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Shades of Noir: My Hunt for an Eclipse Glasses Villain

Glasses claiming an ISO certification of 12312-2 transmit “less than 0.003 percent of the incident light” so as to safely allow direct viewing of the sun, Dr. Chou said. Filters with the 12312-1 certification are intended for sunglasses and generally transmit “no less than 15 percent of incident light.”

It’s the difference between .0003 and 15 percent that had many worried the week before the eclipse. While a quick glance at the sun through 12312-1 glasses might be O.K., “extended exposures through such tinted lenses could result in solar retinopathy,” said Dr. Chou.

4. Why did Amazon say the glasses weren’t safe?

Global Promos Service, the next link in the glasses chain, was listed in Los Angeles, also home to an active amateur astronomy community. Since I was there, I decided to meet with another vendor, Manish Panjwani, the owner of Agena AstroProducts. Like Mrs. Bishop of EZ Quick Lube, improperly certified shades hurt his credibility. In his case, though, the problematic products were not his.

Several weeks before the eclipse, as reports of suspicious glasses surfaced, “Amazon took down virtually every storefront selling eclipse glasses, including ones from legitimate manufacturers and their authorized dealers,” said Dr. Fienberg of the American Astronomical Society. The company then sent emails to many customers warning them that they may have received eclipse glasses that couldn’t be verified as safe.

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A screengrab of the glasses sold by Agena AstroProducts, one of Baader Planetarium’s preferred distributors. Credit Agena AstroProducts

One of these authorized dealers was Mr. Panjwani, who was listed on the American Astronomical Society’s reputable vendors list. Mr. Panjwani sold around 30,000 eclipse glasses through Amazon. At a time of peak sales, he had the “buy box” for glasses made by the German company Baader Planetarium. That meant that when a customer pressed “add to cart” on the Baader glasses, above, he was the seller. But when customers clicked on a cheaper price for the same product, they sometimes got something else entirely from another vendor – like the glasses below:

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This is what a customer named Rebekah received instead.

When Amazon issued its recall, the company yanked the entire product page, and sent emails to Mr. Panjwani’s customers as well, even though they had received legitimate Baader glasses.

In a statement to The New York Times, an Amazon spokesman said:

“Out of an abundance of caution and in the interests of our customers, we asked third-party sellers that were offering solar eclipse glasses to provide documentation to verify their products were compliant with relevant safety standards. After reviewing the documentation, the offers from sellers with compliant eclipse glasses remained available to customers. The listings from sellers who were not approved were removed and customers who purchased from them were notified.”

Mr. Panjwani said he submitted proper documentation three times. He said that Amazon did reinstate the page, only to pull it again, and then reinstate it again, leaving him with an inbox full of confused and angry emails.

“Amazon could have addressed it earlier and more carefully instead of making everyone into a bad guy and freaking out the country out in the process,” he said.

Dr. Fienberg of the American Astronomical Society agreed that Amazon exacerbated confusion by failing to vet eclipse products earlier. Initially he estimated that the recall cost legitimate vendors millions in profits. In a statement to The Times, Amazon said the company would cover the cost of refunds for sellers with proper certification. This includes Agena AstroProducts.

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These are the glasses purchased by a couple in South Carolina who filed a lawsuit against Amazon. The man ordered the glasses through his aunt’s account so he did not see the recall e-mail, according to his lawyer. The glasses were on a best-seller list and the description guaranteed safety, so he said that he felt comfortable wearing them and giving them to his fiancé. Credit Steven Teppler/Abott Law Group

“I think 2024 will be very different,” said Dr. Fienberg, referring to the next total eclipse to cross the United States.

But for Steven W. Teppler of the Abbott Law Group, who is co-lead counsel in the two eclipse glasses lawsuits, the issue is much broader. If one cannot trust an Amazon listing, he said, “What comfort can you get from the representation of anything you buy online?”

As Mr. Panjwani, observed, the fraudsters are not going away. Even so, their motivations are a mystery to him: “Why would you risk bodily harm and injury to someone else for so little profit?”

5. What’s hiding behind this door?

I was hoping to ask this question to the people at Global Promos Service.

As I parked near their address in Los Angeles, I knew that Spirit Pack’s main contact, Fiona Rjrr as her name appeared in email, was in China that week. She’d told me this in an exchange, which ended when I clarified that I was a reporter from The New York Times, not a buyer of eclipse glasses.

Certainly there would be someone else to take my questions. Except there wasn’t. Because the address, as listed in the Distributor Central directory, did not exist.

I pulled up the company website, which offered an address that was one digit different. Aha — so it was just a typo. Except the suite was vacant.

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The office at the address given for Global Promos Service was empty. Credit Heather Murphy/The New York Times

I emailed Ms. Rjrr — and no, that is probably not her last name — for clarification about whether there was another office somewhere in California.

“Sorry, I have no comment to make,” she responded.

Why use a fake address? Kieron Norris, an operations director at the risk management company Pinkerton, said having the appearance of a physical location in the United States can build trust to boost sales.

He also pointed out that there is little incentive for a Chinese manufacturer to go through the expensive, time-consuming process of getting certification for a rare event, even if the product could pass the test. In fact, one dealer that did product testing on suspicious eclipse glasses manufactured in China found that they were safe, but “one actually failed to comply with ISO 12312-2 because its filters were too dark!” said Dr. Fienberg over email.

I called Ms. Ford of EZ Quick Lube to share my findings. A longtime Republican, skeptical of government regulation, she said that the experience reminded her of its occasional value.

“You’ve got to have boundaries or there is chaos,” she observed.

But she could not identify a clear villain.

“We trusted someone else who in turned trusted someone else,” she concluded, “so I think there is some fault in each step.”

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