The Goods: A Small Leak in the Amazon Pipeline

Amazon is quite an amazing company. Getting that thing you need is just a convenient mouse-click away. And with Amazon Prime, it’s there fast, and I feel like I’m getting a swell deal on shipping. It’s often cheaper than going to the local store down the street.

Amazon is a practically frictionless retail machine. But they are never satisfied with the status quo. They want to make it faster, easier, for people to buy. Remember one-click ordering? Great, but once they have the drones to get you your order in ten minutes, what more can they do? The brilliant minds at Amazon stay up late worrying about just this sort of thing.

Six months ago, Amazon headquarters in Seattle..

[I’m using some artistic license here to imagine the scene at Amazon HQ late one night]

Jeff Bezos, the hard-charging founder and CEO of Amazon, is grilling his lieutenants in an all night strategy session. “I’m already tired of this drone stuff, and those “Amazon Dash” buttons, whose stupid idea was that? I want to know how we can we get the stuff to customers faster. I want them to have it yesterday. I want them to have it before they order it. Before they even know they want it.

One of the managers objects “Won’t people be creeped out with stuff arriving that they didn’t order? And won’t they get pissed off at having to pay for this stuff they never ordered? And won’t we lose money if they don’t want to pay?”

But Bezos is determined to seize all remaining market share, no matter what the cost. “OK, you’ve got a point. We’ll pick stuff out and send it to them for free. We lost money for twenty years straight, to get to where we are today, we can do it again.” Bezos is playing the long game, or so I’m told.

Several months later…on my front porch some packages arrive

One day about a month ago, we got five packages from Amazon on the porch. I was expecting a couple of things, so I start opening the cardboard boxes. As I’m opening them, I see some stuff that I do not recall ordering: A bluetooth car adapter, some cheap earbuds, an exercise stretchy rubber band set. A bottle of ‘personal lubricant’. Some new plastic tips that go on an ear cleaner or something. I forget what else.

I suppose someone made an error someplace. Maybe someone put the wrong address in their address book (but why is my name on it then?). Or Amazon’s computers made some error in passing the shipping address to their fulfillment system. I think I’ll send a note to Amazon customer support telling them some stuff has arrived that I didn’t order.

The first chat with customer support

I navigate through Amazon’s web site until I get a link to chat online with customer support. Here’s a transcript of that first chat, edited a bit for brevity

Message From Customer Service
Hello,
Here’s a copy of the chat transcript you requested:
Initial Question: I have received threee orders that I didn’t make
One had my name as recipient.
The other two have someone else’s name but my address
02:44 PM PDT Jessica(Amazon): Hello, my name is Jessica. I’m here to help you today.
02:44 PM PDT Henry Minsky: Hi I got a package yesterday with some stuff I never ordered, addressed to me
02:45 PM PDT Henry Minsky: then got two packages with someone else’s name but my address again with stuff I never ordered
02:45 PM PDT Jessica: do you have the tracking numbers for those packages?
<I give the Amazon logistics numbers from bar codes on packages>
02:46 PM PDT Jessica: Hmm — Did UPS or USPS deliver?
02:46 PM PDT Henry Minsky: some courier service
I think at least the last one was
02:47 PM PDT Henry Minsky: The name of the recipient is “Nick Tovar”
that is not a name we know but it has my address
02:47 PM PDT Jessica: Hmm…let me do a little research
Which address?
02:48 PM PDT Henry Minsky: <my address>
02:49 PM PDT Henry Minsky: The other one with my name on it
said <my address >Unit 12
but we are in a single family home, there are no apartments or units here
something is really screwed up someplace
02:50 PM PDT Jessica: It seems to be. I wonder, is there an apartment complex anywhere near your area that might be named the same as your st?
02:50 PM PDT Henry Minsky: there’s a street in next town over
But … why did that package have my name on it? 
02:51 PM PDT Jessica: I understand the concern you have — What were the items ordered?
Does anyone else live with you? They might be using your Amazon account.
02:51 PM PDT Henry Minsky: I asked everyone who might share (kids, wife) nobody orderd stuff here’s a list
02:52 PM PDT Henry Minsky: excerxise reistance bands
there’s a bar code I could give you
zoetouch car fm transmitter
kitchen shears
personal lubricant
battery charger
want a SKU number? 
02:53 PM PDT Jessica: The problem here is, Amazon does not have the ability to prevent someone from shipping things to your address under you name — If you start seeing that your credit/debit cards are being charged for orders that you did not place then we have several avenues to assist you with getting that issue resolved. I don’t have a way to search the system for just your mailing address to see who is sending these things incorrectly. For the item sent with the other person’s name on it — you can write “RTS” on that package and hand it back to the carrier — They will get that item back to us.
02:54 PM PDT Henry Minsky: can I give the sku number from a couple of these items and you could correlate that with the address shipped to to figure out who ordered it?
02:54 PM PDT Jessica: If you feel that further action needs to be taken to prevent this from happening my only suggestion I have is to file a police report with your local police department. Go ahead with the SKU numbers — I can at least try that to see if we can find anything.
02:55 PM PDT Henry Minsky: ok here’s a battery charger
XOO1JILVZ1 kitchen shears
XOO1KSYWL : fm transmitter
02:56 PM PDT Jessica: Hold on
02:56 PM PDT Henry Minsky: XOO1JIQDG3
02:56 PM PDT Jessica: Those numbers do not match anything that I can search for 
02:56 PM PDT Henry Minsky: ah
02:56 PM PDT Jessica: Do you see something that has all numbers?
02:56 PM PDT Henry Minsky: there’s tracking numbers on the packages
I’ll transcribe one
02:56 PM PDT Jessica: or maybe 1Z something or other?
02:57 PM PDT Henry Minsky: what about TBAnnnn ?
02:57 PM PDT Jessica: YES
TBA is Amazon logistics 
02:57 PM PDT Henry Minsky: TBA471508722000
TBA473204283000
02:58 PM PDT Jessica: One more?
02:59 PM PDT Henry Minsky: I need to get it out of the recycling 
hang on
02:59 PM PDT Jessica: take your time
02:59 PM PDT Henry Minsky: usps
03:00 PM PDT Henry Minsky: 9374 8896 8409 0284 5838 96
03:01 PM PDT Jessica: Awesome — So I was able to pull up where these are coming from — I cannot tell you who has sent these items but what I can do is remove your address from their account
03:01 PM PDT Henry Minsky: yeah they must have entered something wrong
03:01 PM PDT Jessica: most likely
03:02 PM PDT Jessica: So I will go ahead and remove your address then — Ok?
03:02 PM PDT Henry Minsky: yes its strange that one had my name attached to it
but had an apartment number
03:03 PM PDT Jessica: Do you have a middle name/
03:03 PM PDT Henry Minsky: <my middle name>
03:03 PM PDT Jessica: Odd — I have removed your address. As far as the items go you can either keep them or donate/dispose of them
03:03 PM PDT Henry Minsky: ok thanks
03:04 PM PDT Henry Minsky: I know we order a lot of stuff, but it’s weird when it starts coming by itself!
03:04 PM PDT Jessica: No problem! :) Is there anything else I can assist you with?
03:04 PM PDT Henry Minsky: that is all ,thanks
03:05 PM PDT Jessica: Thank you for contacting DART. If you need any additional help I can be reached via email or OC — my login is “jessiroy”. Enjoy the rest of your shift! :)

Well that’s taken care of. They have removed my address from someone else’s account. Glad it’s all taken care of. Of course, it’s weird that my name and address are in someone else’s account and they’re sending me stuff. But hey, stuff happens.

The second chat with customer support

A week or so later, more unordered packages show up on the porch. This time there’s a rather nice bluetooth-enabled bathroom scale. A pink plastic USB mini-keyboard. Some more earbuds. Some other stuff.

I happen to meet the guy delivering the package coming up to the front porch, and I look at one package and see “unit 8” in the address, a certain tip off that this is one of the mystery boxes. So given that he’s still here, I figure I’ll try to give it back to the delivery guy. He’s clearly a little unprepared for this, I see him sitting in his truck on the phone with his boss for fifteen minutes trying to figure out what to do with it, and I realize I’ve put an unnecessary kink in this poor guy’s highly optimized work day. He’s supposed to be delivering things, not figuring out what the hell is wrong with Amazon logistics.

Better to try and cut this problem off at the source; I figure I’ll try customer support again, maybe they didn’t properly scrub my address from this mystery person’s account.

My sister gives me the advice to not try online chat, as it is seldom effective if you have an issue that doesn’t fit neatly into some existing process category. She says to call and speak to someone on the phone. But I figure I’ll try that chat again.

This time, the customer service agent slips up on their previously stated privacy policy, and tells me one of the packages is a “gift” from “vnvvwy lghrhhdh”. They actually seem kind of pleased for me that someone is sending me a gift. How thoughtful and fun!

That does not look like someone’s real name to me, it looks like someone mashed the keyboard when creating a fake account. Or maybe database corruption, except why no vowels? But the customer service agent does not appear to think that name is odd. I mention I have had this happen before, and I was told my address was ‘scrubbed’ from some other account, but it appears to either have had no effect, or else has reverted. Again I’m assured this will be taken care of and is nothing to worry about.

More packages on the porch

The next week, packages keep arriving. Interesting stuff. A nice bike headlight and taillight. A handheld infrared thermometer with laser. More earbuds.

At this point, my sister says “you need to talk to someone on the phone”.

So I call Amazon’s support phone line, and am again speaking to an agent who clearly has no way to do anything that has any impact on what is going on. I ask to speak to the agent’s supervisor. She comes on the line, and is very professional and businesslike, assuring me that yes this seems very strange, and is no doubt a little troubling, and it will be taken care of.

At this point I’m a little more skeptical, so I ask her if I can have the tracking number for this case or issue. She says “oh we don’t have any way of doing that”. So there is no process for reporting this kind of failure mode? I cannot even determine which department I should be trying to get this information to. She assures me that this will be escalated and taken care of. My experience with doing software development in a large automated business system is telling me that nobody is going to fix this issue, because they do not appear to have any mechanism in place to describe, record, or even internally acknowledge the existence of this problem.

Rather than fixing the problem, it appears to be accelerating. Just five minutes ago I put my head out the front door and noticed a package had appeared. Strangely I didn’t see or hear the delivery guy even though my wife and I were in the kitchen just a few steps from the door. It’s a nice black dress. “Noctflos is a top trendy brand for women’s quality clothing” Size L, which won’t fit anyone in our family except maybe my teenage son.

Update: this morning, “Hey dad, did you order something from Amazon?” No. Today’s haul, an electric juicer, a women’s pajama top, a bluetooth transmitter, some wireless bluetooth headphones.

Update to update: definitely seems to be accelerating, same day, another package arrived under cover of darkness (they seem to have very stealthy delivery people now). This time its another LED alarm clock, some bluetooth earbuds, a milk frother (by odd coincidence, we bought one at a yard sale last week which turned out not to work), and a nylon bag containing two rather high-end vacuum-packed pillows with silver piping.

Who is Nick Tovar?

At dinner one night we were telling this story and I mentioned that some of the packages had a name on them, “ Nick Tovar”. A friend who speaks Ukrainian said “you know ‘tovar’ means ‘merchandise’ in Russian”. In fact Google Translate gives the more colloquial “The goods”

So, we’re getting packages of stuff addressed to someone with the last name translated from Russian as “the goods” More than just coincidence? Russian hackers?

I ask myself how much time should I bother spending on resolving this? I do not appear to be getting billed for this stuff showing up at my door. Amazon has told me to do whatever I like with it. They do not want it back. The cost of handling the returns on these Chinese consumer goods would probably just bring their already razor thin margins negative.

And yet, I can’t help but wonder, is there another shoe which is going to drop? Is Nick Tovar going to show up at my house asking where his stuff went? And what about vnvvwy lghrhhdh? Is that some angry Bulgarian whose orders I have been distributing to my family and friends? I don’t think any of this stuff is actually a gift or an intentional order from a real person. It has the feel of most likely being a bug in some fulfillment software.

The Best Theories So Far: Russian Criminals Probing Stolen Credit Cards?

I’m wondering if some cyber criminal ring has a system for verifying if stolen credit card numbers are usable. They sign up with an Amazon account and order something to be shipped to a random address. If the order ships, they then use the card to buy something really valuable, like a laptop, and have it shipped to a known pickup point. If this were the case, there would be thousands and thousands of people getting random crap like we are. This seems to me like the most plausible scenario. It may be difficult for them to obtain valid addresses of ‘frequent buyer’ Amazon customers, who would be less likely to notice random shit coming, so once they have one such address they use it fairly frequently. I imagine that when I report the unwanted package to Amazon, they have a process that marks the sender as fraudulent, maybe after a certain number of complaints. But then the criminal just has to open a new account and start up again. Perhaps Amazon does not care too much because they actually make a profit also, if enough people don’t notice fraudulent charges on their stolen cards.

Or, Orders as Vector for Seller To Submit Their Own Reviews To Amazon

My son thinks it is some online vendor trying to get good reviews; his theory is that to get Amazon to allow them to enter good reviews for their own products, they need to have a “verified customer”, which means shipping the product to some random people, as if it were a gift. Then when it is delivered they would enter a great review for the product. I’m not sure how plausible that is given that some of the stuff we’ve been getting retails for $30–40, but wholesale I guess it’s really cheap, and good reviews are probably worth a lot of money to the vendor, so this does seem like maybe the most likely explanation.

Anyway most of this stuff is going into a donations pile, to go to some charity that can make use of it.

_________________________________________________________________

I’ll keep a little list here to keep track of what’s arriving

11/10/2017

Not much to report, just a magnetic mobile phone mount for the car, addressed to Nick Tovar with my home address.

11/14/2017

A box came today addressed to me with my correct middle initial. Interesting, since I changed all address records in my Amazon account to have different initials.

Todays haul: Blackhead lifting mask, patella supports for exercise, earbuds, a Samsung phone case, and an 3rd party Apple 60w laptop charger (old style macbook connector).

11/16/2017

Maybe too early to declare victory, but have not received any unwanted packages for last two days. Perhaps deleting my original address record fixed the problem.

11/18/2017

Well OK got another package today to Henry B Minsky (my now deleted address for my account). Contents, three packages each containing three woven USB cables, two lighting one micro-usb. Also a “LED light ball”, which consists of a cable of micro LEDs, an inflatable clear plastic balloon, two feathers, and some tinsel tied to a rubber band (I am supposed to put the LEDs inside the balloon?)

11/20/2017

Box of hair ribbons

Portable Garment Steamer

Iphone 8 rubber case

11/27/2017

Men’s ‘wife beater’ XL elastic t shirt

Knitted blue cap with integrated LED headlamp (pretty cool, you snap it out and it has two usb prongs to recharge it from a USB port)

Apple watch band for Large apple watch

11/29/2017

A nice set of drill countersinks. Coincidentally, our builder was asking if I had a countersink about a month ago. More than just coincidence?

12/03/2017

From my wife:

OK, this is so freaky I had to report it right away and to a wide audience.
Two days ago, on Saturday, I was preparing for the holiday party and making the mushroom appetizers while Harry was putting together the bacon wrapped pine-apple bits. As we were working, I looked around for a little rack/with accompanying tray that may have been left over from a previous toaster oven that seemed perfect for baking the pine-apple things and allowing the bacon grease to drip through to the tray. I found it, but it was kind of small. So I pulled out the (current) toaster oven rack which is larger and said to Harry, ‘too bad we don’t have a tray to go with this one’.
Guess what showed up from Amazon today addressed to Nick Tovar? One single item. A toaster oven tray.
This is beginning to have all the makings of a good short science fiction story incorporating mind-reading (I’m not sure I actually said those words out loud, I may have just thought them) and/or time-travel.
Reporting from the Twilight Zone here at Clyde St,