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How to shop safely from online marketplaces this Christmas

We’re calling on the government to protect consumers who purchase from online marketplaces. Our guest, Electrical Safety First, explains more.

This is a guest article by Penny Walshe of Electrical Safety First (ESF). All views expressed are Penny/ESF’s own and not necessarily shared by Which?.

Last Christmas is probably one that a lot of people will want to forget, with national lockdowns in place due to the pandemic meaning that we couldn’t enjoy a lot of our festive traditions. No chance to dress up for the office party, no local celebrities switching on Christmas lights up and down the country, and no shopping trips to secure that ‘must have’ gift for a loved one.

With non-essential shops closed, it’s not surprising that last year 58% of us said that we’d be buying Christmas gifts from online marketplaces. This year the high street is back open for business, but with ongoing concerns about Covid, reported stock shortages and the ease of shopping online, 44% of UK adults say they will still be using marketplaces to buy gifts this year.

Looking specifically at electrical products, more than a third (35%) will be turning to marketplaces to buy their gadgets, with electrical beauty products, games consoles and increasingly popular smart technology topping the nation’s wish lists.

Online marketplaces are an easy and accessible option for shoppers, often offering bargain prices to attract customers. Our research found that a massive 86% of UK adults trust that the products they buy from online marketplaces will be safe.

Research was carried out for Electrical Safety First by Censuswide, using a representative sample of 3,000 UK adults (16+) and carried out between 26 and 29 October 2020 and 28 October and 1 November 2021.

Misplaced trust

However, due to a lack of regulation, marketplaces can be a hotbed for dangerous electrical products sold by third party sellers. The marketplaces themselves have no legal responsibility for ensuring that the products advertised and sold on their sites are safe.

Even when dangerous products have been removed from a marketplace they are frequently re-listed and there is nothing in place to stop the selling of recalled electrical appliances. 

The UK government’s Office for Product Safety and Standards recently published its response to a Call for Evidence on Product Safety. This highlights the consumer risk caused by this lack of regulation and takes a first step towards plugging the gaps in the law that expose consumers to potentially dangerous goods.

It recommends stronger enforcement and the need to raise consumer awareness of the risks associated with buying from online marketplaces, but falls short of calling for legislative change, although a wider public consultation is expected at some point.

Protect consumer from dangerous marketplace products

Considering the revolutionary shift in digital markets and e-commerce, as well as the UK’s exit from the EU, updating our product safety laws will be necessary and inevitable. These reforms must seek to regulate the sale of unsafe products on online marketplaces, and make the marketplaces responsible for the safety of products offered for sale on their platforms.

To coincide with Cyber Monday, a joint letter signed by Electrical Safety First, Which? and other organisations concerned about consumer safety online, has been sent to Rt Hon Nadine Dorries MP, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and Rt Hon Kwasi Kwarteng MP, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

It calls for the Government to introduce measures that will protect consumers who purchase from online marketplaces, protecting them from unsafe products whilst ensuring the UK’s product safety framework is fit for the future.

How can you shop safely this Christmas?

If you are shopping online this Christmas, try to stick to the retailers you know and trust – buying directly from the manufacturer or from the website of a well-known High Street name. 

If you do use an online marketplace, download our free browser extension (link), available on Chrome, Firefox, MS Edge and Safari. ‘Check It Out’ will highlight third party sellers on Amazon and eBay so that you can make an informed decision about your purchase.

For more advice on safe shopping online, you can visit our website here.

And if you agree with us that you deserve more protection when you’re buying from online marketplaces, sign our petition calling for better regulation, and let us know in the comments.

Shop safely this Christmas, and make sure it’s one to remember for all the right reasons.

This was a guest article by Penny Walshe of Electrical Safety First (ESF). All views expressed were Penny/ESF’s own and not necessarily shared by Which?.

Comments

Thanks for your Conversation, Penny. Do you know if other other European countries are tackling the problem of dangerous and counterfeit products sold via online marketplaces? I am not convinced that the UK can tackle this problem alone.

I have asked Which? a number of times the same question, without useful response. Maybe there is no imminent action; this seems rather typical – not just here but in the USA where you would think action might be taken. The case examples given here show the difficulties https://kennedyslaw.com/thought-leadership/article/product-liability-risks-for-online-marketplaces-an-international-comparison-of-litigation-profiles/

https://www.politico.eu/article/online-marketplaces-rife-with-unsafe-and-illegal-items-study-shows/

https://ec.europa.eu/info/business-economy-euro/product-safety-and-requirements/product-safety/product-safety-pledge_en

At present, there appears to be voluntary agreements to remove unsafe products from being listing in 2 days from being reported. But I wonder where such a report must come from and with with what supporting evidence? By which time many products may be with unsuspecting customers.

Amazon are quick to remove products when contacted by Which? and Lauren Deitz managed to get one removed in response to my post in an earlier Conversation. The problem is that new dodgy products appear. To their credit, Amazon have good advice to their sellers, but they are not policing the problem properly. Legally, the responsibility lies with the trader rather than the online marketplace and this must be changed by legislation. Legislation takes time to introduce but the sooner we start the better.

The problem with removing dangerous products when they are reported is, as I suggested, it is reactive, not proactive. How many of these dangerous products will be out among consumers before they are voluntarily removed, and how many other dangerous products go undetected.

I do not think there is any credit due to Amazon. Their market place business model makes them money but they do not seem to take any active responsibility for checking the authenticity and safety of what the allow into the UK , unless they are told when it is too late.

Thanks Penny. If some of the marketplaces signed up to the EU Safety Pledge, that just adds to the evidence that legislation is needed.

Thanks Penny. I do hope we will see more working with partners in future. The UK is a small player but I believe that we can benefit from working with the EU even though we no longer members. It is good to know that the US is involved, especially since major online marketplaces are based in the US.

I don’t know if you are with us here because ESF contacted Which? or vice versa, but it does not matter since contact has been made.

When we buy from a UK based retailer they have full responsibility for the safety of the products they supply. They can be prosecuted and penalised for failure to protect us.
If we import directly from an overseas supplier as a personal import we take the risk individually of the quality and safety of what we buy.
If we buy via an online market place, such as Amazon host, despite their direct involvement and financial reward from such sales they appear to have no responsibility for protecting consumers, neither legally nor morally. This is wrong. The sooner we introduce legislation to deal with this and to put appropriate penalties in place, the better.

Until that happens, maybe we should publicise the marketplaces’ deficiency much more widely and deter customers from buying through them unless they are absolutely sure of a product’s and supplier’s authenticity

Some types of dangerous electrical goods can be spotted just by looking at product photos. Here is an example that is currently on sale by an Amazon Marketplace trader: https://www.amazon.co.uk/TRD-Kettle-Power-monitor-printers-Black/dp/B08BJB2Q7K/ref=cm_cr_arp_d_product_top?ie=UTF8

The dangerous fault is that the Earth pin of the mains plug is partially sleeved (hence not compliant with BS1363) and that can result in the product not being earthed. If a fault develops the user could be electrocuted if they touch the metal case.

One of the reviews shows that the product fails a PAT test – used to check the safety of portable appliances in public buildings, schools, workplaces, etc. but not often in homes.
“Failed cable PAT test on RPE (Resistance Protection Earth) before use as earth pin is insulated and not making earthing contact with socket not safe for use! Not to BS or CE standard (No conformity markings) 13amp fused.”

I tried to get our local Trading Standards office to take an interest in the problem several years ago but was told that TS will do nothing unless you buy a product. I contacted National Trading Standards and was told that they are a company that works with businesses and I should contact my local TS office.

I would be grateful for advice, Penny. @pwalshe

I agree, absolutely, but wonder what we can do until the problem is under control. Can we report products to ESF or OPSS? Anything that can be identified as dangerous by looking at a photo is probably a drop in the ocean but it would be good to know that something can be done.

Incidentally, the rogue product that I have mentioned has been listed on Amazon for months and the reason I know is that I recognise the review that confirms the problem. Some time ago I found some dodgy tower sockets on one or more online marketplaces and it’s good to see products of this type listed on the ESF Recalls list.

Thanks Penny. I will be in touch. It is disappointing that Amazon does not pick up on reports of dangerous products. Looking at the one star reviews of electrical products can find some useful pointers.

Which? has a good publicity machine and could help ESF, for example by raising awareness of your petition.

Some are very keen on the banks to repay customers who have succumbed to fraud, with a Code being suggested as mandatory..

Maybe Which? could press for a Code to be prepared for Amazon and the like that they must accept responsibility for the safety of every product they “promote” through their online market places. To avoid problems seems not insurmountable; ensure those products meet appropriate safety regulations from suppliers with appropriate credentials. Don’t list products without that confidence.

This links to a letter sent yesterday to the government requesting action to bring online marketplaces within consumer protection legislation.
https://www.electricalsafetyfirst.org.uk/media/opnoikzc/open-letter-online-marketplaces-final.pdf

Many organisations have signed it. Let us hope that it prompts some positive action. Amazon and others have been allowed to disregard their responsibilities for far too long, while profiting from consumer detriment.

@pwalshe, thanks Penny. This seems a classic case of where many organisations are involved and hopefully, by cooperative action, can achieve much more than they can manage individually.

We can reduce our risk of buying dangerous products from online marketplaces by following the advice in the introduction to this Conversation, but perhaps it would be better to avoid them altogether. Buy from well known retailers, either in shops or online, and stick to familiar brands rather than unknown brands or unbranded products. Rather than buy from Amazon Marketplace retailers, buy goods sold by Amazon itself.

The better retailers provide a link to a list of recalled products on the homepage of their website.

Electrical Safety First publishes a list of recalls for electrical goods: https://www.electricalsafetyfirst.org.uk/product-recalls/
In most cases the products involved are unheard of brands, though occasionally major manufacturers discover problems and issue a recall. Anyone can sign up to receive email updates.

The Office of Public Safety and Standards has a list of alerts and recalls: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/product-safety-database-unsafe-products
There is no provision to sign up to receive information.

Another source of information is the CTSI website: https://www.tradingstandards.uk/consumers/product-recalls-and-safety-notices
Again, there is no way to sign up for updates.

It would be good if Which? published a monthly update with information about recalls and safety notices. The most serious examples may appear in Which? News but there is scope to extend this service.

Rather than buy from Amazon Marketplace retailers, buy goods sold by Amazon itself.
I suspect many just buy from Amazon without recognising or even looking to see whether it is a “fulfilled by” product from their market place.

Maybe Amazon (and others) should be required to add a prominent statement to such products stating they are from market place sellers and “Amazon take no responsibility for their authenticity or safety”. In the absence if legislation that would not seem a difficult stipulation. All Amazon need is to feel the moral duty to do this.

Although the regular publication of safety notices should be done officially, preferably by a body like Trading Standards, I have doubts whether many people would look at them and, even more, have a record of the necessary details of all their appliances to check.

We need, I believe, a proper system for recording the purchasers of products likely to be in need of recall due to a serious safety issue. This could be started with major electrical appliances. All that is needed is to record the owner’s contact details, as part of the purchasing process, transferred into a central database. Then, if a safety issue arises, each owner can be automatically notified.

The only way I can see that full recalls can be achieved. Such as Whirlpool defective washing machines and Indesit dryers. This has been proposed for a number of years without any action.

I agree that Amazon and others could help by doing this but would be surprised if it happens.

Amazon provides comprehensive advice to sellers about complying with regulations. You and I have been involved in extensive discussions about the UK requirements for mains plugs, Malcolm, and Amazon has excellent information.

Where I have identified or been told about dangerous electrical goods on the Amazon website, most of the reviews are positive because dangerous defects can often not be seen – even by professionals – without dismantling and testing products.