Nonprofit organization dedicated to data-driven tech accountability journalism & privacy protection.
Amazon has reaped billions of dollars through the expansion of third-party sales in the past several years, boasting about it in a recent letter to shareholders. But at the same time that it has dominated e-commerce, media reports have highlighted Amazon’s struggles to suss out bad sellers, pointing out its failures to catch counterfeit or dangerous products on the platform.
The company bans nearly 2,000 items for sale in the United States, an ever-expanding list of restrictions organized into 38 categories of rules that cover products from skincare and supplements to assault weapons and human organs.
For this investigation, we sought to answer two key questions: How well is Amazon policing banned products in its U.S. marketplace—and could we find any for sale? We focused on five categories of Amazon’s prohibitions related to weapons, criminal activity, and spying, and crafted a list of 279 prohibited items that were searchable. Many of these items appear to be legal to sell but are barred by Amazon’s rules.
We found nearly 100 listings of banned items for sale, including some multiples from different sellers for the same type of product. (When there were many listings of one type of product, we did not document every last one, but rather chose a few.)
Five of the banned products were sold by Amazon itself, not a third-party.
Among the prohibited items we found: AR-15 parts, compounds that reviews showed were used as injectable drugs, and equipment used to make potentially deadly counterfeit pills and for the dangerous process of butane hash oil extraction.
After we contacted Amazon, all but 16 of the banned listings were removed. Company officials declined to comment on how the banned items evaded detection or to provide information on how many had sold before the listings were deactivated. They did not provide any comments on the banned products we found that they sold directly to consumers.
And they declined to explain why the company chose to leave up some items: products named in their prohibitions, products primarily used for ingesting drugs, which meet the definition under federal law for drug paraphernalia, and gun parts and gunsmithing tools that we confirmed with a weapons expert.
Amazon spokesperson Patrick Graham said in a written statement that sellers are responsible for following laws and Amazon policy, and that the company has “proactive measures in place to prevent suspicious or prohibited products from being listed and we continuously monitor the products sold in our stores.” (Read more in the Amazon’s Response section.)
Some third-party sellers of banned goods avoided certain words and misclassified items, presumably to skirt enforcement. In some cases, we typed the exact language of Amazon’s restriction into its search engine and found prohibited items, suggesting some of its automated tools are not working in concert with its prohibited items enforcement.
As a test of Amazon’s safeguards, The Markup attempted to list banned items for sale from a personal Amazon.com account in New York. We successfully listed two items that were prohibited on Amazon.com yet legal to sell under New York State and federal law: an armorer’s wrench for use on an AR-15 and a 10-round AR-15 magazine. We used the manufacturers’ photos, and bypassed filters by using a universal product code (UPC) that we bought online for one item and by avoiding certain keywords for both.
Amazon’s shortcomings in policing its marketplace have been documented by numerous media exposés.
A Wall Street Journal investigation last year found more than 4,000 problematic items for sale on Amazon.com, including products that were “declared unsafe by federal agencies, are deceptively labeled or are banned by federal regulators.” The newspaper compared Amazon to a flea market: “It exercises limited oversight over items listed by millions of third-party sellers, many of them anonymous, many in China, some offering scant information.”
Additionally, The Wall Street Journal has detailed what happens when customers get hurt by products they bought through Amazon, finding the company dodges responsibility by arguing in court that it’s not responsible for what people say on their site under the 1996 Communications Decency Act.
Also last year, CNBC found expired food and baby formula on the site, and The Washington Post discovered forbidden CBD products. In 2014, The Atlantic reported that when customers searched for digital scales, Amazon.com’s purchase recommendations offered them baggies, rolling papers, and grinders—“a field-tested kit for starting an illicit business.”
The Markup sought to advance the coverage by looking specifically at products tied to potentially illicit or criminal behavior and weapons, seeking to understand more about how well Amazon polices its own restrictions—and protects the public.
We focused on five of Amazon.com’s restricted product categories related to weapons, criminal activity, and spying, as they appeared on Jan. 16, 2020. Some of these pages have since been updated:
Some of Amazon’s restrictions are very specific, but others are vague, making them more difficult to detect with certainty. To avoid ambiguity, we focused our search on items that met the following criteria:
The restriction was clearly defined and without vague caveats (e.g., we did not look for items where some were allowed but rather for those where all were “prohibited”).
The product was identifiable and not overly broad (e.g., we looked for Kung Fu stars but not “other dangerous weapons”).
The banned item can clearly be distinguished from permitted listings (e.g., prohibited bolt pins for guns were too similar to other pins, so we excluded them).
Amazon’s restrictions around drug paraphernalia mandate that items cannot be “primarily intended or designed for use in: manufacturing, compounding, converting, concealing, producing, processing, preparing, injecting, ingesting, inhaling, or otherwise introducing into the human body a controlled substance,” which we took to include marijuana, given federal law and that the company specifies some marijuana paraphernalia among its prohibitions. Along with the specific items named by Amazon, The Markup also included other common drug paraphernalia as defined in federal drug paraphernalia law, including crack pipes and straws marketed for use to inhale substances and sniffing spoons, both of which can be used to ingest cocaine.
Pipes were tricky because the company allows pipes for tobacco use. It’s impossible to prove that the pipes for sale on Amazon.com at any given time are for marijuana use, so we eliminated marijuana pipes from our test. Crack pipes, which are distinguished by the Drug Enforcement Agency as those with a synthetic rose in the cylinder, were clear enough to include.
In regard to pill presses, Amazon expressly prohibits those used to “imprint a pharmaceutical drug name or identification number onto a tablet or pill.” We considered all pill presses and molds that can take a pharmaceutical imprint die to be in violation.
We also grouped synonyms and redundant items on the restricted products list as a single item.
We did not check for prohibited items that would require outside information from government agencies, laboratory testing, or detailed inspection to determine if the listing violated Amazon’s rules.
Our final list contained 279 banned items to search.
We searched for these products primarily during two sessions: one week in February 2020 and two weeks in April 2020.
We conducted our searches using both Amazon.com’s search engine and Google’s search engine (specifying that results must appear on Amazon.com). We searched for each banned item multiple times, using slang, synonyms, brand names, and other search terms. Often, Amazon.com’s search engine returned results using the exact wording from its restrictions.
Since many sellers sought to disguise the items, we confirmed how the items are typically used by reviewing customer feedback, photos, and outside sources, such as YouTube videos of hash oil extraction and gun assembly. We frequently visited outside websites that sold gun parts to compare what we were seeing on Amazon.com to what we knew was the real thing.
We also sought outside confirmation on the two compounds we found that reviewers said they had injected. The World Anti-Doping Agency designates one (TB-500) as a “prohibited substance,” and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency warned athletes that the second one (BPC-157) is not approved for human use.
In some cases, we noticed several different listings for a single type of item. Rather than include each one, we selected a small sample from the top search results to include in our findings.
Each suspected prohibited listing was independently verified by both journalists working on the story. And, in the case of gun parts, we confirmed that each of the items were not expressly permitted for sale on Amazon (many are explicitly allowed on Amazon’s restricted products list), and the final list of items we found was double-checked by two weapons experts. All told, we documented 97 listings for products on Amazon.com that we determined meet the criteria of the company’s prohibitions. In some cases, we documented multiple listings for the same type of item and counted each of those individually.
The found products, listed under the company’s categories, are:
Hazardous and Dangerous Materials
Drug and Drug Paraphernalia
Explosives, Weapons, and Related Items
Lock Picking and Theft Devices
*Includes multiple listings of the same type of item
After conducting hundreds of searches, we had a better understanding of how sellers of banned items avoid detection. Most simply left out certain words or intentionally misspelled or misclassified items. For example, we found a pill press labeled as a candy maker and bongs sold as vases.
Even when mislabeling a listing, many sellers used accurate photos of the banned product.
Several products had been for sale for months—even years. At least eight were designated “Amazon’s Choice,” and at least 39 were shipped from Amazon’s own warehouses. Five of the items were marked “ships from and sold by Amazon.com.”
Early on in the reporting, we examined Amazon.com’s restrictions around offensive and controversial materials, which prohibit the sale of products that glorify violence or child abuse or are associated with hate groups. We were easily able to find items that broke Amazon’s rules: a child’s bed set with the alt-right meme Pepe the Frog with a swastika on its stomach and swag tied to the white supremacist groups Volksfront and Identity Evropa. It wasn’t clear if any of these products actually sold. The listings were live for months until we provided Amazon with links, and they were removed.
We ultimately decided not to include those items in our data findings, in part because they do not fit our criteria for specific products, and because they presented a different kind of harm.
To find out what safeguards Amazon has in place to stop prohibited items from posting in the first place, we explored the seller portal.
We registered as a seller, choosing the $39.99 per month “professional” account. This was a new account that had no history of selling on the site.
When we started creating a product listing for a bong, Amazon.com’s interface suggested categorizing it with vases in home decor, where other third-party sellers had listed bongs. Not only was Amazon failing to catch these listings, but it was also recommending miscategorizations in violation of its own rules. We did not complete the process of publishing the bong listing.
We later created listings for two prohibited items: an AR-15 armorer’s wrench and a 10-round AR-15 magazine. Both items are legal to sell in the U.S. and New York State but explicitly prohibited on Amazon.com.
Amazon requires universal product codes, UPCs, or other global identifiers when uploading items for sale. When we used the correct product names and correct codes from the manufacturer’s website, Amazon’s guardrails correctly identified the product as banned and blocked the listing from going live.
Next, we changed the title and description of both items to omit the keyword “AR-15” and miscategorized them so they would appear in an unrelated part of the product catalog. We continued to use the real manufacturer names, product photos, and descriptions. The wrench was approved by Amazon’s system and published; the magazine was not approved.
We then purchased a new UPC code for the magazine, and when we used it, Amazon allowed us to list the magazine for sale. We were able to place both items in a different, personal shopping cart. We then took down the listings before anyone could make a purchase.
It’s important to note that Amazon knew little about us as sellers other than our failed attempts to list banned items, yet still allowed us to list the items with these workarounds.
The company declined to comment on most of the items we found, nor would it provide information on how many of the banned items were sold. Dozens of the prohibited listings were taken down in a matter of days after we contacted the company. Some of those we later removed from our final numbers because, upon review, they didn’t strictly adhere to our methodology.
“If products that are against our policies are found on our site, we immediately remove the listing, take action on the bad actor, and further improve our systems,” Graham, the Amazon spokesperson said.
He said that the company was taking “appropriate action on the bad actors that evasively listed them.”
However, after Amazon provided this statement, The Markup found many of the sellers that were in violation continued to sell banned products, including Lead and Steel, which sold banned gun accessories, and another company that sold compounds that reviewers were injecting. When we asked Amazon about this in follow-up questions, those storefronts disappeared from Amazon.com.
The dataset sent to Amazon included 16 listings that the company never removed. Of those, we decided to remove 10 from our final dataset: two weed grinders, a silicone pipe and a weed grinder set, a “same day detox” product, nitrous oxide canisters, and gun parts and tools that are potentially permissible under Amazon’s rules.
The company declined to comment on why some prohibited products were being shipped from Amazon’s warehouses, nor would it speak to how banned items became listed as “Amazon’s Choice.”
Graham denied that injectable drugs were for sale and said the listings we found were for “chemicals that were clearly marketed as being for research use only and not for human consumption.” He added that the company would nevertheless be “restricting them going forward.” Amazon removed the specific listings we sent the company, but at the time of publication, other listings for these compounds could still be found on Amazon.com.
Graham declined to comment on why the company’s search engine returned results when we entered the exact wording of the prohibition, nor would he comment on why the sellers’ tool suggested erroneous categories. He said it’s the responsibility of sellers to correctly list their products and follow the rules.
Earlier this year, a company executive told Congress that the company is shoring up the slippage of of “counterfeits, unsafe products, and other types of abuse” by requiring sellers of certain items to be preapproved, partnering with brands to pull counterfeits, and performing “proactive scans to identify safety risks.”
“As a result of our proactive efforts, in 2019, we blocked over 2.5 million suspected bad actor accounts from entering our store and more than 6 billion suspected bad listings from being published in our stores,” Graham told The Markup in an emailed statement that had previously been given to Congress.
Amazon is failing to stop banned items from being sold by third parties on its site—and even selling some banned items itself direct to U.S. customers.
We documented nearly 100 instances of Amazon’s failure to detect problematic listings before they post, allowing a back alley to its marketplace where items related to criminal activities, weapons, and drug use are openly sold.
We found sellers can easily shroud listings enough to evade automated detection by Amazon’s filters while still making the banned items findable for customers—often through Amazon’s own product search engine. We were able to list two banned items ourselves using this method. In some cases, Amazon’s sellers’ tools suggest miscategorizations.
In five cases, the listing was marked as “ships from and sold by Amazon.com.” Some banned items from third parties shipped from Amazon’s own warehouses, and the company promoted a handful of the banned items we found as “Amazon’s Choice.”
Originally published as "How We Investigated Banned Items on Amazon.com" with the Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) license.
Create your free account to unlock your custom reading experience.