You can buy just about anything on Amazon. But just because you can get a product quickly via the ecommerce retailer doesn’t mean the product is guaranteed to be safe.
The Wall Street Journal examined 4,152 items for sale on Amazon that were declared unsafe by federal agencies, deceptively labeled or banned by federal regulators. Among them, they identified 2,000 listings for toys and medications that didn’t have necessary warnings about health risks to children, and 157 items that Amazon said it had banned. It found 116 products falsely listed as FDA-approved. When WSJ tested 10 kids’ products it bought on Amazon, four failed based on federal safety standards. The WSJ did not examine listings for counterfeit products, an ongoing challenge for ecommerce marketplaces.
As it’s evolved over its 25-year history, Amazon has expanded its marketplace, with 50% of its business coming from third-party sellers. Many of those sellers ship from their own warehouses, but WSJ’s investigation found that 46% of the products examined said they shipped from Amazon facilities.
At best, uncertainty about the authenticity or safety of products you find for sale on Amazon is a hassle. At worst, it can be deadly. The WSJ cited one case where a motorcycle rider died after their fraudulently labeled helmet flew off in a collision. The rider’s family sued, and while Amazon did not admit fault, claiming “it didn’t sell the helmet but merely listed it on the seller’s behalf,” according to WSJ’s explanation of the court documents, it settled for $5,000.
Amazon published a blog post responding to the Journal’s investigation, saying that it invested more than $400 million in 2018 alone to ensure product compliance and authenticity. In short, Amazon seems pretty confident about its ability to protect shoppers:
In 2018, our teams and technologies proactively blocked more than three billion suspect listings for various forms of abuse, including non-compliance, before they were published to our store.
Once a product is available in our store, we continuously scan our product listings and updates to find products that might present a concern. Every few minutes, our tools review the hundreds of millions of products, scan the more than five billion daily changes to product detail pages, and analyze the tens of millions of customer reviews that are submitted weekly for signs of a concern and investigate accordingly.
Amazon took down many of the listings the WSJ point out, but some of those have cropped up again under other seller profiles. And with a catalog of more than 350 million listings between its own inventory and third-party sellers, you can only imagine that despite its best efforts, products with issues do slip through the cracks at Amazon.
How to avoid potentially dangerous products on Amazon
Look for items that are sold by Amazon
Items sold by Amazon are ones that Amazon has bought directly from the manufacturing company to sell, and Amazon requires those brands to have sufficient insurance. While former Amazon safety and compliance manager Rachel Johnson Greer told the WSJ that you should only shop Amazon.com-sold products for these categories:
- Anything for children or babies
- Anything that plugs into the wall
- Anything with lithium-ion battery
- Anything that touches your skin, like makeup
- Anything that covers your head or face
To make this determination, look under the “buy” button for text that says “Ships from and sold by Amazon.com.”
Don’t assume “Amazon’s Choice” is your best option
The “Amazon’s Choice” label on product listings isn’t because the company completed a thorough review of the item. Rather, as a report from BuzzFeed News points out, it’s just an algorithm that rewards listings based on their customer reviews, price, and inventory level.
Check the reviews on any “Amazon’s Choice” listing to make sure they reflect the product that’s being advertised. Some sellers may recycle listings that have received the choice label in order to attract more sales for something else.
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Be critical of item descriptions
Greer said that the word “approved” is a big red flag you might see in a product description. “Very few products in a compliance sense can be approved,” Ms. Greer told the WSJ. “You register with the FDA, or something complies with a particular law or is accredited.”
Another indicator of a low-quality listing is commas with no spaces after them, Greer said. It’s an error typical for non-native English speakers.
Watch for fake reviews
The more positive reviews a listing has, the higher it will appear in search results, the Wall Street Journal’s Jon Emont explained in a video accompanying the investigation. In that video, Howard Thai, a consultant for Amazon sellers, warned that very short, positive reviews shouldn’t trusted.
Fake and illegally compensated reviews run rampant on Amazon, and it can be hard to determine real from fake. You can use a tool like Review Meta to analyze reviews for authenticity.
Check for product recalls
If you’re eyeing a product from an unfamiliar brand, or are looking to buy a product from one of the high-risk categories listed above, visit the U.S. government hub for product recalls, aptly named recalls.gov. The site looks like it hasn’t been updated in about 15 years, but you can view recent recalls by category or search for a product by name.