Online marketplaces fail to remove banned products – even after consumers report them
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.”