Amazon Terms of Service Update: Customer Phone Number Anonymization

In an attempt to protect buyer privacy and enhance customer satisfaction, Amazon has begun rolling out Customer Phone Number Anonymization. This new addition to the Amazon Terms of Service is a supplement to “Appropriate Treatment of Customer Phone Numbers” as included in the Prohibited Seller Activities and Actions guidelines.

The policy change also signals an effort by Amazon to rebuild some of the consumer trust that it has lost over the last year due to reports of review manipulation, troubling warehouse conditions, and rampant counterfeiting.

Customer Phone Number Anonymization: You’ve got questions, we’ve got answers (mostly about privacy and Amazon’s interests).

How do anonymized phone numbers work?

If you’ve ever used a ride-share service like Uber or Lyft, you’ve encountered anonymized phone numbers. Basically, the anonymization service is a middle-step between the person requesting a ride (the consumer who calls) and the driver (the provider who receives the call). Employing this go-between means that neither party sees the other party’s actual phone number.

Sounds sensible, proceed.

For most riders, this feels safer because the driver already knows your name, departure location and destination (one of them likely being your home address), which is enough personal information already shared. It’s teetering on creepy, and the addition of phone number would take teetering on creepy into full-blown terrifying. Uber had a series of ugly incidents where drivers violated riders, and it had to rebuild public trust (via increasingly strict rules) as a result.

What does this have to do with Amazon?

Like Uber, Amazon has been the vehicle for a bad behavior resulting in broken trust. Anonymizing customer information is a good way of instilling faith that Amazon still values privacy to some degree.

It’s about good intentions (and self-interest).

The thinking behind Amazon’s ToS update is a show of good faith and commitment to consumer protection. A buyer has already given Amazon his or her name, address, email, payment information, phone number, and buying habits. That’s a lot, and many of us are currently grappling with the question of “How much does Amazon know about me and how is it using this knowledge?” In order to fulfill the order, Amazon must share some, but not all, of this information with the seller. The new anonymization step is a safeguard to prevent the seller from abusing your information by calling you to sell you additional products (outside of Amazon’s revenue stream) or to push you for reviews and feedback.

Customer Phone Number Anonymization: Theory and Practice

Give Amazon the benefit of the doubt — for now.

Amazon is both customer-centric and optimistic about human behavior . . . until it isn’t. Once a problem such as counterfeiting or review manipulation becomes big enough to make the news, then (and often only then) Amazon is willing to confront it. Once the company acknowledges the problem, it takes great pains to stress that the bad behavior isn’t commonplace so much as perpetrated by a small number of “bad actors.”

One must assume that Amazon’s intention with anonymized phone numbers is to facilitate important information about delivery delays while reducing opportunities for any bad actors to violate the buyer’s privacy and circumvent Amazon’s marketplace. The intention is good, I think. As for the execution . . .

Sellers are already concerned.

Sellers have raised two main concerns about the new phone number restrictions added to the Amazon Terms of Service:

  1. The Bigger Concern: The anonymized phone number will expire once the package is delivered. This means that when a driver marks a package as delivered, the phone number disappears. Again, good intentions and optimism, but we all know that drivers and shippers make mistakes. Things get marked as delivered when they are still on trucks or they have indeed been delivered but to a different address. At this point, the Amazon seller has lost the ability to contact the buyer by phone, no matter how legitimate the information and intent.
  2. The Smaller Concern: Many Amazon sellers use invoicing systems and logistics software that capture and display phone extensions as a different field or limited to 10 numerical characters. Does the new anonymized number capture the buyer’s extension (if applicable) and transmit it successfully? The jury is out on this one and, per usual, the Amazon Services Forums are alive with debate.

What does the new anonymized phone numbers practice and policy mean for you, the Amazon seller?

  • The Good: Put yourself in the buyer’s shoes or consider your own online purchases and behavior and concerns. Not having your actual phone number shared with multiple sellers probably pleases you and seems a good step in respecting and protecting privacy.
  • The Bad: It’s an extra step. Extra steps take time and effort to execute. Sellers don’t have time to be messing with calls, prompts, codes, and voicemail. That’s not the stuff of building a business.
  • The Ugly: Extra steps also leave room for genuine errors as well as malicious behavior. It seems another example of Amazon implementing a process and rule that benefits the buyer and Amazon, adds cost and time for the rule-abiding seller, and gives black-hat tacticians another opportunity to prosper while making business even more difficult for upstanding Amazon sellers.
  • The Usual: The new anonymized phone numbers practice added to the Amazon ToS is good for buyers and for Amazon. But what about sellers? In addition to having to add steps to an already full protocol regarding customer communication, what about sellers’ privacy? Already there is concern that Amazon may be recording these calls since the company “owns” that middle step. For those who already feel as if Amazon has too much control over sellers, this is a real worry.

The Amazon Terms of Service change frequently; what should you do now?

Be The Dude and abide. When it comes to Amazon’s ToS and procedure updates, Seller Labs has never wavered or minced words. That’s not changing when it comes to the addition of anonymized phone numbers and the rules about phone contact. So to be clear, we say:

Next Step: Get the Knowledge

If you’re interested in how to be successful on Amazon without falling prey to black-hat tacticians or scammers (and who isn’t interested in this topic?), register for “In a World of Black-Hat Tactics, Don’t Let the Bad Guys In or Let Them Win: How Amazon Sellers Can Survive — and Thrive — Playing by the Rules.” This webinar will be held on at 2:00 EDT on Wednesday, June 5, 2019, and it is going to be a sizzler as Jeff Cohen (Seller Labs CRO) and Davide Nicolucci (featured in that Buzzfeed article) discuss the challenges faced by Amazon sellers right now and how to continue to grow your Amazon business playing by the rules and following white-hat tactics?

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