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How to lose tens of thousands of dollars on Amazon The Atlantic 19 hrs ago Alana Semuels © Provided by Atlantic Media, Inc. A growing number of self-proclaimed experts promise they can teach anyone how to make a passive income selling cheap Chinese goods in the internet’s largest store. Not everyone’s getting rich quick.
I t was only after they’d sunk $40,000 and nine months of precious nights and weekends that Jordan McDowell and William Bjork realized how hard it is to make a passive income selling things on Amazon.
The couple had hoped to strike it rich — or at least quit their day job s— buying goods from China and reselling them on the e-commerce site. Instead, they lost their savings. For that, they blame Matt Behdjou and Mike Gazzola.
In late 2016, McDowell and Bjork stumbled across a podcast hosted by Behdjou and Gazzola, normal guys who claimed they were making thousands of dollars working less than two hours a day on Amazon. The pair promised that anyone could do the same — all they needed to do was pay $3,999 for three months of coaching that would teach them everything they needed to know about the business. They’d learn how to source and ship a product from China, how to list it for an attractive markup on Amazon’s third-party marketplace , how to advertise it to consumers, and how to get them to leave good reviews. Amazon would take care of the logistics of storing and shipping, for a fee, through its Fulfillment by Amazon program. Behdjou and Gazzola even provided class participants with a manufacturing contact in China, and organized paid tours of Chinese merchandise markets.
At the time, the couple was living in a tiny New York apartment, struggling to make rent. McDowell was working a job she hated. Behdjou and Gazzola were offering a way out, and they seemed credible. They even posted screenshots showing the money they had made from selling supplements on Amazon. Bjork emailed a few people who had taken the class, all of whom said they were happy with their experience.
So the couple put the class fee on their credit card, started attending Monday night webinars, and picked their first two products: a glass wine decanter and plastic wine aerator, both sourced from China. Following Behdjou and Gazzola’s advice to purchase the minimum mass order possible, they ordered 3,000 decanters and 1,500 aerators and had them shipped directly to Amazon warehouses across the country, from which the company would send them directly to consumers.
Six months later, they had sold only about 100 decanters and a few hundred aerators. Customs taxes and shipping costs were starting to add up. The aerators kept breaking, and so Bjork and McDowell had to pay for returns. Amazon changed a seller fee of $39.99 a month, a per-piece fulfillment cost of a few dollars a unit, and a storage fee of 70 cents per cubic foot that increased during the holiday season. Then there was the cost of advertising, which they needed to actually get their product noticed amid the thicket of other people also selling wine accessories, also bought cheap from China, also on Amazon.
Maybe worst of all, the couple told me they were left alone to deal with all these headaches: Though their payment guaranteed them three months of coaching, they couldn’t reach Behdjou after the first few days, they say. (Behdjou disputes that he and Gazzola disappeared, writing in an email that all students get a response within 24 hours Monday through Friday.)
Within six months, McDowell and Bjork had spent nearly $40,000, with almost nothing to show for it. So they auctioned off what inventory they could, paid Amazon to destroy the rest, and got out of the business. “It’s not a passive income; [it’s] a ton of work,” McDowell told me. “We lost all our savings — everything we had.”
View: A visual story on the Amazon gold rush
They’re frustrated with Amazon, which they say is making money off the failures of people like them. But they’re even angrier with Behdjou and Gazzola and their company, which was, at the time, called Amazon Secrets. “It’s a scam,” McDowell said. “They take your money and don’t deliver.”
Behdjou and Gazzola deny these allegations. They say that one of the first things they teach students is to make sure the product will be profitable, and that anyone who loses money simply isn’t following their advice. Losing $40,000, Gazzola told me, would be very difficult following their methods. In an email, Behdjou told me that nearly 1,000 students have paid to receive training from him, with only a “small handful of complaints.” People are quick to complain when they aren’t making money, yet are less forthcoming when they succeed, he said. Some, he said, generate more than $200,000 a month in revenue.
Related video: The 7 things you need to know before selling anything on Amazon (provided by Real Simple)
Click to expand Replay Video UP NEXT 3 dead in California bowling alley shooting A shooting at Gable House Bowl in Torrance, California, left three dead and four people injured. CNN In rural Iowa town, Warren finds immigration key topic Sen. Elizabeth Warren campaigned in northwest Iowa as part of her inaugural appearances in the first presidential caucus state, where some of the key issues included immigration. The Washington Post Mulvaney says WH offer to Democrats: Steel, not concrete In an interview airing tomorrow on Meet the Press, Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney tells moderator Chuck Todd that the president is willing to “take a concrete wall off the table” in negotiations with Democratic leaders over the shutdown. NBC News 1 Cancel SETTINGS OFF HD HQ SD LO The 7 Things You Need to Know Before Selling Anything on Amazon Real Simple See more videos SHARE SHARE TWEET SHARE EMAIL What to watch next 3 dead in California bowling alley shooting CNN 0:52 In rural Iowa town, Warren finds immigration key topic The Washington Post 2:51 Mulvaney says WH offer to Democrats: Steel, not concrete NBC News 1:14 ‘Yellow vest’ protesters take to the streets of Paris for eighth week NBC News 1:00 Presidential hopeful Warren tests the waters in Iowa Reuters – US Video Online 2:00 Bluefin tuna sells for record $3 million at Tokyo fish market TODAY 0:24 ‘If we don’t work, we don’t get paid’ The Washington Post 2:06 Key takeaways from Trump amid the government shutdown The Washington Post 1:49 Fiery head on collision on Florida highway kills 5 children, 2 truck drivers NBC News 1:10 Trump slams reporter over wall: ‘I know you’re not in the construction business’ International Business Times 1:19 Trump says shutdown talks will go into weekend Associated Press 2:22 White Supremacist Says He Will Plead Guilty In Sword Killing CBS Baltimore 0:41 Video shows Taco Bell employee refuse to serve deaf man NBC News 0:56 Dems: Trump threaten shutdown for months or years Associated Press 1:26 Fed’s Powell says he would not resign if asked Reuters – US Video Online 1:05 Idaho woman investigated for her possible role in Colorado mom’s disappearance CBS News 2:44 UP NEXT Behdjou and Gazzola declined to put me in touch with any of their clients, even happy ones. But I spoke with 34-year-old Travis Tolman, who sells a travel product — he didn’t want me to say what specifically, in case competitors tried to copy him. He makes roughly $4,000 a month, he said — enough to allow him, his wife, and four children to leave Houston after Hurricane Harvey and travel throughout Southeast Asia for four months, working just an hour or two a day.
But Behdjou and Gazzola have a growing list of unhappy clients. One, Molly Cox, lost around $40,000 selling meal-prep containers on Behdjou and Gazzola’s advice. Others told me they’re out $4,000, $4,600, $9,000. In a secret Facebook group, dozens of them have gathered to discuss attempts to get their money back and seek advice about how to unload hundreds of unsold jar openers, locking carabiners, and lemon squeezers.
They all thought they’d bet on the right horse: Amazon captures nearly half of all online retail spending in the United States, and more than half of its sales come from third-party sellers. It’s where America shops online.
But if selling things on Amazon is the new internet gold rush, the web abounds with people pledging to help followers find the treasure, for a hefty fee. They have names like Amazing Wealth System and Sellers Playbook, and their pitch is not dissimilar from the various iterations of “make millions working from home” schemes that have cluttered chumboxes since the dawn of the internet. Yet instead of touting shadowy multilevel-marketing schemes or obvious scams, they’re pitching something we can all understand: Amazon, opaque as it is lucrative, and the bottomless appetite of the American consumer, who can’t seem to stop buying wine aerators and meal-prep containers and insulated water bottles. It’s an irresistible sell to a nation that loves the side hustle.
I n the first nine months of 2018, 48 consumers filed complaints with the Federal Trade Commission about “business opportunity schemes” regarding Amazon, according to data obtained in a Freedom of Information Act request filed by The Atlantic . That’s up from 18 in 2017, and 14 the year before that. Nearly half of those complainants say they lost more than $35,000. One of them, who described himself as a disabled veteran, lost $45,000 trying to sell a work-out kit on Amazon. Another said he had just lost his job, and used his retirement savings to pay for coaching.
In March, the FTC sued the three men behind Amazing Wealth System, alleging that it made unsubstantiated earnings claims. Vulnerable people — including retirees, students, and non-native English speakers — were lured in through free “Amazon workshops,” where they’d be pitched on a three-day, $1,995 seminar, according to a complaint filed by the Washington State attorney general. After that, the proprietors would offer more “education” packages that cost anywhere from $4,000 to $35,000, and would encourage people to apply for multiple credit cards or obtain third-party financing to pay for the workshops, according to the complaint. A settlement in June required the defendants to pay $10.8 million to the FTC. (In the settlement, the defendants neither admitted nor denied the underlying factual allegations.)
And in July, the agency charged Sellers Playbook, run by the former Apprentice contestant Jessie Conners Tieva and her husband, Matthew Tieva, with making false claims. According to the complaint , the Tievas charged customers up to $32,997 for Amazon coaching sessions, raking in more than $15 million through credit-card payments from April 2017 to May 2018. In November , a Minnesota district court required the defendants to surrender any assets related to the company, requesting $20.8 million in a judgment. (In the settlement, the defendants neither admitted nor denied the underlying factual allegations.)
Neither Matt Behdjou nor Mike Gazzola have been accused of any wrongdoing by the FTC. The agency prohibits deceiving customers about moneymaking potential, and requires that any earnings claims be supported by proof. But it leaves a crucial bit of wiggle room: If sellers say somewhere in tiny print that their method doesn’t work for everyone, they can still promote the stories of their successful clients without mentioning that hundreds of people have lost money. Behdjou and Gazzola both make those disclaimers in their promotional materials.
Amazon declined to provide comment about Behdjou or Gazzola. A spokesperson told me the company worked closely with the FTC to bring both of last year’s cases. Entrepreneurs and small businesses are important to Amazon, according to the spokesperson, “and we aggressively pursue those that attempt to harm their selling experience.”
I n 2016 and 2017, Behdjou and Gazzola were a coaching powerhouse — in the summer of 2017, their podcast about earning a passive income on Amazon reached No. 3 on Apple’s charts. But in February, they parted ways, and now offer competing coaching services, Amsecrets.com and Amsecrets.net, respectively. They say they’re both doing well on their own. Gazzola told me his videos have been downloaded “millions” of times and that he’s helped “thousands” of people; Behdjou, meanwhile, told me that he has trained “thousands upon thousands” with his free and paid classes.
Because Behdjou and Gazzola no longer work together, I spoke with them individually. Gazzola told me that in the beginning, the two just wanted to share the mistakes they had made selling on Amazon, so other people didn’t make the same ones. People need coaches, he said, because Amazon changes its rules so often that it can be difficult for an individual to keep up. But he still maintained that students could make a lot of money following his advice, and when people don’t succeed, it’s usually because they quit too early. “There’s no such thing as get rich quick,” he told me. “But it would be hard for you to fail if you literally worked your butt off.”
Behdjou told me largely the same thing: that many of his clients have actually made a lot of money selling on Amazon. He recently put out a series of video “case studies” with happy students, some of whom say they’re making hundreds of thousands of dollars. “You can’t deny video proof,” he said. Those who have failed selling on Amazon, he maintains, usually haven’t followed the steps he outlined. Besides, people who fail aren’t bitter, he said — they understand that selling on Amazon is a financial risk, and it’s a risk they’re willing to take. What’s more, it’s a risk they can afford. “Looking at people in the red, it’s not like they’re losing their shirts,” he told me. “It’s a loss anyone can take. It’s not like they’re losing their home because of this.”
Indeed, none of Behdjou and Gazzola’s former clients — those who paid thousands to join what the pair call the “Inner Circle”—told me they lost their home. But several lost their savings, or went into deep credit-card debt, or took time off from high-paying jobs to pursue what they thought was a can’t-miss opportunity.
It may seem surprising that so many people — many with stable finances and professional careers—gave money to two strangers they’d met on the internet. But Behdjou and Gazzola’s disappointed former clients told me it took them a while to discover the many obstacles to making a passive income on Amazon.
One of them is Jeffrey Sanders, a 61-year-old white-collar aerospace-industry worker who lives in Seattle. He told me he believes that Behdjou and Gazzola’s pitch is deceptive by design. Customers pay for three months of webinars and coaching, but, he told me, it takes much longer for products to actually arrive in Amazon’s warehouses from China and start selling. The fees from Amazon don’t start accumulating until then, either. (Gazzola disputes this, saying many people could actually start selling in two to three weeks.) By the time people realize that selling on Amazon is harder than it looks, he said, the three months have passed, credit-card companies won’t refund the money, and Behdjou and Gazzola tell clients they need to pay more for more advice. “They advertise all this money you’ll be making, but by the time the bottom drops out, they say, ‘Too bad, it’s been more than three months,’” he said. “It’s really the perfect scam.”
Eight former clients told me that Behdjou and Gazzola failed to deliver even on their promise of basic coaching. When the clients asked for help, they’d either be told that their coaching had expired, or given an answer that didn’t help at all. “They can help you with rudimentary problems,” said Sanders, who lost $4,000 trying to sell wine-bottle openers. “But as soon as it gets below surface depth, they have no answers.” He founded the secret Facebook group to share tips about solving problems Behdjou and Gazzola wouldn’t address, he said.
Brian Ash, who signed up for Amazon Secrets in October 2016 and tried to sell miniature camping tarps, told me that when he mentioned in a webinar that he was having trouble signing up to sell on Amazon, Behdjou’s solution was for him to email Jeff Bezos, the company’s CEO. He also told me that although Behdjou and Gazzola promised one-on-one coaching and small group sizes, they often took weeks to respond to questions. He and others were asked to write positive reviews of their coaching experience in exchange for a chance to win a financial prize that never materialized, he said. Ash said that it seemed that while the pair were good at marketing, they actually knew little about how Amazon worked. “I don’t want to sound like a sore loser, but it’s definitely deceptive,” he told me. “They hyped how easy it is and disguised the risks.”
Some of the advice Behdjou and Gazzola gave the group violated Amazon’s terms of service, Ash said. According to six former clients, Behdjou and Gazzola told them to use their Inner Circle Facebook page to encourage other members to buy their products and write five-star reviews, after which the sellers would compensate the buyer for the cost of the product through PayPal. Amazon has banned the practice of giving away products in exchange for reviews since 2016, but, according to the former students, Behdjou continued to tell them to use the method to boost reviews.
One former client sent me a dozen screenshots from Inner Circle members who had bought his product and asked to be compensated via Facebook in 2017, long after Amazon had changed its policies. (Gazzola told me that Behdjou handled the Facebook group, but Behdjou said that both were in charge of it. Behdjou said that he never advised students to compensate one another for products, or to solicit five-star reviews.) When Amazon figured out what the Inner Circle members were doing, it wiped the reviews from the site. Products without reviews rank lower in search results, so many clients saw a precipitous drop-off in sales as a result.
Molly Cox and her husband flew from Texas to China on a trip organized by Behdjou and Gazzola, only to find that the prices Quote: d by Behdjou and Gazzola’s Chinese suppliers were higher than ones they could find online, she said. Behdjou and Gazzola were often unavailable for questions, and when they were reachable, they gave bad advice, Cox told me. “They are selling free information, all of which you can find yourself online very easily,” she said. “But they package it up and market it as if it’s some secret that only they can tell you, which is very misleading.”
Behdjou told me, in an email, that he and Gazzola merely introduce clients to a sourcing agent, and that some students do find better pricing on their own. He again denied that he was unavailable for questions, and said that he never encouraged students to give away products in exchange for compensation. As for violating Amazon’s terms of service, he said, the rules change all the time, and he encourages students to understand them and keep up to date on changes.
Sanders said that Behdjou and Gazzola give students too little information about the challenges of selling on Amazon, though. They brag about how much money they’ve made, he said, yet seem unable to help most students follow a similar path, disappearing when complicated problems arise. Indeed, he said, they make struggling students feel like failure is their own fault — a way to mask their lack of knowledge about the intricacies of selling on Amazon. “They say, ‘Nobody else is having problems,’” he said. “‘It must be you.’”
I n late July , Behdjou invited me to attend his Ecommerce Mentors LIVE Mastermind seminar, held over two days at a Marriott in Woodland Hills, California, amid the sunny sprawl of the San Fernando Valley. It was free to Inner Circle members, though attendees still had to pay for their own airfare and lodging. About 50 of them had, coming from places as far as New York; one couple had driven all night from Arizona. They included an ER doctor who wanted a passive income so she could get a vacation home in Cancun, a young couple celebrating their wedding anniversary, and a man who owned a brick-and-mortar medical-supplies store trying to migrate his sales online.
Behdjou, who is 31, opened the seminar by repeatedly emphasizing his success stories. He pointed to two young men in the back of the room who he said were making $100,000 a month selling sunglasses on Amazon, and encouraged people to seek advice from those in the room who were “killing it” with their business. Another man, who said he’d made $30,000 from selling a wrist exerciser on Amazon, implored his fellow guests to “trust the process — it’s amazing.”
But most of the attendees were not so effusive. When Behdjou asked everyone in the room to introduce themselves, many said they were struggling. “I have launched, but I really need to crank up sales,” said Alicia Nager, a 52-year-old from New Jersey. She launched a knife-sharpener business in October 2017 after deciding to stay home with her son, who has juvenile Huntington’s disease. Another man noted that he’d made money in Bitcoin but hadn’t been able to crack Amazon yet, despite trying to sell vitamins for eight months. A Maryland woman, Allyson Pippin, who sells slime, said she was about ready to scrap her product and start all over. Henry Serrano, the man with the brick-and-mortar store, had spent $4,600 on wholesale medical kits, and hadn’t made any money back at all.
The first day of the seminar was broken up into lectures by Behdjou and other experts. Much of the content was focused on how sellers could get onto what those in the Amazon business reverently call “page one”: the first page of search results, placement on which is widely considered to be crucial to moving products. Their names included “Finding the Hottest Products that YOU can run on Page 1 in 10 days or less,” and “Keyword Research & Optimization for Page 1 Ranking.”
Behdjou’s spiel was similar to the one he gives online. “If you just stick with this, you will get amazing results,” he said. “It’s not going to guarantee that you make money. But it’s going to be very difficult to lose money.” He reminded attendees to pay for a subscription to a site called Jungle Scout, which monitors which Amazon stores have good sales, so they could then pick a product in one of those stores that can be retailed for five to 10 times what it costs to produce it in China. He advised clients to find keywords that will rank their product top in search results, and to offer discounts and giveaways that generate a lot of web traffic.
Behdjou is no stranger to coaching businesses. In October 2015, he paid $25,000 to attend a seminar put on by Russell Brunson, an author, an entrepreneur, and a self-described marketing expert. There, he met a few people who were making thousands of dollars selling stuff on Amazon, so he decided to try it out. He and Gazzola, who previously coached people on how to make money investing in real estate, started selling supplements on Amazon. In their first 90 days, they had $60,000 in sales, Behdjou told me. They launched their coaching program in 2016.
Yet Behdjou himself isn’t a particularly convincing authority. He loses his train of thought easily. His lectures are punctuated by phrases like “I forgot how I got sidetracked,” and “Where was I? What was my damn point?” He spent much of one session teaching attendees how to pick the right keywords to sell a baby carrier, because “anything having to do with babies is pretty much going to sell well”—but then seemed to know little about why people would buy baby carriers or what search terms they’d use. When attendees asked simple questions like how many words they could have in their product description, he didn’t know.
And then there are the everyday issues that come with shipping and selling internationally: People at the seminar told me the products they’d ordered from China were defective, and customers started leaving bad reviews. Or they got hit with a copyright-infringement lawsuit and Amazon took down their listing, even if they’d diligently researched their product to make sure it did not violate any copyrights. Advertising on Amazon is necessary and expensive, storage fees are unavoidable, and new competitors pop up every day undercutting prices.
“It’s not as easy as it looks,” said Nager. Though Behdjou said at the seminar that people who followed his methods “will always get to page one” of search results, Nager said she had never made it anywhere close. Altogether, she’d spent around $4,000 on her product, shipping, and storage, and $5,000 on the class. She doesn’t blame Behdjou completely—Amazon’s algorithm changes all the time, the page-one system is nebulous, and what it takes to sell products is changing as more sellers go online. But, she told me, “there is a little bit of deceit to it. They’re making it out to be a little easier than it is. I don’t even know if they really know what they’re doing.” After attending the seminar in Woodland Hills, Nager decided to give up selling on Amazon. Her disabled son is requiring more and more care, she said, and it turns out that selling things on Amazon is actually closer to a full-time job.
Behdjou disputes all these accounts. He told me that Nager must not have read his disclaimers that say selling on Amazon is not a get-rich scheme. He said that he, like all entrepreneurs, is learning and growing, and never claimed to know everything. And when I expressed doubt that it was easy to make a passive income on Amazon without working very hard, he wrote to me this: “That’s funny my new store is doing 100k per month on Amazon and I work on it maybe 3 hours per week because I have a team who handles it for me. So I can easily prove that it is very possible to make passive income with Amazon.”
Many of the seminar attendees I interviewed seemed determined to keep following Behdjou’s methods on Amazon, even if it cost them more money. When I asked Pippin why she thought her slime hadn’t sold, even though she’d followed Behdjou’s advice, she blamed herself. She’d picked the wrong item, she said, and because she works a 9-to-5 job as an IT consultant, she hasn’t been able to put in the hours at night to work on her site. Like many of the clients I spoke with, she had come to the seminar because her products weren’t selling, and emerged from it more determined than ever to make her business work. The world is moving online, Pippin told me, and she doesn’t want to miss out. “Amazon is going to take over the world,” she told me.
I t may seem obvious to an outsider that most people aren’t going to become rich by selling things on Amazon. But that’s the thing about gold rushes: Some people do find gold, and it is sometimes hard to tell what distinguishes the people who make it from those who don’t. Travis Tolman, the travel-product seller, is about to launch his second product on Amazon, and said he thinks he’ll be able to make about $8,000 a month. When I asked him why he succeeded while so many others at the seminar failed, he said he wasn’t quite sure. “I think I just did a really good job of following directions,” he told me.
There’s something uniquely American about believing that with a little bit of hard work, anybody can make money fast. In the 19th century, advertisements promised people exclusive selling rights to a certain product, for a fee. They’d pay the money, and then find out that the product didn’t exist, or that dozens of other people were selling it. “In the U.S., the depth of commitment to social mobility and uplift seems to give some degree of distinctiveness to how fraud operates,” said Edward J. Balleisen, a professor at Duke University who has written a book on the history of fraud in America.
The success of the Amazon-coaching market says something about the current state of the economy. As the American middle class disappears , many people feel as if they’ve lost their financial footing and are seeking an easy shortcut back to stability. “The best indicator of whether someone will be amenable to being defrauded has to do with financial insecurity,” David Vladeck, the former director of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, who is now a professor at Georgetown, told me.
Earning extra money is especially appealing to people who look around during economic booms, see all the people benefiting, and wonder how they can benefit, too. They hear the pitch and think they are that one gold digger who is going to strike it rich. “There is a really strong democratic ethos that suffuses the marketing—anyone can do this, you just have to have the guts,” Balleisen said.
It’s not low-income people who fall victim to online frauds, Vladeck said—they don’t have the thousands of dollars needed to pay scammers in the first place. It’s people who have a little bit of extra money, and want to invest it to get more breathing room. When, during the Great Recession, millions of families lost jobs or saw their income reduced, business-opportunity scams proliferated, he said. Many of the people I talked to at the seminar said they just wanted a little bit more money than they had — to build a bigger retirement fund, work less, buy a vacation home.
Investigating potential fraud is hard: Regulators have to find the bad actors, get proof of the claims they made, subpoena their records, talk to credit-card companies, see how many of their clients actually lost money, and engage in the thorny business of separating the criminally defrauded from the merely naive. The Federal Trade Commission is staffed “significantly” below where it was in the early 1980s, Vladeck said. And it can be difficult for investigators to even learn about get-rich-quick schemes because so many people are embarrassed that they’ve been so gullible.
“One of the constant themes is the silent sucker — the person who was taken in but doesn’t want anyone to know,” Balleisen told me. Today’s America is very pro-entrepreneur, anti–big government; many Americans don’t have sympathy for people who lose their money to these kinds of schemes, he said. We celebrate the self-made man who starts a successful business from scratch, but mock the people who get duped trying to do the same thing. No one wants to admit that they’re the only one who can’t make it work.
T he Internet has made it easier for salesmen like Behdjou and Gazzola to find a potential audience, but it has also made it easier for those who believe they have been victimized to find one another. One D.C. woman who lost thousands trying to sell balance boards on Amazon with Behdjou and Gazzola’s help told me that she might still be trying to sell on Amazon had she not been invited to Jeffrey Sanders’s secret Facebook group. In the original Inner Circle Facebook group, everybody was positive, she said, and no one discussed the troubles they were going through. It wasn’t until she signed onto Sanders’s group that she realized that lots of other people were losing money, she said.
Behdjou seems determined to quiet malcontents. Though people who paid to take the class were guaranteed “lifetime” membership in the Amazon Secrets Inner Circle Facebook page, he kicked out anyone who joined Sanders’s separate Facebook group, McDowell, Ash, and Sanders told me. In emails to his original Facebook group, Behdjou warned members that they were allowed to post only “POSITIVE” comments, and that he had a “zero tolerance” rule for negativity. He demanded that Sanders shut down his separate Facebook group, saying another client asked for a refund after seeing that group. “We do not want any of our members in that group under any circumstances,” he wrote to Sanders. Behdjou told me, in an email, that coaches were available to answer questions about setbacks, and that he was trying to create a positive environment in the Facebook group. “If anyone was removed it was for good reason,” he wrote. He acknowledged that he had told Sanders to shut down the secret Facebook group, and said that group was in violation of the terms of the class.
In August 2017, Nick Sanders, Jeffrey Sanders’s youngest son, responded to a Quora thread asking if amazonsecrets.net is a “get rich quick” scheme. In it, Sanders alleged that Gazzola and Behdjou had breached contracts with customers, censored criticism, and faked podcast reviews, and that when he traveled with them on a trip to China, they wrote him a $2,000 check that bounced. They sued him for libel. In the lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court in October, Behdjou and Gazzola alleged that Sanders’s Quora post has lost them $300,000 in revenue. Gazzola told me that Sanders is a “disgruntled employee” and said that his check bounced because Sanders had tried to cash an American check in China. In separate court filings, Sanders denied all of Behdjou’s and Gazzola’s allegations and requested that the court dismiss the libel suit. The case is currently stayed, pending Sanders’s appeal of the trial court’s rejection of his motion to dismiss.
Yet below Sanders’s Quora post, there are other skeptics of Behdjou and Gazzola, as well as many answers supportive of the pair. One supporter of Behdjou and Gazzola, “ Huxley Finch ,” is accompanied by a photo that appears to be of a Yemeni boy who talks in a BBC video about cutting off his leg to escape a burning building after a bombing; another, “Nail Brain,” uses a photo of a male model named Heath Hutchins; another, “ Tomas Kulo ,” is accompanied by a photo of Jeff Bezos. (Some of the accounts that support Behdjou and Gazzola are real—I corresponded over email with an actor named Anthony Preston, who told me that “their coaching is stellar and I’ve made good money on products.”)
While the Sanderses characterize Behdjou as confrontational, in person, he can be affable and relaxed, and admits that as Amazon changes, he’s trying to understand the changes, too. Watching some of his and Gazzola’s early videos , it’s easy to see why someone might sign up for the class: Dressed in button-down shirts in a dimly lit room, speaking earnestly into a webcam, they seem like two average guys who had cracked the code and wanted to share their knowledge. They would talk about how many people had tried to get into the course and how many weren’t able to join, and listeners might feel as if they’d stumbled across one of those rare and wonderful secrets of the internet.
“Time freedom is more valuable than anything,” Behdjou says in the introductory video for his solo project, telling people that if they work all the time and don’t see their spouse and kids, “that is not living.” He talks about how he’s now able to take care of his mother, pay her rent every month, and buy her a new car. “It’s up to you to decide whether you want to be typical or nontypical,” he says. He has figured out how to sell something online that people didn’t need, and he is making a good living doing it. For all the people out there who don’t believe in what he does, Behdjou is living proof: There are people out there willing to give away their money online. You just have to perfect the art of the sell.
Alana Semuels is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was previously a national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times.