Amazon is investigating suspected leaks of data by employees to merchants seeking to increase their sales on the site. Bribes allegedly paid to employees, mostly in China, illuminate the new currency in competitive advantage.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the e-commerce company has begun investigating claims that employees – mostly China-based but also some in the US – had taken bribes for leaking, through intermediaries, advantageous sales information or deleting negative reviews.

The investigation is also looking into whether, for a reduced fee, employees are giving out the email addresses of people who leave bad reviews.

Brokering sensitive, proprietary sales data – including keywords, sales volume and buyers habits – gives a seller the ability to craft better product descriptions and boost sales results. The ability to delete negative reviews, which impinge on search rankings, will also affect the seller. (For an in-depth look at how brands can better understand Amazon’s structure and ethos, read: An insider’s guide to selling on Amazon.)

There are several possible reasons for China’s prevalence in this investigation. The Journal suggested that China’s exploding number of sellers means that competition among merchants is fierce. Meanwhile, relative to other markets, Chinese workers draw relatively small salaries, making the extra cash more difficult to resist.

Many of the interactions between brokers and employees begin on WeChat, the popular messaging app. Payments for services range from $80 to over $2,000 and are typically arranged by brokers offering merchants internal sales metrics, reviewers’ email addresses, and a bad review deletion service, said one company in Shenzhen. Amazon is also investigating incidents of US-based employees accepting bribes.

In a statement, Amazon said it holds its employees “to a high ethical standard and anyone in violation of our code faces discipline, including termination and potential legal and criminal penalties”. It also said that it has zero tolerance for the abuse of its system by sellers.

Third-party sellers have become an integral part of Amazon’s business model while the e-commerce site is becoming an increasingly big part of large brands’ retail strategies. Since 2015, the company has been working hard to tackle fake reviews and inflated ratings.

Sourced from the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian; additional content by WARC staff