More must be done to protect consumers against online harms, after a UK survey revealed the lack of trust consumers have in the tech giants.
Which? has launched a campaign for new laws to protect people from scams, unsafe products and fake reviews, and believes urgent government action is needed to make platforms legally responsible for harmful content on their sites.
A survey of 2,000 UK adults, conducted in September 2021, reveals trust among consumers in tech giants’ ability to protect them from these issues is shockingly low – with 68% saying they have little or no trust in online platforms to protect them from either scams, dangerous products or fake reviews.
Make tech giants take responsibility – sign our petition now.
One in five reported buying an unsafe product in the past 12 months
Which? has long campaigned for better standards to protect against unsafe products bought online. In the past 12 months, 18% of people claim to have bought an unsafe product that posed a health or safety risk from an online marketplace such as Amazon, eBay, Wish and AliExpress.
Amazon’s Choice power bank caught fire
Alan Christopher, 46, bought an ‘iPosible’ power bank from Amazon Marketplace. However, shortly after receiving it, the Amazon’s Choice product caught fire while being used in his home. He managed to get the product to his sink and cover it with water before it caused further damage.
He told Which?: “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 mistrustful of buying from Amazon.”
Amazon initially asked him to send the damaged lithium battery in the post in order to get a refund for the product which cost £24.95. However, after seeing Alan’s images of the damaged product, the online marketplace agreed to provide him with a full refund.
Which? has seen similar reports from customers reviews on iPosible products on Amazon.
Which? research into unsafe products
Working with European partners, we found high rates of safety failures with two thirds of the 250 products tested across 18 product categories bought from online marketplaces including Amazon, eBay, AliExpress and Wish.com, failing safety tests. We have also found banned products on sale – including toys listed on the EU’s safety gate database; and car seats sold by unapproved sellers and therefore illegal to be sold in the UK.
Research conducted by Which? In 2019 showed that only 21% of UK online marketplace users are aware that online marketplaces have no legal responsibility for the safety of items available on their sites. 70% thought the law should change to make this a legal responsibility, and 90% thought the marketplace should be either solely or jointly involved in product recalls.
Read our guide on how to spot a fake or dangerous product.
Two in five struggle to identify genuine reviews from fakes
Nearly nine in 10 people use online reviews to inform a product purchase, yet the proliferation of fake reviews means consumers are at risk of being misled when making a purchase.
In our survey, just 6% agreed ‘a great deal’ that online platforms like Facebook, Amazon and TripAdvisor are taking effective steps to protect consumers from fake reviews. Three times as many don’t think effective steps are being taken at all.
The fact that fake reviews are often difficult to detect underlines how it should be the responsibility of the platform, and not the consumer – 41% find it difficult to spot whether a review is genuine or fake, and only 17% say they find it easy.
Customer reviews mislead on bed purchase
Carolyn, a filmmaker from London, was conned out of £110, after buying a bed that she had seen advertised on Facebook. Prior to making the purchase, Carolyn had checked the company’s customer reviews. Encouraged by several positive comments, Carolyn placed an order for the bed. Things quickly went awry – the company did not send a delivery confirmation, and her messages went unanswered. Carolyn never received her purchase.
She told Which?: ‘I checked the company’s customer reviews again, and there are now dozens of reviews from others who were scammed with the same ad. I went to find it on Facebook to report it, and discovered it does not come up as a regular ad, but as a post shared from a personal account. Facebook needs to stop people posting details of dubious companies.
‘I wanted to share my story as people think that it is only those who are elderly, or extremely vulnerable, who are being scammed. Unfortunately, scams are becoming rife on social media, they can affect anyone of any age.’
Which? research into fake reviews
Which? has played an important role in shining a spotlight on fake reviews in the UK. We’ve repeatedly highlighted the problems Amazon has with fake reviews – demonstrating how highly rated products on its platform have performed poorly in Which? lab tests. A unique behavioural experiment has also shown that fake reviews make consumers more than twice as likely to choose poor-quality products.
Read our guide on how to spot a fake review.
8% of people have fallen victim to a scam on an online platform
Scams are perhaps the most persistent and considerable online threat to consumers, yet just 35% of the British public trust that online platforms are taking effective steps to protect their customers or visitors from scams. This compares with 51% who trust them very little or not at all.
8% of respondents said they had fallen victim to a scam as a result of using an online platform. Of those, 51% say it has negatively affected their financial situation, while 39% say it has negatively impacted their anxiety with regards to financial situations.
Two in five (42%) say it has had an adverse effect on their stress levels in general and a third (33%) say that it had a negative impact on their mental health.
Over £20,000 lost to an investment clone scam found on Google
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. He was then contacted by a fraudster posing as a Standard Chartered bank employee. The fraudster convinced David to deposit his life savings.
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. Scammers should be locked away forever.’
*David is not the real name of the case study
Which? research into online scams
Which? has long been highlighting the devastating scale and harm of scams in the UK.
Scams have reached record levels during the pandemic. According to our analysis of Action Frauds data, the most common scam in the past year involved online shopping and auction fraud, accounting for one in four of all incidents reported.
Through our free scam alert service we’ve repeatedly issued warnings about breaking scams targeting internet users. In an investigation conducted last year, we found that one in 10 had been scammed by an advert they’d seen in search engine results or on their social media feed.
Online platforms play a pivotal role in enabling criminals to reach and defraud internet users through the hosting, promotion and targeting of fake and fraudulent content on their sites.
But the reactive approach taken by the world’s biggest online platforms is allowing harmful scams to slip through the net. Our research found that social media and search engine users are put off reporting scams by onerous forms and perceived lack of action against fraudsters, with two in five victims of online scam ads not reporting them to the host platform.
Read our guide on how to spot an online shopping scam
Which? campaign – #JustNotBuyingIt
Which? has launched its new #JustNotBuyingIt campaign to make tech firms take responsibility for the harms taking place on their sites. Unscrupulous individuals or businesses and criminals have been selling unsafe products, misleading consumers and targeting potential scam victims with ease, causing serious harm to consumers and undermining trust in digital commerce.
Powerful tech companies often profit from this harmful activity – whether via investment adverts paid for by criminals or sales of unsafe products boosted by fake reviews – and the lack of a legal framework means they lack sufficiently strong incentives to shut down these practices.
Despite having some of the most sophisticated technology known to man, the voluntary solutions put forward to date by the major online platforms to tackle these problems have been completely inadequate.
Which? believes the government must now step in with laws giving regulators and other bodies the powers they need to make online platforms take responsibility for the serious consumer harms on their sites.
Rocio Concha, Which? Director of Policy and Advocacy, said:
‘Millions of consumers are being exposed every day to scams, dangerous products and fake reviews. The world’s biggest tech companies are profiting from these consumer harms and it is clear that they simply are not willing to take responsibility for protecting people.
‘We are launching our new #JustNotBuyingIt campaign because it is time to stop asking these platforms to do the right thing to protect consumers – instead the government and regulators must now step in and make them take responsibility.’
Tech giants respond
Amazon said it invested more than $700 million and employed more than 10,000 people last year to protect customers from fraud and abuse. It said it is relentless in its efforts to innovate with industry-leading tools to help protect the integrity of its reviews, so customers can shop with confidence. Amazon urges customers to report issues or contact customer service if they have concerns.
eBay said it’s committed to ensuring consumers have confidence to shop safely on its platform, has measures in place to block listings that do not comply with its policies, and that these have resulted in blocking six million unsafe listings in 2020. It also said it has dedicated teams who manually review and remove listings, and has established a regulatory portal that enables authorities to directly report and remove listings.
Facebook said that it’s dedicating significant resources to tackle online scams, including detecting scam ads, blocking advertisers, and in some cases, taking them to court. It will continue to invest in new technologies to protect people from scams, and has donated £3 million to raise awareness of online scams and help victims.
Google says protecting consumers and legitimate businesses in the financial sector is a priority, and that it has been working with the FCA for over a year to implement new measures. It has launched further restrictions requiring financial services advertisers to be authorised by the FCA with carefully controlled exceptions, which it will vigorously enforce.
Santander said it sympathises with the scam victim but had shown multiple investment scam warnings, and that it was unfortunate the customer continued to make the payment. It said it reviews whether a customer was vulnerable at the time they fell victim to a scam, and does not consider that to be the case here.
Which? was unable to find email or phone contact details for iPosible. It reached out to a seller through Amazon’s website but had not heard back by the time of publication.
Make tech giants take responsibility – sign our petition now.