/ Shopping, Technology

Ever been sent dodgy electricals by an online shop?

Plugs ordered from Amazon Marketplace

Ever ordered electricals from an online shop only for a different product to arrive? Which? Convo community regular Socketman collaborates with Wavechange and Scott on this counterfeit electricals debate.

Wavechange, Scott and I are increasingly concerned about substandard and counterfeit small electrical goods. We’ve been debating this on the two-pin plugs debate here on Which? Conversation.

Among the items known to cause problems are phone and laptop chargers, power leads, and travel adaptors.

Failure of any of these items can lead to electrical fires and/or electrocution.

Many of us buy these items online, and we typically head for Amazon or eBay, but can you always be sure what you’re buying? I take a look at customer reviews to judge items, but do you know that you’ll be sent the same thing? And what happens if there are multiple sellers offering the same product on a single Amazon listing? Does it make sense to choose the seller with the lowest price? After all, they’re all selling the same product… or are they?

My test purchase

I recently carried out a test purchase, placing nine separate orders for the same product on Amazon Marketplace. The product shown in the listing was an adaptor to allow a German Schuko plug to be used in a British socket. Any adaptor for use in a British socket is subject to the Plugs and Sockets Regulations and must conform to British Standard 1363, such as including a fuse. The adaptor shown in the listing was clearly marked as BS 1363, and was shown with a fuseholder. The Schuko plug is earthed via side clips in a recessed socket, so the adapter has to match it.

Of the adaptors that were sent to me, only one was the product illustrated, another was a similar, not identical, fused Schuko to BS 1363 adaptor from a different manufacturer. A third seller sent a two-pin shaver adaptor, no earth and only suitable for low currents. The other six sellers supplied one of three different types of fused adaptor which would accept a variety of European and American plugs, but none of which had recesses, and therefore couldn’t make proper connection to a Schuko plug. And two of the three types didn’t comply with BS 1363.

When I complained a number of suppliers promised replacements, but only two sent them, one of which was a shaver adaptor, and the other just sent the same incorrect product. Of course, none of these were actually sold by Amazon, although the two Schuko adaptors were ‘fulfilled by Amazon’ in that they were held in Amazon warehouses.

Two of the products arrived in unmarked packaging, and one of those was a plain paper envelope! And it’s not just adaptors; I’ve had a similar experience with power leads and chargers.

Knowing what you’re buying

Careful analysis of Amazon customer reviews often reveals that very different products are being described, but many of us just look at the number of stars a product has rather than reading between the lines. And when you stop to think, although most of us are capable of giving a sound opinion on a book, how many of us is qualified to comment on the safety of an electrical accessory?

Would it help if Amazon always made clear the manufacturer and model number so that you could check that against what you get? Should there be a minimum standard of product illustration so that you’re always clear about what’s being sold? Should Amazon take action against suppliers who substitute different products?

This is a guest post from Which? Convo community members Socketman, Wavechange and Scott. All opinions expressed here are their own, not necessarily those of Which?.

Comments
Member

A very useful piece of research.

Also available from Amazon or Ebay are poor replacement elements for Dualit toasters which are cheap Chinese knock-offs with very skinny wires,

I suspect that Amazon and EBay have not the slightesst interest in the legality or dangerous quality of what they facilitate in selling. Perhaps we need to look at what liabilty should be attached to them or any other shop that “sells” franchise space in their domain.

Member

In order to save a few pennies some people will continue to buy these dodgy electrical items from online multinationals who use tax avoidance loopholes by trading through other countries such as Luxembourg, depriving the UK of valuable business tax revenues and threatening the closure of more and more of our small high street stores.

The answer is simple, don’t scrimp on potentially dangerous electrical goods – Boycott Them!

Member

Beryl, leaving aside the tax issues, which I agree should be properly addressed by our government, I think that what we need is for online stores to be forced to behave responsibly. They can and do provide access to goods at reasonable prices which might not otherwise be easily available, and that is not something we should have to give up.

The Schuko adaptor which is the subject of the test purchase is not something easily obtainable on the high street. Staying on the subject of plug adaptors, it is a fact that many of those sold by such reputable shops as John Lewis and Boots do not comply with the standards! This is especially true of the universal types, all of which accept Schuko (German) plugs, but none provide an earth contact for Schuko.

Member

I wholeheartedly agree tax issues should be addressed by governmental bodies but it is also important to look at the big picture. These digital multinational companies are well able to produce goods at very low prices simply because of their tax avoidance policies which may be legal (in some countries) but wholly unethical depriving the UK of valuable revenue that could be put to good use by helping to fund our public services, NHS education etc.

Monopolistic practice can also procure dominance over prices and supplies, leaving high street stores who pay their fair share of corporation tax unable to compete and subsequently go into liquidation. If governments are unable (or unwilling to address this unfair “legal” practice it is up to the consumer to exercise their influence by boycotting these companies.

Member
Scott says:
21 August 2014

Beryl – Unfortunately, I don’t believe the situation is quite as simple as you make out. One of the purposes of the EU is to allow freedom of movement of goods and to allow companies to trade across the EU without unnecessary restrictions. A company has to be registered somewhere. Are you seriously suggesting that citizens of the other 27 member states should boycott British companies because they are paying tax to the UK Government? Or maybe you are suggesting that companies should be forced to register a subsidiary in each of the territories in which it trades? This would create a huge rise in administration and compliance costs, no doubt to the benefit of the accountants, but would defeat the whole point of the single market and freedom of movement of goods.

Member

Scott – I tink you are perhaps missing the point that Eire and Luxembourg are leaching off the EU by deliberately low tax rates for the likes of Amazon and Google. It is because of their size that these corporations can game the EU’s various countries tax codes.

And of course US corporaations tend to hold billions of profits off-shore until such time as ythe US goverment gives them a tax amnesty. From Bloomberg:
“The largest U.S.-based companies added $206 billion to their stockpiles of offshore profits last year, parking earnings in low-tax countries until Congress gives them a reason not to.
The multinational companies have accumulated $1.95 trillion outside the U.S., up 11.8 percent from a year earlier, according to securities filings from 307 corporations reviewed by Bloomberg News.”

And there are any number of US states and cities where the tax on that $1.95 trillion could be very useful. However much of the cash pile will go to buying companies in the UK to maximise further tax advantages.

I think there is a difference between legal and advisable and perhaps it is best this gets sorted out pre any TTIP agreements which allow corporations to sue national governments. I am not quite sure BTW how Whch? can say it supports TTIP – as a member I have never been asked and I have never ever seen it discussed anywhere in Which?

Member

Amazon, eBay and suchlike should take responsibility for products that they promote through their websites – presumably they have some financial interest. If they do not delist such products then can legal action be taken against them for assisting the sale of products that do not meet EU safety directives? Is the law not adequate? Or do we not choose to apply it? I’m sure it’s not that simple, but Which?, what can you do with your European partners to address this problem?

Member

Malcolm: For a more unbiased opinion which may go some way to answer some of your questions there is an interesting article in The Guardian.