Computer programmer Greg Nelson is a self-confessed Amazon addict, buying hundreds of items on its site. But after sending back 37 items of 343 purchased, the online giant has blocked his account with immediate effect â€“ and told him he would lose a gift card balance that he had on the account.
He insists there was a genuine reason for all his returns over the past two years â€“ the goods were either faulty, damaged or not as described. However, Amazon has refused to let him continue buying from the site without giving him, in his words, a â€œproper explanationâ€.
Amazon told Nelson that the money held on his account as a gift card balance is lost to him, as gift vouchers can only be used on the site and have no transferable value.
His case will alarm anyone blocked by Amazon who has spent a lot of money building up a large library of Kindle books or other digital purchases, as they will fear being unable to access much of it (see below).
Customers who may, for example, have been given a Â£200 gift voucher for Christmas, and then had their account closed before they spent the money, would lose the lot under the terms of the policy.
Nelson says: â€œAs a previously fervently loyal fan of Amazon who has been a customer since 2002, I understand that it is trying to protect its business â€“ however I find its actions in this situation totally egregious. I could understand if there were evidence that I had somehow tried to abuse the system, but I havenâ€™t. Of course, Amazon can refuse to serve whom it likes, but surely it cannot legally keep gift card balances and other purchased goods which have already been paid for by the customer â€“ despite what any potentially unfair small print might say?â€
He emailed Amazon to point out the unfairness in closing accounts based on unpublished limits of legitimate returns, but says he received a standard response refusing to reopen his account. He has also questioned whether it is legal for the internet giant to refuse to refund a customerâ€™s unspent gift balance.
Nelson is the latest person to fall foul of the companyâ€™s policy of banning customers who exercise their consumer rights to return goods.
A spokesman for Amazon told Guardian Money he could not discuss Nelsonâ€™s case, except to say the company would not reopen his account.
â€œOur goal is to deliver the best experience for the millions of customers who shop with us. In a tiny fraction of cases we are forced to close accounts where we identify extreme account abuse. This decision is only taken after we have reviewed the account carefully and tried to work with the customer over an extended time period to resolve any issues,â€ he said.
The former distance selling rules, now part of the consumer contracts regulations, allow online shoppers to return an item within 14 days without giving a reason for a full refund, provided the item is in the original packaging. Amazon voluntarily extends this policy so items can be returned inside 30 days, but acts against customers who do it too often.
Items that are damaged or not as described, or simply donâ€™t last as they should, are all often sent back by unhappy consumers, as they would return an item to a physical shop.
Although relatively rare, Amazon has been cancelling customers accounts since at least 2008, and in some cases has even reportedly cancelled the accounts of other family members living at the same address.
In November last year Money highlighted the case of Nigel Colledge from Kingskerswell, South Devon, who similarly had his account cancelled despite spending thousands of pounds with the firm.
He bought 246 items in 2015 alone, and had been a customer since 2006. The self-confessed electronics junkie, who prided himself on having all the latest gizmos, said the majority of items he returned were high-value electronic items that had failed. He had chosen to cancel problematic purchases rather than wait for Amazon to simply exchange the item. It is unclear whether that would have saved him from being banned as Amazon refuses to explain the policy, or to differentiate between returns made for genuine or other reasons.
In January Amazon closed down another customer, Katy Kilmarton, after she returned 30 out of 112 items bought. She also lost a Â£170 gift card balance and the remaining months of her Amazon Prime membership, which costs Â£79 a year.
Money spent several hours on the Amazon website this week, but could find no reference to the policy. We have repeatedly asked the company what constitutes too many returns, but it has refused to divulge the figure.
Nelson points out that both the customer and the company have no control over deliveries once they leave the warehouse, and asks if it would ban a customer who just happened to have several deliveries damaged by theÂ courier.
While thousands of UK consumers boycotted Amazon over its controversial tax situation, many disabled and elderly customers â€“ and those who live in rural areas away from big shops â€“ have come to depend on the companyâ€™s slick online operation. Are they now going to have to accept damaged or wrongfully described items to avoid the risk of being banned, asks Nelson.
What happens to purchased items
Having an Amazon account blocked is not much use if youâ€™ve just bought a Kindle electronic reader. Although you will still be able to view any books youâ€™ve already bought, you wonâ€™t be buying any more from the company. Amazon says users will still be able to access previously bought digital content if they have had their account unilaterally closed down, although theyâ€™d better hope they donâ€™t have a problem in the future.
Amazon says it sends customers whose account it is closing a weblink that allows them to view previous digital orders. They can also check whether purchased items are still in warranty.
How customers who have bought electronic items that develop a subsequent fault within the warranty period will fare is less clear. When their account is closed they are told: â€œPlease do not make contact through the standard customer service channels again, as they will no longer be able to assist you.â€
When your account is closed you also lose access to the Amazon Prime on-demand film streaming service, and if you have paid Â£79 for an annual subscription the money is lost. The DVD-sending service LoveFilm is also owned by Amazon, as is the popular talking books service Audible; books are downloaded so anyone who has had their account closed will keep past purchases. LoveFilm users will have to join their local library. Comics fans who signed up to download site Comixology, taken over by Amazon in 2014, will also be looking elsewhere.
How easy it is to set up an alternative account remains to be seen. Most people will simply use a partnerâ€™s account. If you choose to close your account you lose access to everything.