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Amazon wants to join forces with brands to sniff out and eliminate fakes in its marketplace.

With Project Zero, a new anti-counterfeit program, Amazon is essentially raising an army in its battle against knock-offs.

“Project Zero builds on our long-standing work and investments in this area,” said Dharmesh Mehta, vice president of worldwide customer trust and partner support at Amazon, recently. “It allows brands to work with us to leverage our combined strengths to move quickly and at scale to drive counterfeits to zero.”

And the magic formula for the program is one-part human and one-part machine.

Project Zero offers partners a tool, so they can nix phony listings themselves without having to wait for Amazon to get around to it. The other involves “automated protections” — a machine learning-based process that continuously scans the 5 billion-plus listings in the Amazon marketplace and shuts down illicit items. Partner brands provide their logos, trademarks and other information, and Amazon uses that to go on its tech-driven hunt. It also creates unique barcodes for every individual product. 

The AI tool has been in tests with a select group of brands — including Vera Bradley, Thunderworks, Kenu and ChomChom Roller — and Amazon seems encouraged by the results. The automated protections blocked 100 times more suspicious items, the company said, compared with reactive efforts taken after brands manually reported.

Amazon badly wants to counter the counterfeit problem. The issue has become so large within its own walls that it even acknowledged the matter in its annual report with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in February. Essentially, the company’s worried that it can’t successfully fight off the fakes, and that it will be found liable for fraudulent actions of its third-party sellers.

The stakes are incredibly high: In Amazon’s last reported quarter, third-party products accounted for 52 percent of its sales. So it’s pinning a lot of hopes on Project Zero.

If the program works as well as the company says, it may even act as a model for others. Online sales platforms have been particularly vexed by the age-old problem of fake goods. Phonies have long been a scourge in retail, but because of the Internet, they’ve become a seemingly unstoppable epidemic.

Counterfeits can have a lasting impact, both for brands and shoppers. One bad experience can sour customer perception of a designer or label. Even worse, a Senate hearing on the matter last year pointed out that, when it comes to items like food, cosmetics or gadgets, cheaply made or packaged products might pose an actual health threat.

“These days, when you talk about cracking down on counterfeit goods, you’re no longer talking about stopping the guy selling fake purses out of his trunk,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) has said. “You’re talking about illegitimate products passed off on even the most streetwise consumers, often because [online] they’re mixed right in with the genuine products people want.

“Many of those fakes pose serious dangers,” he added. “Makeup and food and beverage containers made with dangerous chemicals. Electronics that pose a fire hazard. Toys that are unsafe for children.”

In a 2018 study, the U.S. Government Accountability Office bought products from third-party sellers on Amazon, eBay, Walmart, Sears and Newegg, and found that illicit operators were running rampant in these sites. The GAO discovered that 20 out of 47 brand-name products, or 43 percent, were knock-offs.

With billions of listings across various sites, social networks, apps and other places, it has been impossible to police online sales — even for an empire as massive as Amazon’s.

Now, big tech is using new tools to see if that can be changed — and if they can, brands everywhere will be overjoyed.

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