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Originally published October 8, 2005 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 13, 2005 at 5:12 PM

E-mail E-mail article      Print Print      Share Share error floods man with faxes

When his fax machine spit out an invoice last month, Colorado small-business owner Barry Cohen figured it was a mistake. "And then I got...

Times consumer-affairs Reporter

When his fax machine spit out an invoice last month, Colorado small-business owner Barry Cohen figured it was a mistake.

"And then I got 10 more," he said.

A wrong number printed on Amazon corporate-account invoices has been routing hundreds of faxes to Cohen's home-based air-cleaner business for about three weeks.

Amazon's corporate-credit plan is administered by Citibank. The invoices contain account numbers, credit limits and other financial information for schools, businesses and organizations around the country.

Cohen says he tried for weeks to reach someone who could fix the problem, but his messages went unreturned. He says an India call-center operator said they couldn't get a message to the right department.

In the meantime, Cohen says, his fax machine in Durango, Colo., has been overflowing with invoices and order information.

"I have, like, reams of papers that I've gone through," he said.

His own orders are getting lost in the piles, and when he couldn't get hold of Amazon, he got frustrated and started throwing out its faxes. spokeswoman Patty Smith said yesterday that the company had just learned about the problem and is working to fix it.

"We want to send an Amazon securities employee out to his home to collect whatever materials he has," Smith said. "This is an important issue for us."

But she said the customer-service problems likely were with Citibank. A toll-free number on the faxed invoices goes to a Citibank call center, although a message on the line welcomes callers to "Amazon corporate accounts."

A Citibank spokeswoman said yesterday she doesn't know how many invoices were misprinted.


"We're not aware that any customer data was compromised," the spokeswoman said.

Cohen says he called the Amazon customer-service number on the company Web site, too.

"I've left voice mail, and they've switched me to other people who did nothing for me," he said. "I've hung up on them. I've said, actually, nasty things to them. I'm normally pretty easygoing, but I could feel my blood pressure surging when I'm dealing with this."

Smith says Amazon keeps track of callers and doesn't have a record of Cohen's calls.

"If he did contact our customer service, and we didn't respond appropriately, then we apologize for that," Smith said. "I can't imagine how frustrating this must have been for him."

Among the invoices are letters and handwritten questions from Amazon customers. Most of the faxes likely were from customers who had questions about their bills, Smith said.

Some whose invoices went to Cohen aren't sure what to do.

"I'll have to find out what happened and go ahead and call again," said Susan Henry, the financial secretary at First United Methodist Church in Plymouth, Mich.

Cheryl Van Ness, whose fax showed up at Cohen's home office, says she has a password to use her account to order books for the Waste Management and Research Center in Champaign, Ill. But she still worries about the security of her account number.

"Maybe we need to rethink our ordering system," Van Ness said.

Smith compared the account numbers to a Nordstrom card because they can only be used at Amazon. Customers won't be liable if there are any unauthorized purchases, she said.

Cohen confirmed yesterday that Amazon had finally called him, but he hasn't called back. The company may want its faxes back, he says, but "I ain't going to give them [anything] — I already threw most of it in the trash anyway."

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246

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