Tuesday, October 9, 2012

She Works Hard for the Money

If you are reading this post, you've likely encountered one of Harriet Klausner's 28,000+ Amazon reviews.  You may have seen statistics about how many books a day she'd have to be reading, to post that many reviews, or maybe you've tried to crunch the numbers yourself.  You may also have noticed a number of Hattie's reviews appearing on, or even BEFORE the books' release dates.  No one is convinced that Hattie has actually read all of the books she's supposedly reviewing.  And many people have speculated that she receives free advance review copies from publishers.

But have you ever wondered what she DOES with all those books after she "reviews" them?  I have maybe 750 books in my condo, and they take up six full-size bookcases and one half-size bookcase.  28,000 books is more than 37 times the number of books I own.  And if one of her books takes up about the same amount of space as one of mine does, that's over 240 bookcases.  (And that's not counting the books she says she doesn't review because she can't give them four or five stars!)  She doesn't keep the books.  She sells them.

I'm not the first person to have said that.  But I wanted to dig a little deeper.  I wanted proof.  And I found it.

Right now, we're going to take a little detour into Hattie's personal life.  Why?  Because her fraud is so brazen that it took me less than fifteen minutes to figure out where she's selling a lot of the books she's receiving free from publishers.  The trail really grew warm when I started piecing together details she's shared about herself online.  Hattie has always been open about the fact that she currently resides in Georgia.  She's also mentioned her husband Stan and that she has a son in her profiles on some of the umpteen-million review sites she frequents.  Well, just look at any free people search site and you can find her address.  You actually find three people with the same address and the last name "Klausner."  We know Stan, and we know Hattie, so the Eric who also shows up must be her son.  On a few review websites she participates in, she mentions that her son was born the same day the Three Mile Island meltdown started.  That allows us to pinpoint an exact birth date for him: March 28, 1979.

Now, think for a moment about how people choose usernames online.  Often they involve first names, initials, birth years, etc.  So imagine my utter shock and surprise (that's supposed to be sarcastic, folks) to find a half.com user in Georgia (Atlanta area) called eric_k1979, who was selling lots and lots of books.  Who has over 7,500 eBay feedback ratings.  I could go on, but you get the idea.  But I wanted to investigate further.  So I started checking the titles eric_k1979 had for sale against Hattie's reviews on Amazon.  Here's a table compiled from the listings as of October 4, 2012:

Title Author HK Amazon Review Date Release Date
The Darling Dahlias and the Confederate Rose Albert, Susan Wittig 9/4/12 9/4/12
The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets Alcott, Kathleen 9/11/12 9/11/12
Fall from Grace Arthurson, Wayne none 8/7/12
How a Lady Weds a Rogue Ashe, Katharine none 9/25/12
Desire the Night Ashley, Amanda 9/4/12 9/1/12
Miss Dimple Rallies to the Cause : A Mystery Ballard, Mignon F. 11/22/11 11/22/11
The Fireman Who Loved Me Bernard, Jennifer 4/24/12 4/24/12
Bloodline Billingham, Mark 7/11/12 7/14/11
Hearts of Darkness Brady, Kira 8/7/12 8/7/12
Past Continuous Breese, K. Ryer 11/8/11 11/8/11
Perilous Pleasures No. 3 Brown, Jenny 3/27/12 3/27/12
The Zurich Conspiracy Calonego, Bernadette 6/19/12 6/19/12
Termination Orders Camargo, Caio none 10/2/12
Gustav Gloom and the People Taker Castro, Adam-Troy 8/16/12 8/16/12
The Tyrant Chessex, Jacques 4/9/12 4/10/12
An Autobiography Christie, Agatha 11/22/11 11/22/11
Have You Seen Marie? Cisneros, Sandra 10/2/12 10/2/12
Heaven Should Fall Coleman, Rebecca 9/25/12 9/25/12
When the Night Comencini, Cristina 4/24/12 4/24/12
Micro Crichton, Michael 9/25/12 9/25/12
Other Eyes D'Amato, Barbara 1/22/11 1/18/11
Close Enough to Touch Dahl, Victoria 8/28/12 8/28/12
Falling Together : A Novel De Los Santos, Marisa 10/5/11 10/4/11
The Mirrored World : A Novel Dean, Debra 9/20/12 8/28/12
First, Best and Only Delinsky, Barbara none 3/1/12
Me, You DeLuca, Erri 11/8/11 11/1/11
Where the Trail Ends : American Tapestries Dobson, Melanie 9/21/12 10/1/12
Loose Cannon : The Tom Kelly Novels Drake, David 7/1/11 7/5/11
In for a Ruble No. 2 Duffy, David 9/14/12 7/17/12
Spycatcher Dunn, Matthew 8/9/11 8/9/11
Sentinels: Tiger Bound 142 Durgin, Doranna 7/24/12 7/24/12
The King's Damsel Emerson, Kate 8/7/12 8/7/12
The Devil Delivered and Other Tales Erikson, Steven 6/19/12 6/19/12
Homesick Fernando, Roshi 7/17/12 7/17/12
Darkwater Fisher, Catherine 9/27/12 9/27/12
Saving Ruth Fishman, Zoe 5/1/12 5/1/12
Can't Stop Loving You Ford, Bette 1/31/12 1/31/12
Ranchero Gavin, Rick 10/2/12 10/2/12
Hideout George, Kathleen 6/19/12 6/19/12
The Vampire Dimitri Gleason, Colleen 4/18/11 4/19/11
The Vampire Narcise Gleason, Colleen 5/27/11 5/24/11
A Cold Day in Paradise : An Alex Mcknight Novel No. 1 Hamilton, Steve 5/22/12 5/22/12
Finding Mercy Harper, Karen * 10/16/12
Speechless Harrington, Hannah 8/28/12 8/28/12
Dead by Midnight Hart, Carolyn G. 4/1/11 3/29/11
Rest for the Wicked No. 20 Hart, Ellen 10/2/12 10/2/12
Forever Werewolf/Moon Kissed Hauf, Michele 9/18/12 9/18/12
Vacation with a Vampire : Stay Vivi and the Vampire Island Vacation 139 Hauf, Michele 6/18/12 6/19/12
Queen of Kings Headley, Maria Dahvana 5/10/12 5/1/12
A Long Way from You Heasley, Gwendolyn 6/5/12 6/5/12
The Dark Earl Henley, Virginia 9/8/11 9/6/11
The Last Four Things Hoffman, Paul none 8/4/11
Autumn Winds Hubbard, Charlotte 9/5/12 9/4/12
My Lord Vampire Ivy, Alexandra 2/28/12 3/1/12
Practically Wicked Johnson, Alissa 10/2/12 10/2/12
Detroit Breakdown Johnson, D.E. 9/4/12 9/4/12
Shifting Plains Johnson, Jean 11/7/09 11/3/09
Measure of Darkness Jordan, Chris 11/15/11 11/15/11
Invisible Murder Kaaberbol, Lene 10/2/12 10/2/12
The Investigation of Ariel Warning Kalich, Robert 4/27/12 4/19/12
Fire Kissed Kellison, Erin none 7/3/12
Countdown: H Hour Kratman, Tom none 7/31/12
Earthblood and Other Stories Laumer, Keith none 1/31/12
Imperium Laumer, Keith none 7/31/12
The Lost Artist Lukasik, Gail 9/23/12 6/6/12
Dragon's Curse 140 Lynn, Denise 6/19/12 6/19/12
The Vampire Combat Manual : A Guide to Fighting the Bloodthirsty Undead Ma, Roger none 10/2/12
Lifting the Wheel of Karma : A Tormented Boy Embarks on a Profound Journey of Extraordinary Healling and Enlightenment Magid, Paul H. 9/14/12 9/23/12
The Mermaid Collector Marks, Erika 10/2/12 10/2/12
Paradise City : A Joe Gunther Novel Mayor, Archer 10/2/12 10/2/12
The Formula for Murder McCleary, Carol 7/17/12 7/17/12
Goodnight Tweetheart Medeiros, Teresa 12/16/10 12/14/10
The Slayer Meyers, Theresa 4/1/12 4/3/12
The Messenger Miller, Stephen 7/31/12 7/31/12
Om Love Minot, George 8/14/12 8/14/12
Merge / Disciple : Two Short Novels from Crosstown to Oblivion Mosley, Walter 10/2/12 10/2/12
The Book of the Night No. 3 of 3 North, Pearl 9/4/12 9/4/12
Ice and Shadow Norton, Andre 8/7/12 8/7/12
The Lincoln Conspiracy : A Novel O'Brien, Timothy L. 9/18/12 9/18/12
Sacrifice Fly O'Mara, Tim none 10/16/12
Strange Flesh Olson, Michael 4/3/12 4/3/12
Silent House Pamuk, Orhan 10/8/12 10/9/12
Dark Shadows : Angelique's Descent Parker, Lara 5/16/12 4/10/12
Dark Shadows : The Salem Branch Parker, Lara 7/12/06 7/11/06
Supernatural: Rite of Passage Passarella, John 8/14/12 8/14/12
Melt into You Plumley, Lisa 5/1/12 5/1/12
Hellbox Pronzini, Bill 7/10/12 7/3/12
The Wreckage : A Thriller Robotham, Michael 6/18/11 6/16/11
Season for Surrender Romain, Theresa 10/2/12 10/2/12
A Woman's Heart Ross, JoAnn none 9/25/12
Triple Crossing Rotella, Sebastian 8/8/11 8/10/11
Confessions of an Angry Girl Rozett, Louise 9/12/12 8/28/12
A Kingdom Divided : Empire of the Moghul 2 Rutherford, Alex 7/9/11 7/5/11
Nerve Ryan, Jeanne 9/27/12 9/13/12
Upgunned Schow, David J. 2/14/12 2/14/12
Sidney Sheldon's Angel of the Dark Sheldon, Sidney 4/3/12 4/3/12
Suzy's Case : A Novel Siegel, Andy none 7/10/12
Downward to the Earth Silverberg, Robert none 8/7/12
Games Traitors Play Stock, Jon 3/27/12 3/27/12
Death on Telegraph Hill : A Sarah Woolson Mystery No. 5 Tallman, Shirley * 10/16/12
Darkest Desire Taylor, Tawny 9/8/12 8/28/12
Sweet Laurel Falls Thayne, RaeAnne 9/25/12 9/25/12
Queen of the Waves : American Tapestries Thompson, Janice 10/1/12 10/1/12
Rain Falls Like Mercy Todd, Jack 11/8/11 11/8/11
Exiled: Clan of the Claw Turtledove, Harry none 6/26/12
Golden Reflections Turtledove, Harry none 12/27/11
The Covert Wolf 141 Vanak, Bonnie 7/25/12 7/24/12
A Sweethaven Homecoming Walsh, Courtney 8/1/12 8/1/12
The Wolf Princess/One Eye Open Whiddon, Karen 9/18/12 9/18/12
The News from Spain : Seven Variations on a Love Story Wickersham, Joan * 10/9/12
Hostage Wiesel, Elie 8/21/12 8/21/12
Table for Five Wiggs, Susan 3/30/05 4/1/05
The Anatomy of Death Young, Felicity 5/1/12 5/1/12

* indicates a title went on sale on Half.com at least five days before its release date.  For volumes with multiple authors, only the first author's name is given.

I know not all of the titles on this list have been reviewed by Hattie on Amazon.com.  The data in the above table for review dates is accurate as of October 5, 2012.  Embee has found that at least one of the books lacking an Amazon review was reviewed on another site.  But a quick count reveals that 93 out of 113 of these do have HK reviews on Amazon.  That's 82.3%.  Pay particular attention to the following titles:
  • Finding Mercy by Karen Harper (eric_k1979 $2.00, MSRP $14.95, Amazon $10.17)
  • Silent House by Orhan Pamuk (eric_k1979 $10.00, MSRP $26.95, Amazon $15.84)
  • Death on Telegraph Hill by Shirley Tallman (eric_k1979 $9.00, MSRP $24.99, Amazon $13.88)
  • The News from Spain by Joan Wickersham (eric_k1979 $7.00, MSRP $24.95, Amazon $14.01)
Why?  Half.com user eric_k1979 had these books for sale BEFORE THEY WERE EVEN RELEASED.  Finding Mercy didn't even have a release date yet, when I started compiling this data (however, a release date has since been set at October 16, 2012).  From time to time, I have been in a bookstore the weekend before a book was due to be released, and seen that book on a shelf.  But never more than 3 or 4 days before the release was due.

Consider this, as well: our friend Hattie cannot have bought these four books from Amazon, because they weren't out yet at the time of listing on Half.com, which means IF she did not receive them free from publishers, she would've plunked down $91.84 plus tax at bookstores that JUST HAPPENED to have put these out accidentally a minimum of 5 days, and possibly up to 12 days, before their release dates.  And if she manages to sell them all at the prices listed above, she'd be getting a maximum of $28 back.  That's a loss of $63.84, if they'd been bought at the MSRP.  And that's just four books. Considering the sheer volume of books listed by this user, and the volume of books "reviewed" by HK, she'd be losing thousands -- even tens of thousands -- of dollars a year.  Unless, as many people suspect, she's not paying for these books in the first place.  In which case she'd be turning a tidy profit from re-selling her advance review copies.

But wait, you say.  All I have to go on is a user name that happens to match her son's first name, a last initial, and a birth date.  "Eric" is a common name, there are plenty of last names that start with "K," and there are plenty of people in the Atlanta area who were born in 1979.  Couldn't this all be a big coincidence (even allowing for the fact that HK reviewed 82.3% of the books eric_k1979 had for sale on October 4)?

So I took it a step further.  I actually purchased two books from eric_k1979.

Here is the return address label from the box they arrived in; the street address, which I have blacked out, matches EXACTLY the address in the White Pages for Hattie, husband Stan, and son Eric.  And the sender's last name, you can see for yourself.



The books did not look as if they had been read, although Hattie did post reviews for them on Amazon.  But perhaps even more damning is the publicity material folded up and stuffed between the pages of one of the books.  I have NEVER seen such material except in the context of an advance review copy of a book I received, free of charge, from a publisher, in exchange for writing a review.  You don't just find this type of material stuffed in books you pick up at Barnes and Noble.  Below are scans of a couple of pages of this (note, this particular book is not my type of reading material...):




So, we have evidence that our friend Hattie receives advance review copies of books from publishers, and that she sells them after posting reviews.  Except for a small number of books Hattie has received through the Amazon Vine program, her reviews NEVER include disclosure that she has received free copies of the books in exchange for writing reviews.  And THIS is a violation of Federal Trade Commission Guidelines, as described in the CFR, or Code of Federal Regulations.  Example 8 from 16 CFR section 255.0 says:
"A consumer who regularly purchases a particular brand of dog food decides one day to purchase a new, more expensive brand made by the same manufacturer. She writes in her personal blog that the change in diet has made her dog's fur noticeably softer and shinier, and that in her opinion, the new food definitely is worth the extra money. This posting would not be deemed an endorsement under the Guides.

Assume that rather than purchase the dog food with her own money, the consumer gets it for free because the store routinely tracks her purchases and its computer has generated a coupon for a free trial bag of this new brand. Again, her posting would not be deemed an endorsement under the Guides.

Assume now that the consumer joins a network marketing program under which she periodically receives various products about which she can write reviews if she wants to do so. If she receives a free bag of the new dog food through this program, her positive review would be considered an endorsement under the Guides."
Clearly, HK falls into the third category.  So her positive reviews of the books she receives for free constitute endorsements.  And what else does the US government have to say about endorsements?

From 16 CFR section 255.5:
"When there exists a connection between the endorser and the seller of the advertised product that might materially affect the weight or credibility of the endorsement ( i.e. , the connection is not reasonably expected by the audience), such connection must be fully disclosed."
And Example 7, from the same section:
"A college student who has earned a reputation as a video game expert maintains a personal weblog or “blog” where he posts entries about his gaming experiences. Readers of his blog frequently seek his opinions about video game hardware and software. As it has done in the past, the manufacturer of a newly released video game system sends the student a free copy of the system and asks him to write about it on his blog. He tests the new gaming system and writes a favorable review. Because his review is disseminated via a form of consumer-generated media in which his relationship to the advertiser is not inherently obvious, readers are unlikely to know that he has received the video game system free of charge in exchange for his review of the product, and given the value of the video game system, this fact likely would materially affect the credibility they attach to his endorsement. Accordingly, the blogger should clearly and conspicuously disclose that he received the gaming system free of charge. The manufacturer should advise him at the time it provides the gaming system that this connection should be disclosed, and it should have procedures in place to try to monitor his postings for compliance."
Now, our friend Hattie has certainly earned a reputation for "reviewing" books.  28,083 as of this writing, and that's just the ones posted on Amazon.com.  Below are screen shots for Hattie's reviews of the books I purchased from eric_k1979.





I don't see any disclosure (I've purposefully cropped the images to show content above and below, so I can't be accused of cropping out said disclosure).  And I sure as hell don't believe that Amazon (or any publisher) has procedures in place to monitor HK's postings for compliance.

So there you have it:
  1. HK receives advance review copies of books from publishers
  2. HK posts "reviews" on Amazon (and other websites)
  3. HK puts books up for sale on Half.com under her son's name (or else gives them to her son to post there), sometimes well in advance of the release dates of the books
  4. HK violates FTC disclosure rules by failing to mention that she received free copies of these books in exchange for an endorsement (and 99.7% 4- and 5-star reviews certainly implies endorsement)

3 comments:

Embee said...

Sneaky,

This is mind-blowing! And fabulous investigative work. There can't be any question about Harriet's reselling her FREE advance review copies and free copies that she receives from authors and publishers.

Anyone who is as ethically bankrupt as Harriet is could not have possibly passed up such a golden egg, especially if she thought it couldn't be traced.

Again, thank you for all the hard work you put into it. I don't know how you got onto the trail, but way to ferret it out and prove it!

Beachmama said...

Sneaky: This is a great piece of investigative reporting that is backed up with an amazing amount of documentation. You should email or snail mail this to The NY Times. In a recent article they dug into the nasty business of pay for reviews. ‘THE BEST REVIEWS MONEY CAN BUY’:

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/26/business/book-reviewers-for-hire-meet-a-demand-for-online-raves.html?pagewanted=1&_r=2

You can find their contact information here:

http://www.nytimes.com/content/help/site/editorial/letters/letters.html

I think they would be grateful to hear from you! We need the big guns to become involved if we really want to stop Harriet and out Amazon corrupt business practices.

Beachmama said...

Sneaky: Check this out:

http://www.amazon.com/forum/kindle%20book/ref=cm_cd_et_md_pl?_encoding=UTF8&cdForum=Fx3RFWX8IMGF85E&cdMsgID=Mx16TLMI9580SG9&cdMsgNo=1&cdPage=1&cdSort=oldest&cdThread=Tx24A2IBU2746Q3#Mx16TLMI9580SG9