Update on 2019-11-04: Amazon restored Mr. Bowser’s son’s gift card balance! I have included an update from him at the very end.
I received this from a fellow Central Floridian father whose 12-year-old son was lucky enough to receive $335 in Amazon gift cards from friends and family at his birthday party. Amazon ended up banning his account after he tried to order items for himself and gifts for his family, and then Amazon has been jerking Mr. Bowser around, claiming that they can honor only $125 of the gift card balance.
Of course, if pressed Amazon might end up claiming that some of the gift cards applied to the account were purchased with stolen credit cards, but they never have to prove anything and always blame the recipient of the gift (victim blaming). They also steal the whole gift card balance, rather than just the purported illegitimate gift cards.
When reading accounts like this, keep in mind that Mr. Bowser just happens to be vocal and will not stand for this, whereas many other Amazon victims would not speak up like this. Also, that he is willing to speak up shows that he is not engaged in crime; people who are buying Amazon gift cards with stolen credit cards or laundering drug money are unlikely to be publicizing their situation.
Regarding the legality of Amazon’s actions, what they are doing is definitely illegal and although I am not a lawyer, I have cited several laws and presented a legal argument against their behavior in a typed deposition I gave in 2018 as an expert witness for a customer’s small claims lawsuit against Amazon for having over $3,000 of gift card balance stolen.
I do also want to clarify that I still use Amazon and that when they banned me in 2015, the notice did not include verbiage seen by some about not being allowed to create another Amazon account. Amazon has become a bit like a public utility in the same manner as Google, Facebook, and others; it is difficult to not use it and unfair to tell those that are dissatisfied that they can just go elsewhere. Of course, no one on the Internet can avoid using or connecting to Amazon Web Services, but also I am not one to avoid ordering from them if they have the best price, and Amazon is often losing money on individual orders in order to drive others out of business and maintain a dominant market position. But, I am careful to avoid accumulating an Amazon gift card balance that I am not prepared to lose.
AMAZON.COM STOLE MY 12-YEAR OLD SON’S BIRTHDAY
By Michael Bowser
My son, Morgan just turned 12. As many kids his age, he didn’t want gifts, but instead asked for cash so he could buy whatever he wanted. We recommended Amazon gift cards so he could begin learning about online commerce, patience, comparative shopping, and looking for value. Too often kids his age get excited and fall into impulse buying when a store does not have “exactly” what they want.
He received $335 in Amazon gift cards from his family and friends. This seemed like a financial windfall to him (and us). We set up his own Amazon account, uploaded all the gift cards and even signed him up for “Prime.”
He spent hours shopping, reading reviews and choosing exactly what he wanted. His cart had surprisingly little for himself, but included items like a bag of 60 Hair Scrunchies for his sister and an Ice Cream Maker so our family could make Ice Cream together. He loved the idea that he could now buy things for others with his own money.
On October 23rd, he finally placed his order.
On October 24th, he received the following e-mail from Amazon:
We have closed your account and canceled all outstanding orders.
We took these actions because you were using Amazon Gift Cards that are in violation of our Terms and Conditions. We cannot reissue the gift cards or reimburse you for these funds.
If you believe you received this message in error, please call Customer Service at: . . . .
You can find more information on the Gift Card Terms and Conditions Help page:
My wife and I both contacted Amazon and both got different stories. My wife was told they would review the situation and get back to us within 24 hours. They told me that it was a closed case, his account was cancelled and his gift cards were all deactivated with no hope of reissue. I was told specifically that there was no “next step” and “no one else to talk to.”
In neither case did they offer an explanation of what the violation supposedly was.
I poured over “Terms and Conditions” for Amazon, Gift Cards and Amazon Prime. I could not find anything that would be considered a “violation.”
I reached out to everyone who had gotten him a gift card to see if any had come from questionable sources. All were purchased from Amazon directly except the ones we, personally got him from Publix (a large, reputable grocery chain in Florida).
After 24 hours, they did reactivate his account, but only reactivated $125 of the gift cards. He was still missing $210. Their response was to offer us $85.
WHAT? We obviously said, “No! We want the full amount back in there.” Amazon said they would have to review it and get back to us. This time, they said 3 to 5 days.
I tried to remain calm, certain that this was some kind of horrible mistake. I scoured the internet for people who may have had a similar problem to get a clue regarding where the problem was.
It did not take long before I was down the rabbit-hole.
I quickly found dozens of similar reports. For years, Amazon has been doing this. The only common denominator seems to be accounts with a large gift card balance. The magic number seems to be $300 but I found reports of people losing over $10,000.
This link: https://thripp.com/2015/09/amazon-steals-gift-cards/ is where I found legal complaints made by Richard Thripp, an Education Ph.D. candidate, to the Attorney General of Washington in 2015. He went through the same thing.
Amazon’s response to him was:
As noted in our Conditions of Use, in the section, “Your Account”: “Amazon reserves the right to refuse service, terminate accounts, remove or edit content, or cancel orders in its sole discretion.”
“Refusal of Services” not-withstanding, I still fail to see how they can justify the seizure of legitimate gift cards as anything but “theft.” Since when does a company’s “Terms of Service” supersede the law?
I started realizing, this may not just be an “honest mistake.” This seems like systematic theft or, at the very least, gross negligence. These are generally small enough amounts that it may go unnoticed. When a customer pushes back against the behemoth, they are met with gatekeepers armed with scripts and corporate bureaucracy designed to confuse, delay and exhaust. I am sure the vast majority simply give up.
Sadly, I can not simply give up.
This experience was intended to be a lesson for my son in commerce. It has become a lesson on standing up for yourself. If I simply give up, cut Morgan a check for $335 and let him loose in Walmart, what kind of lesson am I sending him? What will he do the next time someone tries to take what is his? What would Captain America do?
I will continue to fight this to set a good example for my son. Even if my efforts do not provide him with a worthy lesson, Amazon has provided him with an equally valuable one: “Cash is King” and “Support your local Retailers.”
Update on 2019-11-04: Amazon restored Mr. Bowser’s son’s gift card balance! Here is an update from him:
November 4, 2019
Thank you for your support. On Saturday, November 2nd, the full amount has been restored to Morgan’s Amazon account. Resolution took 10 days, half a dozen calls, multiple Facebook postings, shares, blog postings, e-mails to news outlets and countless hours of effort.
There was no explanation of why his gift cards had been taken in the first place, where the problem was, or what finally led to the resolution. It may have been our steadfast diligence, the outpouring of support or simply the passage of time necessary for the corporate process to take place. Ultimately, the money simply appeared back on his account with a brief automated e-mail from Amazon stating that his balance has been restored.
We will probably never know the details, as I am sure Amazon feels no compulsion to explain their actions, lest they implicate themselves to some level of culpability. I know that many would feel we are owed “compensation” for our inconvenience. A gesture would be nice, but many in today’s society are excessively greedy. Amazon has no way of knowing we are not looking to take advantage and only want what is right.
I understand that we all make mistakes, but, sadly, this lack of explanation leaves me with a serious lack of trust moving forward. I can’t help but wonder when something like this will happen again to us, or someone else.
Please be careful, diligent and vocal. I doubt that this story is truly over.