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.
“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.”
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 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.