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16 Jun 2021

Online marketplaces: consumers at risk over lack of product safety enforcement

Report finds gaps in regulation of unsafe products sold online

Product safety regulation in the UK has failed to keep up with the boom in online shopping and there are 'gaps' that could leave consumers vulnerable to harm, a new report has said.

The National Audit Office (NAO) assessed the effectiveness of the Office for Product Safety and Standards (OPSS), which is the body set up in 2018 to take leadership on product safety.

It found that the OPSS faces 'major challenges' in ensuring the safety of products sold online, including on online marketplaces.

While it has made some 'good progress' in improving product safety for consumers, the NAO report says the OPSS needs to do more to ensure it is effective at protecting consumers from harm - especially now that 90% of internet users shop on online marketplaces.

Find out how to avoid fake and dangerous products when shopping online, and how to spot a fake review

Dangerous products

In its report, the NAO said a recent study of potentially risky products bought from online marketplaces found that 66% failed safety tests, with risks to consumers including electric shock, fire and suffocation.

It also said products bought on online marketplaces were 'estimated to have a higher risk of safety issues than traditional purchases' and that regulation was not keeping up to ensure consumers were protected.

This is partly because regulation relies largely on influencing sellers to comply with product safety rules, rather than proactively ensuring they do so.

Meanwhile, online platforms such as Amazon and eBay are not legally responsible for the safety of the products sold by third parties on their websites - although at Which?, we believe they should be.

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Need for stronger protections

The OPSS estimates that only 17% of consumers consider product safety when making a decision around a purchase - making it less important than other factors such as price or ease of purchase.

In its report, the NAO said the OPSS doesn't have enough data or intelligence to assess potential risks to consumers.

Which? has repeatedly exposed dangerous products for sale on online marketplaces, which demonstrate the need for better regulation.

Sue Davies, head of consumer protection policy at Which?, said the NAO report showed current regulation was not fit for purpose and that the OPSS, which sits within the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, should become an independent body.

'Consumers are being exposed every day to dangerous and illegal items on online marketplaces that have been sold without any safety checks or monitoring,' she said.

'As the NAO has highlighted, the current regulatory framework isn't fit for purpose given the growth in people shopping online and it's essential that online marketplaces are urgently given greater legal responsibility for the safety of all products sold on their sites.

'The OPSS must also be made an independent product safety regulator, at arms length from the government, with a clear focus on consumer safety and real powers to protect consumers from the potentially devastating consequences of unsafe products.