No comment

No comment.

That’s what Amazon said to one of our advocates when she asked about one of our most controversial cases in months.

These were Amazon’s exact words:

Hello from Amazon.com.

To protect the privacy of our customers, we will only discuss account specific questions or concerns with them directly. We’d love to help as best we can, and encourage you to direct customers to contact our customer service team for further assistance.

We appreciate your understanding with our effort to safeguard the privacy of our customers.

Best regards,
Amazon.com Customer Service

We hit brick walls like this all the time when we try to help customers. But it’s what keeps us going that I think you’ll find interesting. And since this week’s most-visited story was the Amazon story, why don’t we go there?

It wasn’t the case that turned this into a story. We suspected Richard Thripp might have engaged in an activity known as manufactured spending, which we believe is unethical.

(Manufactured spending, for the uninitiated, involves buying gift cards or money orders in an effort to collect miles, liquidating the purchases, but keeping the points. Companies frown on this kind of hacking, needless to say.)

As the case unfolded, it became increasingly clear that this was someone who was trying to manipulate the system. But that’s not why we kept going.

It wasn’t the resolution, which we learned about before the article published. Amazon agreed to release the customer’s funds after he threatened to sue and we contacted its legal counsel on his behalf.

Two things made us move forward with the story. First, Amazon was inexplicably keeping some of the customer’s money, even though he was likely engaged in an activity that violated its terms of service. And while its adhesion contract probably allowed it to do so, we didn’t feel that two wrongs make a right. It was still the customer’s money.

But what finally made us pull the trigger on February’s most controversial story was Amazon’s “no comment.”

Amazon is, of course, notorious for giving the fourth estate the silent treatment. Jack Shafer’s 2013 column about Amazon’s penchant for refusing to comment is a classic.

When someone won’t talk to you, what is it that makes you want them to talk to you even more?

Let’s speak in no uncertain terms here. The story was driven by us getting the cold shoulder from Amazon. But the underlying case was based on our belief that even if the customer violated a policy, he was entitled to know what conduct triggered the harsh punishment. The customer should be part of the process, not just a casualty of some indiscriminate corporate enforcement action.

Some commenters on the story accused us of siding with a rule breaker. Others said we had “harassed a business.” Many defended Amazon, saying that Thripp must have been in flagrant violation of the rules and that this wouldn’t happen otherwise.

And if that’s the case, this should have played out like the final scene of Willy Wonka, where an incredulous Charlie is told, “You stole fizzy-lifting drinks … so you get nothing! You lose! Good day, sir!”

But our consumer wasn’t ever going to get an answer, until we pushed for one.

Ultimately, Amazon and Thripp agreed to a confidential settlement. We can assume that during those negotiations, there was a meeting of the minds. Amazon shared some information, and Thripp perhaps made some admissions. And that’s all we wanted to do — facilitate the discussion that should happen whenever a harsh punishment is forced on a customer.

We stayed on this Amazon story because of you. Yes, it was a manufactured spending case. No, we shouldn’t have gone anywhere near it. But in the end, it became about more than that. It was about corporate intransigence. It was about a big company telling us — indeed, telling you — to bug off.

And it was about us refusing to go away.

Should we have published the Amazon story?

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