When you’re shopping on Amazon, you might have seen the words “Fulfilled by Amazon” next to some of the things you buy. You hopefully won’t notice anything different about the purchase experience, but you could run into problems.

Amazon the Marketplace

Amazon isn’t just an online store—and it hasn’t been for some time. It’s a marketplace, like eBay or Alibaba; it just hides that fact better.

Over 80% of the products sold through Amazon are bought not from Amazon but from an Amazon Marketplace seller who is paying Amazon to list their product. The numbers are even crazier when you look at the products listed on Amazon, not just sold: of the 350 million-plus products available, Amazon only sell 12 million of them directly—not including books, media, and wine—the rest are sold by Marketplace sellers.

Even if you’ve never noticed you were buying from a Marketplace seller before, the odds are you have.

Fulfilled by Amazon

The reason most people don’t realize that Amazon is a marketplace like eBay is it generally smooths over all the roughs and bumps. Sellers have two options:

  • They can list their products on Amazon and, when an order comes through, pack and ship it themselves.
  • They can list their products on Amazon and bulk ship any number of items to an Amazon warehouse. When an order comes through, Amazon workers pack and ship it like it’s an Amazon product. This is Fulfilled by Amazon.

For sellers, the big advantage of Fulfilled by Amazon is Amazon handles everything. They don’t need to run their own store, handle payment processing, deal with a shipper, pack things up, or customer care—for a small fee, Amazon does it. Sellers sometimes refer to Fulfillment by Amazon as “FBA.”

For customers, the advantage is that they get the same, regular Amazon experience, including stuff like Prime, free shipping, and the like, for an extra 338 million products that Amazon doesn’t sell directly. Most people—including me—don’t even notice when they’re not buying directly from Amazon. The packages arrive at your door just the same.

How to Spot an Amazon Marketplace Seller

While Amazon doesn’t trumpet it from the rooftops when you buy from a Marketplace seller, they don’t hide the information either. Here’s an official Amazon listing.

And here’s one for a Marketplace seller who uses Fulfilled by Amazon.

Over on the right-hand side, under the “In Stock” section, Amazon lists the seller and shipper.

Marketplace sellers who don’t use Fulfilled by Amazon are even easier to spot. The buying process is different.

The Problem With Fulfilled by Amazon and the Amazon Marketplace

Fulfilled by Amazon and the Amazon Marketplace are not without their problems. With tens of thousands of sellers already on the platform and a system designed to make it easy for new ones to join, Amazon can’t—and doesn’t—thoroughly review and police every seller or item. This has led to a large number of scammers and bad actors.

Our own Editor-in-Chief, Chris Hoffman, bought a mini PC to use as a media center for his TV. While the hardware was solid, it shipped with a pirated version of Windows. When he wrote a review calling the seller out, they reported his comments and Amazon deleted them and blocked him from posting more reviews. This is not the behavior of a seller who’s on the level.

SanDisk makes some of the best SD cards and other storage gear. We’re huge fans of their stuff here at How-To Geek. Unfortunately, they estimate that up to a third of the SanDisk memory cards that have ever been sold are fake. And, of course, some people are buying these fake cards from Amazon.

There are dozens of additional strategies bad sellers use, from hijacking legitimate listings with knockoff products to selling items they don’t even have and just running off with the money. Amazon doesn’t do anything until people start to complain and by then it’s often too late. While Amazon will always refund people with their A-to-Z guarantee, you still have to deal with the hassle of being scammed.

How to Avoid Scammers on Amazon

As Amazon has cornered more of the online market, it’s become an even better target for scammers. Amazon is trying to address the problem, but it’s still a big issue. There’s always a risk that you’re being scammed when you buy from an Amazon Marketplace seller.

With that said, I’m not advising you to run out and cancel your Prime membership. The vast majority of the time you’ll be fine especially if you exercise a little care. If what you’re buying is Fulfilled by Amazon or otherwise from a third-party seller, check out the listing and reviews. If everything looks good, go right ahead, but if you see any red flags, maybe buy from somewhere else.

For more on spotting scammy sellers in the wild, check out our full guide.

RELATED: How to Avoid Fake and Scammy Amazon Sellers

Profile Photo for Harry Guinness Harry Guinness
Harry Guinness is a photography expert and writer with nearly a decade of experience. His work has been published in newspapers like The New York Times and on a variety of other websites, from Lifehacker to Popular Science and Medium's OneZero.
Read Full Bio »