Illegal weapons are being sold by third-party sellers on popular online marketplaces including AliExpress, Amazon Marketplace, eBay and Wish, a Which? investigation has found, demonstrating why major tech firms need to take more responsibility and carry out better checks and monitoring on dangerous items.
The consumer champion carried out simple searches for banned offensive weapons on popular online marketplaces, including zombie and flick knives, knuckle dusters, swords and batons, and was easily able to find one or more of these potentially lethal items on the respective platforms – at prices starting from as little as 49p.
The law, including the Offensive Weapons Act 2019, makes clear that none of these weapons should be available for sale in the UK – and they cannot even be owned in a private home. If a person were to be caught with one of these products, they could face arrest and a prison sentence.
Searching on Amazon, Which? found more than a dozen listings for friction lock batons masquerading as ‘trekking poles.’ Friction lock batons are a banned offensive weapon. It is illegal to buy and to sell these batons in the UK.
Some of the listings Which? found used special characters, such as ‘bătõň’, in the title or only used the word baton in the artwork – presumably to avoid detection by Amazon. Some of the images on the listings indicated that they could be used for self-defence and fighting.
On eBay, Which?’s experts found a variety of illegal swords, zombie knives, and knuckle dusters, including a 23-inch steel serrated-edged zombie knife (£27) and a 27-inch zombie blade with a red fire design (£32). One seller was offering a combo deal on a karambit blade and a ‘paralysing spray’ for £13.99. According to eBay’s terms and conditions, none of these weapons should be for sale at all.
Which? found the widest selection of weapons for sale on AliExpress and Wish – with simple searches of the terms ‘flick knife’, ‘automatic opening knife’ and ‘spring assisted knives’ returning dozens of results on each, many priced at less than £10 and some even marketed for self-defence.
When it came to Wish, Which? was able to find a large number of flick knives and at least a dozen butterfly knives – blades that open out into a point – even though they are illegal. Researchers also found several belt buckle knives priced from £8, a selection of knuckle dusters and a number of concealed blades – including a £1 knife designed to be hidden inside a wallet. Other items included friction lock batons, one of which was disguised within an umbrella and another which was marketed for use in self-defence and had in excess of 30 UK reviews.
On AliExpress, Which? found a large number of flick knives, hidden blades, and a raft of ‘self-defence rings’ designed to be worn as knuckle dusters – one priced at just 49p.
AliExpress also targeted Which? with promotional emails for cut price blades after Which? searched on the site – including a variety of curved karambit knives, with one priced at just £1.79. Which?’s understanding is that karambits are not illegal to own but are illegal to carry in public. Researchers were also sent an email promotion for a knife with a skull design on the blade, priced at £9.63.
On all four platforms, additional banned weapons were recommended by the platforms’ algorithms after Which?’s initial searches for weapons. Worryingly, this suggests the marketplaces are not only facilitating the sale of illegal products but perpetuating the problem by recommending other illegal or dangerous products to users.
Amazon, eBay and Wish said they had removed all the listings reported to them by Which?.
Amazon said it would take “appropriate enforcement” against the baton sellers, eBay said it was investigating why the items were not blocked to UK buyers and Wish said it was “exploring remedial action against any offending merchants.”
AliExpress said it had removed the listings. However, Which? has received two further promotional emails from AliExpress since its initial response – one offering a ‘self defence’ flick knife for £2.83.
Which? believes that its latest investigation shows that online marketplaces must take more responsibility and carry out better checks and monitoring on dangerous items.
Sue Davies, Which? Head of Consumer Protection Policy, said:
“It is disturbing that our latest investigation has uncovered illegal weapons being sold on online marketplaces at extraordinarily cheap prices and that these tech firms are also pushing additional dangerous items to people. This raises big question marks over the checks and monitoring being done by these platforms.
“It’s clear that online marketplaces need to take more responsibility and prevent illegal weapons appearing on their sites.”
Notes to editors
Comments from two leading lawyers, with extensive experience in dealing with knife crime, and an ex-detective spoken to by Which?
Caroline Liggins, Head of Youth Team at law firm Hodge Jones & Allen, told Which?: “I was shocked, I thought they were going to be expensive and they were about £9. We were shocked by how easy it is to buy them. It’s pocket money, isn’t it. When we looked there were no signs warning about how old you have to be to buy these products and no warnings about what is lawful or unlawful.”
Kerry Spence, Deputy Head of Criminal Defence at the same law firm, added that she had been involved in a case where a school child had bought ‘hundreds’ of blades from marketplaces using a parent’s bank card. They sold them to other children for ‘protection’ at a markup. It is illegal to sell blades to anyone under 18. Throughout Which?’s investigation, it had only one age-related warning, from AliExpress. However, it appeared only once.
Richard Carr, a former senior Merseyside police detective turned lecturer in policing at Liverpool John Moores University, said the sale of such weapons can have real world consequences. He said: “I’m surprised from a moral perspective that websites are selling these types of products. When weapons of this nature get into the hands of people who have criminal intent, then that outcome can be catastrophic.”
Which? only included blades that were marketed as sharp, rather than dulled, and discounted any listings claiming to be replicas. Researchers also confirmed with some sellers that they were selling legitimate blades, and found some listings with UK reviews. All of this evidence suggests that these items are making their way to the doors of UK shoppers.
Government guidance on the law states that it is “an offence for any person to manufacture, sell or hire, offer for sale or hire, expose or have in his possession for the purpose of sale or hire” any banned weapon.
Banned weapons that Which? found included:
Butterfly knives: these have a blade hidden inside a handle that splits in the middle to reveal the blade
Disguised knives: where a blade or sharp point is hidden inside what looks like everyday objects such as a buckle, phone, brush or lipstick
Belt buckle knives: a buckle which incorporates or conceals a knife
Flick knives or gravity knives (also known as ‘switchblades’ or ‘automatic knives’): folding knives where the blade automatically opens or opens by gravity when a button or something else on the knife is pressed
Zombie knives: a knife with a cutting edge, a serrated edge and images or words suggesting it is used for violence
Swords: with a curved blade over 50 centimetres (with some exceptions, such as if they are antique, are carried for religious purposes, or to be used in theatre, film, television or historical reenactment)
Push daggers: a knife where the handle fits within a clenched fist and the blade protrudes from between two fingers
Batons: straight, side-handled or friction-lock truncheons
Knuckle dusters: a band of metal or other hard material worn on one or more fingers.
Rights of reply
“The safety of our customers is our highest priority. We have strict guidelines for merchants regarding the sale of knives. In addition to this, customers must verify that they are over the age of 18 in order to be able to purchase knives on our platform.
“We have removed the items highlighted by Which?’s investigation and are reviewing the accounts of any third-party merchants who might have breached our platform rules. We thank Which? for bringing to our attention the category of ‘self-defence’ rings. We are investigating this and will continue to keep an eye on it. We regularly assess our practices to improve them.”
An Amazon spokesperson said:
“We require all products to comply with applicable laws and have developed industry-leading tools to prevent non-compliant products from being listed in our stores. We are disappointed when bad actors evade our systems and we will use these learnings to improve our prevention mechanisms. These products have now been removed from the store and we are taking appropriate enforcement against the bad actors in question. These are isolated incidents that do not reflect the fantastic products and customer experience provided by millions of small businesses selling in our store.”
“eBay UK prohibits the sale of the vast majority of knives, with the exception of letter openers, certain tools and dining cutlery. Sellers must comply with our policies as well as any applicable laws and regulations when selling knives. As an international marketplace our policies vary across the world and some of the listings highlighted by Which? are permitted under US policy and sold by US registered sellers. UK buyers are blocked from purchasing these knives. We are investigating why this block did not take place in this instance.
“eBay takes the safety of its customers very seriously. We enforce our Product Safety Policy using block filter algorithms that aim to prevent unsafe products being listed on site in the first place and the eBay Security Team perform additional checks to identify listings that do not comply with our policies and takes enforcement action against sellers. This could include removing listings, selling restrictions or account suspensions.”
A spokesperson for Wish said:
“We condemn the listing or sale of illegal weapons on our UK platform – not only do such listings violate our Merchant Terms of Service, they fundamentally breach our moral code.
“While we have a number of systems and methods in place to prevent the appearance of illegal weapons, it appears, on this occasion, our merchants have identified a way to circumvent our processes. We are working to remove the listings highlighted by Which? and are carrying out an urgent review of our processes, while exploring remedial action against any offending merchants.”
Chartered Trading Standards Institute (CTSI), a membership body for Trading Standards professionals
“We welcome this investigation which provides concerning evidence around the ease with which members of the public can buy dangerous and banned items from some of our most popular online retailers. The inexorable rise in eCommerce, particularly since the pandemic, makes online enforcement more vital than ever.
“Trading standards departments across the country work closely with online marketplaces, and illicit listings are removed by platforms every day. Some retailers have shown their commitment by introducing voluntary standards on the sale of knives. However, this investigation would suggest things aren’t working as well as they need to and further actions are needed. There is ongoing work to improve the efficiency of identification and enforcement on platforms, such as the work of the Internet Intermediaries Working Group (IIWG) developing a best practice guide for online platforms, alongside a master list of banned products including criminal weapons. Several Trading Standards departments across the country are undertaking proactive special projects targeting underage and illicit sales of dangerous products.
“We do have the legislation in place which bans the sale of many of these products, most recently through the Offensive Weapons Act 2019. This legislation was rightly introduced to address societal concerns and a spike in serious violence including knife crime. However, a key part of making this legislation work and putting it into effect is the resources and investment allocated to support trading standards and other enforcement agencies. Over the last decade many local areas have seen such resources cut by up to 50%, so we would urge the Government to look again at the funding which has been allocated.
“The added complexity is that this is by its nature a global issue which makes enforcement more challenging, particularly with online marketplaces where there are countless manufacturers and sellers based outside the UK. This suggests we need a new level of international cooperation across multiple investigatory and enforcement agencies to get a handle on this growing problem.”
National Police Chiefs’ Council Lead for Knife Crime, Deputy Assistant Commissioner Graham McNulty, said:
“The Offensive Weapons Act 2019, which came into effect this year has brought in new provisions for the control of weapons sold online, as well as placing responsibility onto delivery companies to conduct vital age verification upon delivery. These are important developments that will help us to address the growing issue of the online sale of knives and offensive weapons.
“We continue to work closely with our online and offline retail partners to ensure they are given the correct guidance on legislation, tactics and education.
“Carrying a knife is never the best option, nor does it provide the protection which many think it does, it only puts you at greater risk. If you know of someone who carries a knife, you can report it to crimestoppers anonymously, you may be saving a life.”
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