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Bug Zappers Are Swarming on Amazon

Call it a bug zapper, not a feature.

Data from Fakespot, a service owned by Mozilla that helps consumers spot fake reviews and scams on shopping sites, shows a bizarre rise in the number of listings for bug zappers on Amazon over the past three years. At the same time, Fakespot has logged an increase in the number of negative or unreliable reviews for this product category.

Saoud Khalifah, founder and director of Fakespot at Mozilla, says bug zappers are just one example of the convergence of recent trends in ecommerce: a growing number of listings from third-party sellers on Amazon.com, more merchants seeking to sell low-cost products with high margins, and generative AI tools making it easier for sellers to churn out questionable marketing copy and reviews.

“Right now everyone has a different kind of determination of what ‘fake’ means,” Khalifah says. “In the book category, for example, you might see an author ask their friends and family to leave reviews and some people might see that as disingenuous. But when you look at this particular category, bug zappers, this is game-over territory. It’s one of the favorite products of fraudulent seller farms.”

Khalifah says bug zappers are one of a few categories of hardware products that Fakespot has examined recently on Amazon because it saw a rise both in product listings and unreliable reviews. The bug zapper listings it examined aren’t necessarily flat-out scams—buyers still receive an actual bug zapper—but Fakespot’s analysis says that negative reviews indicate some of the products don’t appear to work as advertised.

Among low-star reviews, buyers frequently complain that a bug zapper is simply a glow light without any real insect-killing capabilities. Fakespot also found errant reviews for different products placed among reviews for bug zappers. One bug zapper had hundreds of reviews, but most were written about a capacitor motor fan; another bug zapper listing had reviews of pens and paper goods.

Amazon spokesperson Maria Boschetti said in a statement that shopping at Amazon is “safe, authentic, and trustworthy.” She added that its store offers a wide selection of items and perspectives and has robust policies and guidelines. “Our technology continuously scans all products for sale for compliance, and if we discover a product was undetected by our controls, we remove the product immediately and refine our controls,” she said.

This week Amazon released a new Brand Protection Report, in which the company says that last year it invested more than $1.2 billion in brand protection and employed more than 15,000 people who were dedicated to thwart counterfeits, fraud, and other forms of abuse in its store. The company says it scans billions of attempted changes to products pages daily to spot signs of abuse.

The report acknowledges that the number of products in Amazon’s store continues to swell, which makes managing brand safety more complex—but says tools like image recognition and forgery detection tech enable it to spot inauthentic or counterfeit goods. Amazon also works with cross-border law enforcement agencies, including law enforcement in China, the company says, to identify and seize counterfeit goods.

Uncannily Similar

Fakespot uses machine learning to scan product details and product reviews on ecommerce sites, then typically assigns a “reliability grade” based on the signals it has pulled in. It might, for example, assign a “D” grade to a product listing and indicate that analysis suggests “68 percent of the reviews are reliable” but “review content quality is low.” It also sometimes shows its own rating for a shopper to compare with the rating on Amazon. A product with a four-star rating from Amazon might get only two stars from Fakespot.

The Fakespot tool has been critiqued in the past for what some see as ambiguity around its methods and the potential for it to unfairly label legitimate sellers. Amazon successfully lobbied Apple to remove Fakespot from the App Store three years ago, alleging that it provided misleading information. Fakespot has since been readmitted to the App Store as Fakespot Pro Browser and Fakespot Lite.

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To analyze the swarm of bug zappers on Amazon, Fakespot first ran a series of searches across the whole of Amazon’s store and then just in the Outdoor & Garden category for “outdoor bug zapper.” The broader search returned several pages of results and hundreds of product listings, and the search in the Outdoor category brought up 72 pages with more than 1,000 product listings. (WIRED got the same results for the broad search but fewer pages when searching the Outdoor category, likely because Amazon’s marketplace is constantly changing.)

Fakespot then began to identify which listings appeared to offer uncannily similar products under different brand names. “We are seeing an influx of the same products with different branding in Amazon’s warehouses,” a report compiled by Fakespot says. WIRED noticed that one popular brand, Klahaite, appears to list the same bug zapper with the same specs twice, once for $39 and once for $29. One listing has more than 10,000 reviews; the other has only 74. WIRED tried to contact Klahaite to ask for clarity around the listings, but the company’s website is “temporarily closed.”

Unreliable reviews for bug zappers also appear to be on the rise. Fakespot was able to analyze reviews for thousands of listings in aggregate over the past three years (since listings change regularly, the total number analyzed is greater than what would come up in a single search). In 2021 Fakespot analyzed more than 3,500 listings; in 2022 it examined 4,301 listings; and last year it analyzed a total of 5,183 listings for bug zappers.

As the number of bug zapper listings grew, the proportion of listings Fakespot gave a D or F grade based on unreliable reviews also increased, from 37 percent in 2021 to 38 percent in the following year. Last year, of the more than 5,000 bug zapper listings Fakespot analyzed, 43 percent were given poor grades because of unreliable product reviews.

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Fakespot spotted reviews under bug zappers that appeared to be cross-posted from different products. WIRED reviewed a listing for a bug zapper sold under the brand name Tilibra with more than 13,000 global reviews; some of these reviews, written in Portuguese, were written about paper products, not bug zappers. Similarly, some of the reviews for a bug zapper sold by a brand named CIS, seen by WIRED, were reviews for pens.

The day after WIRED alerted Amazon to the Tilibra and CIS bug zappers, those listings suddenly led to a “Sorry, that page does not exist” page. Boschetti, Amazon’s spokesperson, says “this is a form of listing abuse that we have proactive measures in place to prevent and we continuously monitor our store.”

WIRED combed through a couple dozen bug zapper listings that appeared at the top of Amazon’s search results. Several were sponsored listings that had mostly high ratings, with satisfied buyers saying their new bug zappers worked great. Among the one-star or two-star reviews, the most consistent complaint was that the bug zappers simply didn’t work. “This thing is just a very dim blue light!” a reviewer wrote about one of the less expensive zappers WIRED looked at, which received a one-star rating from 27 percent of reviewers and a two-star rating from 9 percent of reviewers.

Even the top-rated bug zappers showed some inconsistencies in the quality of the products or customer service. A $25 bug zapper from a brand called ZFITEI has more than 3,100 ratings, with 4.5 stars and overwhelmingly positive reviews. But a reviewer in Italy claimed that the ZFITEI bug zapper was shipping to Europe with support for 110-volt wall sockets, rather than the 220 volts that is standard in Europe. A customer from India posted a video of the ZFITEI bug zapper seemingly malfunctioning.

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WIRED attempted to contact ZFITEI, which also sells milk frothers and microwave plate covers on its website, but did not receive a reply by the time of publication. The brand’s website says it is part of Shenzhen Zuofei Te Trade Co., located in Shenzhen, China. The website says the brand was founded in 2013, but confusingly suggests that it tracks fashion trends and works on toy development.

Another popular bug zapper, sold by Dunaga, has over 4,100 ratings, 73 percent of which are five-star reviews. But the customers who gave low ratings complained of not being able to access warranty or return information when needed. Dunaga’s website offers only a form email option, which WIRED used to attempt to contact Dunaga to ask about its warranty and return processes for defective products. Dunaga has not responded.

Problem Category

Khalifah notes that products like spy camera detectors and Bluetooth headphones often have similar issues—they’re cheap-to-make products that tend to spur lots of replicas and unprovable reviews on commerce sites. Basically, it’s not just bug zappers. But the bug zapper listings appear to be an example of the sometimes confusing and lower-quality experience some shoppers have complained about when trying to parse through Amazon results.

Writing for The Atlantic last year, WIRED executive editor of news Brian Barrett noted that shopping on Amazon had become an “exercise in frustration” because of its glut of sponsored listings and products being sold by unrecognizable brands. “Its unparalleled convenience and cost helped turn it into an ecommerce juggernaut … Now around every corner lies a brand you’ve never heard of, selling a product you’re not sure about,” he wrote.

The deluge of lower-quality ecommerce listings has partly been enabled by generative AI tools, which allow sellers to spit out product names and descriptions with a few taps on the keyboard. In some instances the use of generative AI might be glaringly obvious, like when a seller appears to have just copied and pasted the phrase “I apologize but I cannot fulfill this request [as] it violates OpenAI use policy” as the product name. Other AI-generated content is harder to spot.

Amazon, for its part, now offers its own AI-generated summaries of product reviews, aiming to encapsulate the overall tone and diversity of the reviews on a listing. A summary for one bug zapper says, “Customers like the ease of cleaning and quality of the bug zapper. They mention that it comes with a little brush for cleaning and is more effective than vacuuming them up … However, some customers have reported that the product wears out fast and is not a long-term solution for getting rid of bugs. Customers also have different opinions on brightness, and sound quality.”

But Khalifah says potentially unreliable listings are less of a generative AI problem and more attributable to weaknesses in Amazon’s policies around third-party sellers. “Almost every category on Amazon has issues because it’s so easy to become a third-party seller on their platform,” Fakespot’s report says. “Low-cost products with high margins are what every Amazon seller seeks to achieve, considering that Amazon eats into that margin with various seller fees.”

More than 60 percent of Amazon’s sales come from those outside sellers, which the company touts as a signal of its support for small-and-medium-size businesses. Amazon collects billions of dollars from the fees it charges these sellers, and as many Amazon customers know, many of these businesses are legit.

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Still, scammers and sellers of low-quality products slip through the cracks.

“These issues have gone on for years,” says Sucharita Kodali, a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research. “Amazon could have more of a gatekeeper approach to who sells products on its site. They could limit reviews to customers with valid mailing addresses, or who live in a certain market. There are so many things they could still do.”

Amazon says in its new report that it uses “advanced technology and expert human reviewers to verify the identities of potential sellers” and that prospective sellers are required to provide a variety of information, such as government-issued photo IDs, taxpayer details, and banking information.” It also says that it prevented more than 700,000 “bad actors” from creating new selling accounts on Amazon last year, down significantly from the 6 million attempts made in 2020, suggesting that its efforts to thwart bad-intentioned sellers are working.

Kodali recounted two items she has bought on Amazon in recent years that were faulty—a faucet attachment that was supposed to change colors based on whether the water was hot or cold, and a fish-eye lens attachment for an iPhone. Neither worked.

These products, like the bug zappers, are “fairly innocuous,” Kodali says, “but there’s no shortage of this kind of stuff. You trust Amazon until you don’t trust them.”

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