• Last week, hundreds of Amazon shoppers took to social media to complain that their accounts had been mysteriously closed over the past week.
  • Amazon sent a mass email to customers who had lost access to their accounts, saying that the deactivations happened either because customers broke the company’s review policy or because they were using the account for “commercial purposes.”
  • Comments on private Facebook groups for Amazon reviewers reveal that sellers could be using underhanded tactics to get customers to review products.

Last week, hundreds of Amazon shoppers posted complaints online after they found they had been mysteriously locked out of their accounts without explanation.

Amazon said in a mass email response to customers whose accounts had been closed that anyone who had been impacted had either broken the company’s review policy or used the account for “commercial purposes.”

A company spokesperson told Business Insider in a statement on Friday: “Amazon has taken action against bad actors and those who have violated our community rules. If any customers believe their account has been closed in error, we encourage them to contact us directly so we can review their account and take appropriate action.”

Having a high volume of customer reviews is important to sellers because it helps to improve conversion rates and bring their products higher up in Amazon’s search results.

“It’s a virtuous cycle — the more reviews, the more buys. The more buys, the more reviews. The more buys, the higher your rank in search and the more sales you get,” Alice Kim, owner of online cosmetics brand Elizabeth Mott, told USA Today in March 2017.

But, according to conversations Business Insider had with 29 different Amazon shoppers and sellers, a subculture geared towards driving sales through reviews has arisen on the site, and some are using underhanded tactics — including sharing discount codes and sending shoppers free products in exchange for reviews — to do so.

On Friday, more than a dozen users confirmed to Business Insider that their accounts had been reopened after being shut down for several days. Many of these people said they had never broken Amazon’s terms of service or that if they did so, it was not intentional.

Some of the shoppers who spoke with Business Insider about their accounts being closed, however, seem to have knowingly or unknowingly violated the company’s terms of service in regards to writing reviews. The mysterious account shutdowns, it seems, could be related to the company’s effort to clamp down on this subculture and the type of reviews it breeds.

Amazon clamps down on biased reviews

Amazon has not allowed users to be compensated — in the form of free or discounted products — for writing reviews since 2016.

“The terms-of-service change was a tough day,” iLoveToReview’s former CEO, Keith O’Brien, told Business Insider.

Founded in 2014, iLoveToReview was a service for third-party sellers that offered consumers free or heavily discounted products in exchange for reviews, a practice that would previously fall within Amazon’s terms of service.

“We were the first to do it in the world,” O’Brien said, adding that the company’s practices were so above board that it “would have opened the doors to Amazon and [shown] them our business at any time.”

In 2016, Amazon changed its terms to stop incentivized reviews. While reviews for monetary compensation had never been allowed, the new rules prevented businesses from offering products for free in exchange for supposedly “honest” reviews.

“Our community guidelines have always prohibited compensation for reviews, with an exception — reviewers could post a review in exchange for a free or discounted product as long as they disclosed that fact,” Amazon wrote in a letter to customers posted on its site in October.

But, that was all changing.

By 2016, O’Brien said, iLoveToReview had a client base of sellers who were doing about $500 million in sales on Amazon in total….