/ 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

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.

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!

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.

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.

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?

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?

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.

Beryl, not sure this answered any of my questions! I cannot blame Amazon for arranging to minimise tax in ways that are legal – even though it is wrong that it is allowable. It is up to our government, and the EU, to set the tax framework to stop this kind of avoidance, and to withstand US pressure that seeks to perpetuate it. Proposed a year ago – how long will it take?
A distributor in the EU who markets goods within the EU must ensure they comply with any applicable EU safety standards, generally covered by compliance with CE marking regulations. Without wishing to start a debate about difficulties of CE enforcement, it seems to me that Amazon facilitate distribution of defective goods, and should be held responsibe, as any other distributor should be.

socketman, yes, I understand the problems with plugs – I was generalising on Amazon’s responsibility! There may be generic safety standards that can be cited to cover some electrical devices. Those that are electrically unsafe – inadequate creepage and clearances for wiring, not adequate for the current capacity, not correctly earthed for example, present general safety problems and liability for them should still rest with the distributor. I guess the problem at present lies with Trading standards not having the resources or the coordination to deal with this. It would be a shame if only a fatality prompted action.

Some years ago the charger failed on an old Apple Powerbook laptop that I had kept for occasional use of old software that is incompatible with more recent computers. I decided to avoid the many unbranded chargers available online, on the basis that they could be dangerous counterfeit goods.

I purchased a charger via eBay, choosing one described as an Apple product and with a photo of the genuine item, from a trader with an excellent reputation. What arrived was marked ‘Replacement AC Adapter’, very obviously different from the photo. Unlike genuine Apple products, there was no fuse in the clip-on mains plug provided with this charger. It was a simple matter to attach a genuine Apple plug but I had no way of knowing if the charger itself was safe to use.

Many of the reviews on Amazon for supposedly genuine chargers for Apple laptops (MacBook or MacBook Pro) include comments suggesting they are not genuine products. The reason that there are so many unbranded and possibly dangerous chargers for Apple laptops and phones because the genuine items are very expensive. Dieseltaylor has given a similar example of a replacement element for a Dualit toaster, where the genuine item is very expensive. In that case he was able to see that the non-genuine product was substandard, but it is impossible to tell know with a laptop or phone charger in a sealed plastic case.

I am happy to use eBay and Amazon for many products and have had excellent service but I have no intention of buying any more small electrical items from these sources.

I wouldn’t trust anything electrical from ebay.

A few years ago, I needed a new Nikon ION battery. Looking on ebay I found someone selling genuiune Nikon ION batteries.

Then I looked at the photo and there was a picture of the genuine Nikon IOM battery !!!

Needless to say, I went to a local camera shop and purchased a genuine one.

Amazon need to get their reviews sorted out.

Any reviews listed under a product should be for that product only.

I was looking at BenQ XL2720Z monitor reviews recently and the 76 reviews are for loads of different monitors.

All this convo has done is prove that I’m right to avoid amazon marketplace, ebay and now play.

It’s too easy for fraudsters to ply their trade. 🙁

Martin says:
19 August 2014

The list is endless. Mobile phone accessories seem particularly prone to counterfeiting, but I’ve bought a few products that were advertised as genuine looked genuine, but were fake. Usually if the price looks to good to be true ….. And if you suspect it’s counterfeit and you buy, you’re only storing up inconvenience when it doesn’t work as it should or danger especially with electrical goods. The trouble is that the genuine article seems to be soooooo expensive and the original equipment manufacturer is soooooooooo greedy with pricing that it’s often only the counterfeit that’s affordable to many – or seems so.

I have been looking through reviews for travel adaptors sold by Amazon and there are numerous comments that give cause for concern about the build quality and safety. Here is an example relating to an adaptor to allow a UK plug to be connected to a Schuko socket (as used in Germany, for example):

“A nightmare to get into the socket as the 3rd pin in the UK plugs hardly fits in the adaptor.
A pin fell out of one while trying to put it in the socket
Worst of all one caught fire in the socket!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Now i have my kettle plug welded into the adaptor and one very burnt out socket!!!!”

It is clear that the adapter has not been made to conform to the pin size and spacing of a UK (BS 1363) plug and that it was totally inadequate to carry the current, resulting in severe overheating. I suspect that the purchaser did not pay attention to the fact that the product description makes it clear that the maximum rating is 7.5 amps, assuming that this information was there when they bought the product. This would be adequate for a travel kettle but not a full-size kettle.

It would be useful if Amazon, eBay and other online traders gave some guidance to help us choose products that are both safe and suitable for what we want to use them for. They should provide a way of reporting products that appear to be dangerous, for example due to overheating or coming apart and exposing live parts, or because it is obvious to an experienced person that there is a fault in the design.

There should be a code of practice that requires suppliers to make it very clear if there are any potential hazards, for example that a particular adaptor must not be used with appliances that require an earth connection. In some cases, neither the product description or photos give this essential information.

I have been following the previous Conversations on travel adaptors with great interest and am glad this Conversation has come along to widen out the discussion to include other defective and non-compliant electrical products sold through websites. As I have mentioned elsewhere I was recently looking to see what was available in outdoor security floodlights and was surprised to see that Amazon were quite happily displaying customer reviews warning intending purchasers that certain products had unconnected earth conductors and yet continuing to market the products. Those particular products are potentially lethal. Customers only discovered the defects when they opened the units to replace the connecting cable with a longer one and found that the earth conductor was not attached in any way to the metal body so there was no earth continuity and therefore no protection. Hundreds, possibly even thousands, of customers have probably installed these lights with no idea that they are extremely hazardous. Obviously, the presence of cautionary reviews is a sort of safeguard but not everyone will spot the warnings buried in miles of text. Electrical products should, so far as possible, be foolproof; the safety feature is the earth conductor, not a customer’s review.

To my mind it a matter of great urgency for the government to make umbrella retailers who are providing an outlet for sellers we would never otherwise know about responsible for the safety and compliance of the products they put on the market. I am astonished that they consider it is not commercially adverse to be associated with some of the suspect merchandise being marketed under their auspices and to attract a bad reputation for dealing in shoddy goods. Marketplace? – More like a dodgy car-boot sale

A quick search based on what John has posted turned up an example of a potentially dangerous LED floodlight currently sold by an Amazon Marketplace trader based in the UK. Hopefully Which? will allow me to post a link: http://www.amazon.co.uk/OXLUX®-10W-Floodlight-Cool-White/dp/B004QZJVHI/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top

From the reviews (and comments on these reviews where included) of this product, it is evident that some of the floodlights do not have an earth connection. Reviewers who appreciate the danger have warned prospective purchasers, and here is one of the reviews, from January 2013: The lights I got had no earth connection at all. They have a metal case, so this is potentially lethal. Also illegal to sell them.
They are claimed to be CE marked – clearly they aren’t.
There seems to be 3-4 different variants, with different internal electronics. Some have just 2 wires in, some have 3 but with the earth wire not connected to anything, some have a connection to earth

I suppose that we should be grateful that Amazon is not deleting unfavourable reviews.

How many fatalities are needed before the government takes action over the widespread sale of dangerous goods by well respected online retailers? In the example I have given, the problem was evident from a review posted more than two years ago.

What are you actually typing into the amazon search bar ?

In January 2013 I ordered an electrical product from the Amazon website and it was supplied by one of the large Marketplace traders. Here is an email I sent to Amazon:

I have recently purchased an item via Amazon and suspect that it may be unsafe. This was reported to Trading Standards and I have contacted the seller to report my concerns.

What concerns me is that even if I receive a refund, the trader may carry on selling a defective product.

I am keen to know what procedures Amazon uses to ensure that companies trading via your website do not sell unsafe, illegal or counterfeit goods. I have not been able to find advice on how to report such concerns on your website. I trust the Amazon name but I have read some information online that suggests some of the companies trading via Amazon might not be operating legally or professionally.

I have no idea whether or not Amazon reads all correspondence with companies or would like customers to report concerns about unsafe, illegal or counterfeit goods.

Regards
…………

Here is the reply I received:

Hello,

Thank you for contacting Amazon.co.uk.

I understand from your recent e-mail that you have some concerns about a seller on the Amazon.co.uk. Marketplace selling unsafe goods.

Having looked at your account I have found that you have contacted the seller, “……..” regarding an order you recently received from them for “…………”, advising them of your concerns.

There are millions of items on the Amazon.co.uk website, and we have filters in place to ensure that only items that may legally be offered for sale are listed. Occasionally a particular product listing may go unnoticed by our filters and a product we don’t support may then be listed on our website.

We’ll investigate the listing you’ve brought to our attention and will take appropriate action.

I hope this helps. We look forward to seeing you again soon.

Did I solve your problem?

If yes, please click here:
(link removed)

If no, please click here:
(link removed)

To contact us about an unrelated issue, please visit the Help section of our website: http://www.amazon.co.uk/help

Warmest regards,

…………..
Amazon.co.uk
Your feedback is helping us build Earth’s Most Customer-Centric Company.

I did not hear any more from Amazon. The product is still on sale and my negative review is still there.

Excellent stuff socketman. You make me proud that even ” amateurs” can add substance to consumer matters.

I have been long term testing commercial dishwasher and washing machine powders on a cost basis given the large sector of the public who are being squeezed on pay and rising costs.

Unforunately I am not equipped to do optical cleanliness, or hygienic cleanliness testing of clothes.
However both powders seem to be delivering the goods at rock-bottom prices. I have a hypothesis that if you buy a good machine the actual powder used is not hugely significant factor.

If you want to publish any of this can I recommend Wikia as a way to get your efforts more widely discussed beyond Conversations.

http://www.universalsocket.org.uk/

Thanks for the warning socketman – it is a scary read. This makes me even keener that there be a CAWiki letting members easily find these excellent sites. And even give a basic outline.

The reason for CaWiki or Whichopedia being that it unlike Wikipedia it would be monitored for only safe linnks and reviewed. It should not seek to distract from the originating website though.

I found that I had a travel adaptor of the type that Socketman ordered for his test purchase. It was supplied with an expensive inverter (a device that converts 12V DC to 230V AC) that I bought about 20 years ago.

It seems fit for its purpose except that the pins unscrew easily, so overheating could occur. That seems very poor design and I wonder if this problem occurs with other travel adaptors.

Following a suggestion from Socketman, I ordered an adaptor and what I received was different from the product illustrated on the Amazon website. It looks like the bottom centre one in the introduction and is described as a ‘EUROSONIC UK Tourist Adapter’. According to the packaging, it conforms with BS5733 and is fused. I can see no fuse holder, whereas the product information on the Amazon website clearly shows a red fuse holder.

It is high time that Amazon takes responsibility for what its Marketplace traders, especially when there are safety issues – as Socketman has highlighted in the introduction.

I tried to post a review about my purchase to alert others to the fact that they might not receive the product that they had ordered. Socketman had warned me not to post a link because that would infringe the T&Cs of Amazon, but I gave information that would enable readers to find this Conversation. The review was not published, nor was a second attempt.

I initiated the return procedure and was asked by the Marketplace trader (CKONE) to send photos as evidence that I had been sent the wrong product, which I did. CKONE offered me a refund or 30% refund. I have replied saying that I would like the item advertised or failing that, a full refund.

I made the following constructive comments in my response to CKONE, but they elicited no response, and a subsequent request for a response has been ignored:

“Amazon should have provided a clear description of the product, specifying which EU plug(s) the adaptor will accept and there should be a photo showing the other side of the adaptor. That would help both the Marketplace traders fulfilling orders and potential customers. There’s also the safety issues of users forcing plugs into the wrong kind of adaptor and using adaptors that don’t provide an earth connection with appliances that need one.”

As I see it, the Amazon Marketplace system uses Amazon’s respected name to encourage us to purchase from unheard of companies that we might not otherwise think of using. It is a clever strategy but it appears that Amazon does not care much about safety issues.

In 2013, I purchased an item that I considered potentially unsafe, neither Amazon or the Marketplace trader payed any attention to my concerns. Having my comments disregarded is nothing new to me.

Wavechange do you have a twiitter account? If you do post a negative comment against that and I suspect Amazon will soon wake up.

Thanks William. I don’t have a Twitter account but I am well aware that some of our Conversation regulars are using it. One of the reasons that I have avoided Twitter is because of reports that users suffer junk email. I’m happy to give it a go if that can be controlled by adjusting the settings.

I get something like 1 or 2 emails a week from twitter, which just get the delete treatment.

wavechange, have you received a refund or been refused one?

I will put it in the post today. I have not been refused a refund.

Instead of returning it, what if you did an ASA complaint? That would change the product page. But you’d have to send it to ASA when they asked to see it, or upload a photo of it in their complaint form.