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Amazon sues over malicious ads, alleging a ‘sophisticated and widespread’ scheme to deceive consumers

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Fraudulent ads cited in Amazon’s complaint. (Source: U.S. District Court for Western Washington)

Amazon is seeking to unmask and block the operators of what it describes as a “sophisticated and widespread” scheme to deceive consumers into interacting with malicious ads and websites purporting to be affiliated with the tech giant.

A lawsuit filed by the company in federal court in Seattle details a campaign that uses deceptive ads, websites and popup messages to generate fraudulent advertising revenue and obtain the personal information of online consumers, wrongly taking advantage of the company’s brand recognition.

It’s an unusual lawsuit from Amazon, and possibly the first of its kind to be filed by the company against what’s known as “malvertising” — reflecting its increasingly aggressive stance against fraudsters who take advantage of its websites and brands.

“Defendants’ malvertising scheme hijacks legitimate online advertising processes by injecting malicious code into advertisements that render (display) on popular websites,” the suit alleges. “Defendants’ scheme then forcibly redirects a user from the desired page to a website controlled by Defendants replete with Amazon’s trademarks and other indications of Amazon’s brand.”

The suit continues, “The web page is designed to deceive users into believing Defendants’ website is affiliated with Amazon—all of which entices users to click on Defendants’ websites, participate in purported surveys and other offerings, and provide their personal information. Defendants have further taken steps to intentionally obfuscate their identities by creating a sophisticated web of sites to commit this fraud.”

A fraudulent contest cited in the Amazon complaint.

The complaint says such schemes “are a scourge on the internet.”

Amazon operates its own advertising network, but the suit says these ads appeared on other, unnamed ad networks.

The suit was filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Seattle. It was filed against “John Doe” defendants, a tactic commonly used to gain legal standing needed to uncover the defendants’ true identities. The company describes the defendants as “individuals and entities working in active concert to knowingly and willfully run the malvertising scheme.”

The company declined to comment beyond the public details of the lawsuit.

Amazon is seeking a judgment enjoining the defendants from the fraudulent activities, and preventing them from using its trademarks and brands, along with unspecified financial damages.

The company has separately filed a series of lawsuits against people who allegedly offer to write fake product reviews on the e-commerce site. In addition, Amazon recently won arbitration rulings against marketers, book authors and publishers alleged to have abused the Kindle Direct Publishing program to increase their profits and sales rankings. Separately, the Wall Street Journal reported last week that Amazon was investigating incidents in which third-party sellers allegedly paid employees to delete negative reviews and provide confidential internal data.

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