/ Technology

It’s about time tech giants took more responsibility

Major online platforms have access to some of the most sophisticated technology in the world, so why can’t they effectively protect people from harm when using their sites? 

It’s no secret that we’re spending more of our lives on the internet – not least with the pandemic making it a lifeline to many. Whether it’s to buy things that can be delivered to us in 24 hours, to connect with friends and family we can’t see in person, to learn and work from home or access our bank account and other services – the internet can bring convenience and ease to everyday life. 

It’s difficult, however, to ignore the risks people face when using online services. Over the past two years our investigations have repeatedly exposed the range of content that has made its way onto major sites – whether its scams, fake reviews or the sale of dangerous products.

And while tech giants have put measures in place to protect their users, we’re worried that these problems are continuing on an industrial scale. 

Our latest research demonstrates this once again. One in five respondents to our survey reported having bought an unsafe product that posed a health or safety risk from an online marketplace in the last year, eight per cent said they had been the victim of a scam as a result of using an online platform.

Of the nearly nine in 10 respondents who said they use online customer reviews to inform product purchases, just six per cent trust ‘a great deal’ that online platforms are taking effective steps to protect consumers from fake reviews. Three times as many said they do not trust ‘at all’ that they are taking effective steps. 

“I don’t trust anyone now”

Being scammed or unknowingly buying a dangerous product boosted by fake reviews can happen to anyone, even the savviest of internet users. And the consequences can be devastating, affecting people’s financial, emotional and physical health in a life-changing way. 

Take David*, who lost over £20,000 in an investment clone scam last year after clicking on what appeared to be a legitimate website that appeared in a Google search for the ‘best rate of interest for savings of £15,000’ and filling in his personal details.

After being contacted by a fraudster posing as a Standard Chartered bank employee, he was convinced to deposit his life savings. Shockingly, he’s still not received a refund. 

He told Which?:

“I feel very upset and shocked about the scam. I am an honest person, and wrongly expected others to be the same. It has been a rude awakening – I don’t trust anyone now. The money from the investment was to be used for a replacement joint operation – I will be in agony for months to come.”

“This product could have killed me”

And then there’s Alan Christopher, who told Which? he bought an ‘iPosible’ power bank from Amazon Marketplace but that shortly after receiving it, the product – which carried a coveted Amazon’s Choice endorsement – caught fire in his home. He managed to get the product to his sink and cover it with water before it caused further damage.

He said:

“This product could have killed me. It’s really worrying that these products are making their way into people’s homes and are still being sold despite having such a serious issue. It has made me distrustful of buying from Amazon.” 

We’re #JustNotBuyingIt

Having tracked these problems for years, we think they’re symptomatic of a broader issue: the failure of major online platforms to take enough responsibility for their users’ safety.

That’s why we’ve launched our #JustNotBuyingIt campaign, calling on the Government to make online platforms legally responsible for the harmful content found on their sites.

Without this, it makes it easier for criminals to get away with selling unsafe products, misleading consumers and targeting potential scam victims. We don’t think this is fair, especially considering the amount of money companies make from this activity – whether via investment adverts paid for by criminals or sales of unsafe products boosted by fake reviews. And without a legal framework they don’t have the incentives to shut these practices down.

We think Government action is needed not just to deal with the harms people face, and the consequences it can cause, but because companies have done so little to proactively protect users of their sites.  Voluntary solutions put forward to tackle these problems have been proven to be inadequate. If they’re not going to take responsibility for protecting their users, we think the Government should step in.

What concerns you the most when using an online platform?
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What do you think? Do you feel tech giants are doing enough to protect people from fake reviews, scams, and unsafe products? Would you trust platforms to regulate themselves, or would you welcome legal requirements mandated by law?  

What advice would you share with to others to help them spot fake reviews or unsafe products when shopping online?  Let’s talk more in the comments.

Comments

I think we need to campaign hard for marketplace hosts to be made responsible for all the products they sell, and social media sites for the advertisements they publish.

It is heartening to see that many people have little or no trust in these places. I wonder if that translates into not using them for purchases or not responding to adverts?

The consumer champion’s latest research, a survey of 2,000 UK adults, shows trust among consumers in the ability of tech giants like Amazon, eBay, Facebook and Google to protect them from either scams, unsafe products or fake reviews is shockingly low – with two thirds (68%) of people saying they have little or no trust that online platforms are taking effective steps to do so.
Perhaps the Which? Campaign should be to persuade people to avoid buying off marketplaces until the hosts take full responsibility for what they sell?

However, if the bank is to be believed, with some – maybe many – people there will be an uphill struggle to protect them from fraudsters and themselves.

David*, in his seventies, lost over £20,000 in an investment clone scam last year. After a Google search for the ‘best rate of interest for savings of £15,000’, he clicked on what he believed to be a legitimate website, and filled in his personal details.

“We have the utmost sympathy for all those who fall victim to the criminals who carry out these scams. Despite [David] being shown multiple investment scam warnings that cautioned against ‘spoof companies’; receiving an SMS to check the payment was genuine; and a Confirmation of Payee match to a different company name from who he was investing in, he unfortunately continued to make the payment.”
“When reviewing a claim under the Contingent Reimbursement Model, we always consider whether a customer was vulnerable at the time they fell victim to a scam. In this case, we have closely reviewed his case and do not consider him as vulnerable.”

https://press.which.co.uk/whichpressreleases/new-laws-needed-to-protect-people-from-an-epidemic-of-scams-dangerous-products-and-fake-reviews-online-which-warns/

Anything we can do to automatically block payments to fraudsters will be a step forward but we need to examine how such an objective can be realistically achieved. Meantime we must campaign to ensure the public are generally educated about how to avoid being scammed.

Which? has repeatedly warned us about dangerous products sold via online marketplaces. Here is one example that mentions a powerbank purchased from an Amazon marketplace trader: https://www.which.co.uk/news/2019/09/killer-chargers-travel-adaptors-and-power-banks-rife-on-online-marketplaces/

Camilla’s introduction gives an example of a power bank purchased via Amazon that caught fire.

As I and others learned from Which?, online marketplaces are not legally responsible for ensuring that their traders sell safe products that comply with the appropriate safety standards that apply to normal retailers.

Having identified the problem and made us aware of it in the magazine and in Conversations, what happens next? I want to see Which? pushing government to take action that will make online marketplaces responsible for everything advertised on their websites.

I am strongly opposed to Which? using affiliate links rather than leaving it to us to decide where to buy from because in my view it compromises the independence of the organisation. Much worse is that after identifying problems with Amazon marketplace, this is on the affiliate list: https://www.which.co.uk/help/all-help/5200/which-affiliate-activity

I count myself as a Which? supporter but sometimes I am very disappointed. Perhaps we need a campaign to encourage Which? to take responsibility for using its own research.

A problem is that Which? has (very) limited reach. Legislation is needed to control online marketplaces. This requires Which? and other relevant organisations to work together to get the message out (same with frauds and how to behave responsibly financially) and work with government to get legislation in place.

I would assume we need at least Europe-wide action to combat the power of Amazon. I wonder what they are doing? Perhaps Which? can tell us.

Since Amazon is a US company perhaps the priority is for our government to make contact with the US government and demand action. I’m surprised that European governments are not already working together to tackle the problems of dangerous products sold online.

If Which? cannot kickstart some action I don’t know who will.

I doubt Which? have the ability to achieve this – not on its own. However it is one of the most worthwhile campaigns it should take part in.

As for the US, if they are unable to control Amazon I doubt the UK government will have any more luck. However, there are signs of unease, at least in Texas and California https://www.businessinsider.com/amazon-texas-lawsuit-third-party-sellers-2021-3?r=US&IR=T

But what are the chances of Amazon just settling with the plaintiffs before becoming embroiled in a trial?

One thing Which? could do is to try to get Amazon to make quite clear when they have no liability for the safety of products on each marketplace site. At least that might warn customers to be careful when planning a purchase.

https://www.theverge.com/2020/1/28/21080720/amazon-product-liability-lawsuits-marketplace-damage-third-party

Unfortunately I don’t have access to this article but here is one that I bookmarked earlier: https://www.theverge.com/2021/5/1/22414185/california-appeals-court-amazon-marketplace-responsible-third-party-hoverboard

We have spent a lot of time discussing product safety, Malcolm, but my Impression is that most people are unaware of the amount of dodgy electrical goods on sale online.

@ceason Hi Camilla – Please could you let us know if Which? is currently in contact with government over dangerous products on sale via online marketplaces? Thanks for the Conversation.

Last year I used a Letting Agents , Freeman Forman, to find me a tenant for my flat. My tenant left after 3 years, my partner had terminal cancer and I didn’t have the time or energy to find someone. The person they found was a member of an Albanian drug gang, he was British I think, he used an alias, one of many, and only paid 2 months rent before leaving without my knowledge. The police raided the flat and found an Albanian with £60,000 cash, a fridge full of cocaine and cannabis. Freeman Forman have denied it is their responsibility and I’m currently with the Ombudsman to try to reclaim my losses. What shocked me and others I have told is the lack of accountability of Freeman Forman. They seem professional and in fact are hopeless. There seems to be no proper regulation to make sure they do their job, I paid £600 for their services! They refuse to pay this back. Things need to change.

Above posted in error – asked mods to delete.

Since Google’s Googlebot web-crawls the Internet regularly (at least daily for more popular sites), it would be very simple for them to carry out basic checks, looking for indicators pointing to scam activities, that I would carry out myself before shopping online. These manual checks often rely on Google tools, so they have the technologies and data already.

Are they selling investments? Are they FCA regulated? (FCA lookup)

Are they selling products? Do the products look genuine? (Google searches)

Do they have a valid UK business address? Is it residential? (Google Maps and Google Street View will tell them)

Do they have a legitimate email address? (WHOIS lookup)

What about a valid landline contact number? (Validate area code and Google search)

Company number and VAT registration? (GOV.UK lookups)

Are their Terms and Conditions just standard boilerplates, or do they reflect the business activities?

Are the testimonials and reviews genuine or are they cloned from other websites? (Google search)

Are the photographs genuine? (Google image search)

Is the whole website a clone? (Google cached pages comparison)

What about third-party reviews? (Check Trust Pilot and others)

The results of all these checks could easily be flagged up in Google Chrome.

If these companies can build tracking and face recognition technology to monitor us, they can build systems to protect us.” Which? tell me in an email. I would like them to be able to do that. This sort of statement is easy to make but needs rather more effort to support it. If Which? would explain just what these systems might be it would help.

Which? responds to the news that nearly one-fifth of retirees have fallen victim to a financial scam
29 September 2021
Gareth Shaw, Which? Head of Money, said:
”“The surge in investment scams targeting people looking for better returns in an era of record-low savings rates is shocking – but the onus should not be on retirees to protect themselves when banks and tech giants that facilitate fraud could be doing much more.

If advertising platforms could reasonably identify fraudulent adverts then they should be held responsible for the consequences if they are not expediently removed – should they reimburse “victims” or be heavily fined?

What do banks do, though, generally to “facilitate fraud”? Simply following a client’s instructions to move money from their account to another is their contractual obligation and does not “facilitate fraud”, (unless they could be reasonably expected to know the transaction was a fraud). Not unless, of course, you asked them for advice.

I can’t find the “news” that tells us that 20% of retirees (are they everyone over 65?) have fallen victim (and for how much?). Perhaps Which? would provide a link to their source.

However I found this bit from the USA that has relevance:

https://www.forbes.com/sites/teresaghilarducci/2021/05/29/financial-fraud-and-the-elderly/
” As Americans get older, we can count on two things: more Americans will be cognitively impaired and losses to financial fraud will increase.

According to a new Federal Trade Commission (FTC) report, people over 80 experience the highest average loss to financial fraud of any age group. The incidence of fraud for this age group is 18% and the median loss is $1300.

The relevance of cognitive impairment, not just in the elderly but that does increase its prevalence, is important because it, i believe, highlights one of the real problems; people making decisions they are not, or no longer, equipped to make. To protect these people from making bad decisions needs action other than reimbursement – that simply leaves them open to repeating mistakes.

They need to put important decisions in the hands of people who can ensure, as far as possible, that no financial harm arises. Banks can help by being informed of, or identifying, such vulnerable people and ensuring the banking facilities they are offered will prevent, or at least mitigate, the losses from inappropriate transactions. We cannot stop them buying Clarks shoes and getting fake sunglasses instead but they could be stopped from, or helped avoid, making bad transactions of any value by limiting the amount they could transfer, without seeking third party advice or confirmation, from, say, family or a professional.

This may cost the client money, but if you cannot do something for yourself it is better to get professional help, and certainly better than losing a lot of money to a scam.

Simply reimbursing anyone who is scammed does not solve the problem; that problem lies, in many cases it would seem, with the declined or lack of ability of the “victim” and that is where help, not reimbursement, is required.

I agree, Malcolm.

It does seem to me, from the anecdotal evidence in these Conversations, that many of the scams where people are telephoned and persuaded to open their devices or reveal their bank details are deliberately aimed at elderly and vulnerable people, and possibly usually the more prosperous rather than the most necessitous financially. I am sure fraudsters do their market research in order to save wasting time and target well-funded bank accounts.

Perhaps such victims are more likely to send off for products from websites or catalogues that cater for that sector. Better if wishing to order some special aids or furniture for their needs, or convenience meals for delivery, to get another family member or friend to order it for them so that they don’t go on a mailing list and eventually get contacted by a scammer.