Jeffrey Zeldman Presents The Daily Report

18 February 2004 10 am est

Amazon tax gaffe: from hero to zero

Amazon is a super-savvy Internet company, except when they screw up. I, along with other Amazon Associates, am now reeling from the double whammy of a database error compounded by unusable voice mail.


It goes on to say that, “twice within three years,” the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has told Amazon that the taxpayer identification number they have on file for me does not match my name.

The notice lists my taxpayer number as 000000000.

Amazon is not being coy, nor did the company print 000000000 to protect my tax identification number from prying eyes. There is apparently a problem with one of Amazon’s databases.

And now it is my problem. To clear up the mess, I must have the friendly folks at the IRS file an official form with Amazon before the middle of next month, or various financial penalties will be applied to my account. The notice goes on to talk about “penalties of perjury” and uses other language most often heard inside a criminal courtroom.

Although the document is labelled a Second B Notice, it’s the first I’ve heard of it. Probably Second B Notice is simply a name, even though it sounds like “second notice to the customer.”

My taxpayer identification number has not changed since I was sixteen. I’ve participated in Amazon’s Associates program since 1997. An Amazon database seems to have hiccupped, and, instead of catching the mistake, Amazon has dragged me and the IRS into it.

On the back of the form, a phone number is listed, and I’m permitted to call [name field left blank] if I have “any questions.”

Fearing that the whole thing might be a scam to harvest social security numbers, made by a company spoofing Amazon, I did a whois to see if the phone number listed looked anything like Amazon’s. It did, so I called.

On the first attempt, I got a voice mail message that ran roughly as follows: “Welcome to the Amazon Tax Identification Number line. Please leave your name, phone number and area code, social security number or tax identification number, and a complete description of your problem, and state whether or not you need someone to return your call.”

The punchline followed: “You will have twelve seconds to leave your message.” BEEP!

I got my name and part of my phone number out before the 12-second cutoff.

As the automated next step message began to play, my little dog barked once.

Brief as it was, that wee bark obliterated whatever Amazon’s automated message had intended to tell me.

So I waited for the message to repeat, as is customary on any voice mail system created since the early 1970s, when it was all tape and punchcards.

The message never repeated.

I stared at the telephone handset, thinking surely it would loop around again. If I phoned a one-man auto body shop in a remote corner of Haiti, its voice mail would offer me more than one chance to send my message, or re-record it, or talk to an operator. Amazon’s tax line doesn’t. One shot is what you got.

Hung up. Dialed again. Same initial instructions, same follow-up warning that I would have twelve seconds to leave a detailed message. But now a third voice entered the choir. It said: “The voice mail box you have called is full.” I was given the option to contact the front desk or hang myself. I went for the front desk.

...Where a new message announced that no one was working at the front desk, and provided various numbers I might punch if I wished to inquire about something I’d purchased. There was no way back to the previous number. If Amazon’s website worked like its voice mail, Jeff Bezos would be staggering around Seattle’s Pike Street Market in a poncho, hitting tourists for spare change.

I made a third attempt to contact Amazon by phone, then gave the problem to Jesus.

If the voice mail box had not been full, I might think I was the only one blindsided by an Amazon database error. But the box was full, suggesting that I am not alone. If ten thousand Amazon Associates all got the same Second B Notice, and if even a tenth of them were able to leave incomplete, twelve-second-long voice mail messages, someone at Amazon will get a clue. Phone system and scary form letters aside, Amazon is a damn good, damn smart company.

Phone system and scary form letters aside.

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