Online marketplaces are failing to adequately respond to reports about dangerous products from consumers and allowing items to remain on sale even when they have been recalled in the UK and across Europe, a Which? investigation has revealed.
The consumer champion’s research found that Amazon.com, eBay and Wish were all allowing dangerous products to be sold that have been banned Europe-wide. Yet when Which? researchers went undercover to report these products in the same way that an everyday consumer would, not one of the items was removed from sale.
People are more reliant on shopping online than ever this winter and Which? is calling for the government to make online marketplaces legally responsible for stopping dangerous products from being sold on their sites, so that consumers are protected from products with serious safety flaws being sold by third-parties.
Which? searched on Safety Gate, a database of dangerous consumer products from across Europe that have been identified as posing a safety risk to consumers, and found nine products that were still available to order from online marketplaces including Amazon.com, eBay and Wish.
The products deemed unsafe by Safety Gate include a One Step hair-styling tool at risk of catching fire and Grow Snow Insta-Snow Powder which is a choking hazard for children.
It proved difficult to report these banned items effectively. Amazon and eBay have reporting tools on their product listings, but Which?’s experts struggled to find a clear option for reporting a safety issue – instead it found ways to report issues like ‘incorrect product information’ or ‘prohibited items’. In the end, they plumped for reporting as a ‘product quality issue’ and ‘fraudulent listing activities’.
When Which? replicated the reporting process that an everyday consumer might use, using pseudonyms, no action was taken by either online marketplace.
Researchers did receive a response from Wish – it said that it would review the report to see if the product listing breached its policies. However, there was no further response from Wish and, nearly a month later, the listing for the dangerous recalled product remained live.
Only after the issues were reported to the firms’ respective press offices by Which? was action quickly taken to remove the products.
These sites have all signed up to the EU’s product safety pledge, which states that marketplaces should provide a clear way for customers to notify them of dangerous product listings and give an appropriate response within five working days. However these findings suggest they are falling short – raising questions about the effectiveness of voluntary initiatives.
The consumer champion has serious concerns about how difficult it is for consumers to report dangerous products, and the fact that prompt action was only taken after a consumer watchdog flagged the problem to media advisers is even more worrying.
Which? spoke to Sam Holden, 45, who bought an electric heating pad for his cat from Amazon Marketplace in 2016. He told Which? that the product ended up overheating, emitting lots of black smoke and burning his sofa. He reported it to Amazon through the site at the time and the online marketplace did nothing. He then checked the listing again last year and was horrified to find that it was still on there, with a number of other people raising safety concerns in the reviews.
He told Which?: “Our children were young at the time and I was really angry that this could happen, we were really lucky to catch the overheating product when we did. To find that it hadn’t been taken off the website years after the event was horrifying and indicative of a company taking no responsibility.”
Amazon responded by saying that this product was removed prior to being flagged by Which?.
Even when Which? experts have reported dangerous items to online marketplaces in an official capacity and the sites have taken the listings down, they have often reappeared in new listings within days.
Earlier this year, eBay pledged to investigate multiple listings for three dangerous, recalled counterfeit Samsung charging plugs that were found for sale on the site. According to eBay’s own listing information, more than 360 of the chargers had been bought across five of the listings and Which? was able to buy these dangerous plugs without receiving any recall information or warnings from the sellers.
However, seven months later, Which? found hundreds of listings for the chargers still on sale. eBay has now removed the specific listings that Which? shared but a number of other listings still appear to remain on the site.
This is a worrying indictment of how seriously the company takes recalls and could be a breach of legislation that requires online marketplaces to take action once they become aware of illegal content, although the legislation doesn’t specify how quickly this has to be done.
Which? believes this further strengthens the case for online marketplaces to have more legal responsibility for preventing these listings appearing in the first place and the need for clear actions when unsafe products are identified on their sites. This latest investigation shows that the current processes in place for monitoring, as well as reporting unsafe products, are not fit-for-purpose and leave consumers exposed to dangerous, banned products.
The consumer champion is calling for the government to give online marketplaces greater legal responsibility for ensuring the safety of products sold on their sites if it wants to show it is serious about its ambition for the UK to be the safest place in the world to go online. In the meantime sites must make it easier to report unsafe products, investigate any reports they receive and let customers know of any safety issues that emerge after a product has been purchased.
Natalie Hitchins, Which? Head of Home Products and Services, said:
“Our investigation suggests many customer reports of dangerous products for sale online could end up being ignored or disregarded, and that it can be difficult to report products accurately in the first place.
“It is unacceptable that the biggest online marketplaces only seem to take safety concerns seriously when a watchdog like Which? comes calling.
“That’s why it’s vitally important for online marketplaces to be given greater legal responsibility for the safety of products sold on their sites, to ensure that they take proactive action to protect their customers.”
Which? advice on how to avoid fake and dangerous products
Deals that look too good to be true, often are – many of the dangerous safety issues found by Which? have been discovered on cheap products bought online.
Stick to known brands – the majority of problems we’ve found come from unknown brands, or unbranded products.
Do your research – it’s worth putting the time in before you buy, and don’t just rely on high customer review scores which can be artificially inflated on the marketplaces.
For more tips on shopping safely online this winter visit: which.co.uk/shopsmart
Notes to editors
A search on Safety Gate (the European Commission’s rapid alert system for dangerous non-food products which was formerly called Rapex) in September 2020 revealed nine products that were still available to order from online marketplaces including Amazon.com, eBay and Wish. Five of them were on UK sites, while others could be shipped to the UK from the US (via Amazon.com rather than Amazon.co.uk, for example).
For Amazon and eBay, the listings remained live for at least two weeks before Which? contacted the press offices, while for Wish it was nearly a month later as Which? awaited the outcome of its review of whether the product listing breached its policies.
The information in this press release is for editorial use by journalists and media outlets only. Any business seeking to reproduce information in this release should contact the Which? Endorsement Scheme team at email@example.com.
Extra background on the reporting tools
Within Amazon’s ‘report incorrect product information’ tool you can alert it to issues such as price, unclear images and missing information. Which? chose to report the product it found for sale using the ‘product quality issue’ option.
Amazon has since told Which? that shoppers should report safety issues using the chat function, which can be found on the customer service page, rather than the reporting tool on the listing.
Via eBay, you can report a listing for copyright and trademark issues, listing practices, price gouging and if it’s a prohibited or restricted item. Which? reported using ‘fraudulent listing activities’ as it couldn’t find a specific ‘safety’ option.
eBay told Which? that shoppers should report recalled or counterfeit products using the tool as ‘other’ prohibited items. There isn’t a general ‘safety issue’ option, though.
Reporting a dangerous recalled product that was for sale on Wish left Which? researchers scratching their heads even more. After a search for ‘dangerous product’ within the help section of the website, they found an email address for reporting community guideline violations.
There’s no mention of safety issues or product recalls within the community guidelines, but Which? went ahead with its report anyway.
Wish encourages its customers to notify it of dangerous product listings by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org and providing full details of the products/activity of concern.
Rights of reply
An Amazon spokesperson said:
“Safety is our top priority and we want customers to shop with confidence on our stores. We have proactive measures in place to prevent suspicious or non-compliant products from being listed and we monitor the products sold in our stores for product safety concerns.
“When appropriate, we remove a product from the store, reach out to sellers, manufacturers, and government agencies for additional information, or take other actions. If customers have concerns about an item they’ve purchased, we encourage them to contact our Customer Service directly so we can investigate and take appropriate action.”
Amazon told Which? there is a link to contact customer services at the top of every page in the navigation bar as well as in the ‘Let us help you’ section at the bottom of each page – and that this is the easiest and most efficient way to report any issue. It also has a link at the top of every page to the customer’s “Returns & Orders”, which is another channel to report problems and concerns.
An eBay spokesperson said: ‘We take product safety extremely seriously, working closely with authorities including Trading Standards and the Office for Product Safety and Standards to help educate sellers and protect buyers. Over a recent twelve-month period our filters blocked four million listings from making it onto site.
‘When using our ‘report listing’ function, Which? incorrectly reported two of these items by selecting the wrong reason for reporting, meaning the listings weren’t assessed for being unsafe, delaying the review process. One of the items listed wasn’t reported via the tool at all.
‘We have now removed all eight listings flagged by Which? and asked sellers to issue a recall notice. Users can report any eBay listing by simply clicking the report button and selecting from the list of options. We will always investigate reported listings and take appropriate action against sellers.
‘In addition to reporting listings to eBay, users can also report them to the seller and their local Trading Standards. We work closely with authorities to protect buyers and ensure eBay remains a safe marketplace to buy and sell’.
Wish said: ‘We are committed to providing a safe environment for our users to shop online and have, over recent years, introduced a variety of measures designed to prevent, detect and respond to listings that are alleged to be unsafe. This includes monitoring the RAPEX [Safety Gate] database for notifications that concern Wish and facilitating a ‘notice and take-down’ procedure that is accessible to members of the public, authorities and industry bodies. As a further demonstration of our commitment to consumer welfare, we also became a signatory of the EC Product Safety Pledge in July 2020.
‘We typically react to government notices within two working days, assuming a sufficient level of evidence is provided. Our current takedown procedure includes notification of a product recall to affected customers and merchants via email.
‘We encourage customers to notify Wish of dangerous product listings by emailing email@example.com and providing full details of the products/activity of concern.’
The nine banned products, according to Safety Gate, that Which? found were available for sale on online marketplaces:
|Listing||Risk of product with same characteristics according to Safety Gate||Which? found these products were available on|
|Grow Snow Insta-Snow Powder||The powder expands by more than 50%. If a child puts the powder in the mouth and swallows it, it could cause occlusion of the respiratory tract or intestinal blockage.||eBay.com|
|Zviku Magnetic Light Up Fishing Baby Bath Toys Set for Toddlers – Includes Rod & Reel with Turtle and 5 Unique Fish||The magnet can easily detach from the toy, and a small child may put it in their mouth and choke.||Amazon.com|
|Shadowhawk Rechargeable Tactical X800 Flashlight*||The clearance and creepage distances between the primary and accessible secondary circuit are not sufficient. The user could touch accessible live parts and receive an electric shock.||Wish
|One Step – Hair Dryer and Styler||The resistance of the mains cable is too high. The product could overheat, melt or even catch fire during use.||eBay|
|Samsung EP-TA20EWE (counterfeit)||The clearance/creepage distances between the primary and accessible secondary circuits are not sufficient. The secondary part of the USB charger could become live, leading to an electric shock if touched by the user.||eBay|
|Samsung ETAOU10EBE (counterfeit)||The clearance/creepage distances between the primary and accessible secondary circuits are not sufficient. The secondary part of the USB charger could become live, leading to an electric shock if touched by the user.||eBay|
|Samsung ETA-U90EWE (counterfeit)||The clearance/creepage distances between the primary and accessible secondary circuits are not sufficient. The secondary part of the USB charger could become live, leading to an electric shock if touched by the user.||eBay|
|Surker professional hair clipper||The product is advertised with a substandard adaptor for permanent use with inadequate insulation. As a result, a person could touch the live part of the adaptor and receive an electric shock.||AliExpress|
* A version of this product is still available to buy on Amazon but Amazon has provided documentation to show that the product has been re-manufactured and passed relevant safety tests.
Which? is the UK’s consumer champion, here to make life simpler, fairer and safer for everyone. Our research gets to the heart of consumer issues, our advice is impartial, and our rigorous product tests lead to expert recommendations. We’re the independent consumer voice that influences politicians and lawmakers, investigates, holds businesses to account and makes change happen. As an organisation we’re not for profit and all for making consumers more powerful.