around $30 this March. He received the pants but didn’t bother to leave any online feedback — positive or negative.   

Five days after he received the pants, he started to get phone calls from the Taobao vendor asking him to give a good review and offering him around 70 cents to do so. The calls continued for three days.

“I understand they just want a good review to make more money, but it’s sort of rude for them to call me three times over the same issue I don’t want to do,” Pan said.

Wang, the professor, said many sellers don’t care if reviews are falsified. “Although sometimes they know the good feedback is not real, they still enjoy the fake compliments,” he said.

Jeffrey Towson, a professor of investment at Peking University and author of a book on Chinese consumers, said buyers and sellers from the rest of the world are getting more familiar with Chinese modes of commerce — but it’s a learning experience.

“I think it’s about the increasing interactions between Chinese consumers and merchants and those in the rest of the world. But isn’t likely the same collision happening in shops in Paris every week?” he asked.

“Maybe social media and cross-border e-commerce are just amplifying this phenomenon,” he added. 

Chinese vendors’ obsession with getting positive reviews, by hook or by crook, seems unlikely to abate in the near future.

Garrett says the experience has made him even more determined to write honest reviews. “I’m thinking about spending more time investigating the security of IoT [Internet of Things] devices,” he said.   

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