On Amazon, fake authors and plagiarized books ride wave of coronavirus interest

At first glance, Richard J. Baily’s book, “Coronavirus: Everything You Need to Know About the Wuhan Corona Virus and How to Prevent It,” appears to be an authoritative deep dive on how to prepare for the pandemic.

The book was the top “coronavirus” search result on Amazon for many users Tuesday — and not just in Amazon’s books section. The guidebook appeared before Clorox wipes and hand sanitizer, let alone any book written by a doctor or public health specialist. The first pages are filled with a well-written, useful primer called “What is Coronavirus?”

The book, however, isn’t what it appears to be. Each of the book’s chapters were directly plagiarized from other parts of the web. The first two chapters were lifted verbatim from NBC News stories by Erika Edwards and Sara Miller published in late January. The third chapter, which is dedicated to cleaning tips, was ripped from the website for Nancy’s Cleaning Services, a housekeeping company based in California. The remainder of the book is plagiarized verbatim from articles on ChinaLawBlog.com and The Guardian, according to a copy seen by NBC News.

Other books that appeared high on Amazon search results had similar issues, as well as authors whose identities could not be verified. The listings highlight the challenge that Amazon has faced as consumers have turned to the company for a variety of goods and information related to the new coronavirus.

Amazon has taken action to limit price gouging and removed more than 1 million products for making misleading claims.

But its books section appeared to have little oversight. Baily did not write the book and does not appear to exist. A book with a nearly verbatim product description, titled “COVID 19 Coronavirus: All you need to know and how to protect your family from it,” was published on Amazon by the author “Gerald Lim Wang.” That book, which was 31 pages long, was deleted from Amazon on March 9.

No contact information is provided for Baily or Wang, who both have empty author pages with no biographical details. The contents of the books offer no credentials for their authors. The books do not appear to have a traditional publisher, and orders for physical copies of the books are printed using an on-demand book printing service. They range in price from $5 to $12, but are free for those with a subscription to Amazon’s books rental service Kindle Unlimited, which pays authors a commission for every loan.

Baily’s book was taken down Wednesday, after NBC News reached out to Amazon for comment. But the top of Amazon’s search rankings for “coronavirus” are currently filled with similarly plagiarized books by pseudonymous people or fake identities, NBC News found.

Some of the books on coronavirus that came up during a recent search. (Amazon.com screenshot)
Some of the books on coronavirus that came up during a recent search. (Amazon.com screenshot)

An Amazon spokesperson said the company uses a combination of automated and human moderation tools to find and remove content that violates its guidelines.

“Amazon maintains content guidelines for the books it sells, and we continue to evaluate our catalog, listening to customer feedback. We have always required sellers, authors and publishers to provide accurate information on product detail pages, and we remove those that violate our policies,” an Amazon spokesperson said.

“In addition, at the top of relevant search results pages we are linking to CDC advice where customers can learn more about the virus and protective measures.”

Plagiarized books by nonexistent authors clogging the top of Amazon search results have become a familiar problem to real, independent authors who try to sell books on Amazon. Fake e-books, frequently plagiarized from original works, often crowd out authentic books and products at the top of Amazon pages.

During a mass health emergency, the plagiarized e-books could be filled with unreliable information, and drown out higher ranking products that could better safeguard the public. But Nate Hoffelder, the founder and editor of the e-reader site The Digital Reader, said similar scams have been going on at Amazon for years.

“Most of Amazon's e-book competitors have a content approval process in place that keeps the worst content out,” Hoffelder said. “After 10 years of watching the internet grow and change, I have come to the conclusion that the platform is the issue. Internet companies try to run huge automated systems with little human oversight, and scammers can take advantage of the algorithms.”

Other platforms, like YouTube, have taken steps to prohibit users from profiting from coronavirus content. While creators are still allowed to upload coronavirus videos to YouTube, running ads along with them was disallowed, though the company said Wednesday it would begin allowing ads for some partners and creators.

Hoffelder said that the first time he remembered fake books being uploaded to Amazon’s store was in 2015, when users were creating short books and putting them on Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited subscription platform. Scammers were paid every time one of the books was loaned out using the program. Each of the plagiarized coronavirus books NBC News noticed in the first page of search results were eligible for a loan using Kindle Unlimited.

“I don't know if it's a case of can't or won't,” Hoffelder said. “What I do know is that Amazon is the only retailer with this problem. They have the lion's share of the e-book market revenue, and could easily afford to use the same quality assurance processes as their competitors, and yet they still have this problem.”

Baily and Wang are not the only pseudonymous or nonexistent authors to take over the first page of results about the coronavirus on Amazon. “Dr. Kashif Saeed’s” book shares an almost identical description to Baily’s, except for several grammatical errors. “Coronavirus is that the word that's one everyone’s lips immediately,“ the typo-ridden first line of the book’s description reads. “Saeed’s” other books alternately claim he is a veterinarian and a social media marketing and SEO expert.

Other books, like “Ramond Moroe’s” 38-page e-book “Sheild (sic) Against Corona-Virus: The Best Guide Ever (2020)” are littered with typos when they’re not directly plagiarizing news articles.

“In this book you will found a natural way to stay safe, all you needs to do is ..CLICK add to cart,” the description reads. The book frequently appears in the first page of search results when users query “coronavirus.” It was the eighth-ranked product on a sitewide Amazon search for “coronavirus” at publication time.

Some of the plagiarized books are filled with unintelligible 5-star reviews, which can help boost their rankings in search results.

“This book extremely extraordinary, in the wake of perusing this book I am so intrigued,” reads one review of Baily’s top-ranked e-book. “On account of the writer and would prescribed for this book to anybody. Many thanks to the author for giving us such a beautiful book.”

Hoffelder said scammers always appear to be “one step ahead of Amazon’s changing rules.”

“It seems like there's a new con every other year or so, and that every time Amazon swats one, the cheaters invent a new one,” he said. “The problem with scammers in the Kindle Store was the Kindle Store.”