Just How Bad Is Amazon's Banned Products Problem?

Photo: Ross D. Franklin, AP

The average American purportedly has more trust in Amazon than their own government, which makes recent reports on thousands of potentially unsafe products making their way onto the company’s online marketplace particularly terrifying.

More than 4,100 products available on the U.S. site — everything from motorcycle helmets to children’s toys — were “declared unsafe by federal agencies, are deceptively labelled or are banned by federal regulators” according to an investigation by the Wall Street Journal last week.

On Saturday, Wired similarly reported that several of the top-selling listings for signal boosters on Amazon lacked U.S. certification, which is kind of important for a device that has the potential to seriously mess with nearby mobile towers. Gizmodo reached out to Amazon and will update this article with the company’s response.

Just to give you a snapshot of how pervasive Amazon’s issue is, in a roughly four-month period, the Journal found:

  • 157 listings for products Amazon previously said it banned from the platform

  • More than 100 listings falsely claiming to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, when some of the products themselves (like toys) aren’t approved by the agency to begin with

  • 80 infant sleeping mats with eerily similar descriptions to one that Amazon purportedly banned after the FDA warned it could cause suffocation

  • Over 2,000 toys lacking proper warning labels

  • 44 listings for motorcycle helmets that the Wall Street Journal later discovered had failed to pass safety tests in 2018

Wired also found several mobile phone signal boosters being sold for $150 less than their U.S. Federal Communications Commission-certified counterparts on Amazon. Some even featured an “Amazon’s Choice” badge, a company recommendation for “highly rated, well-priced products” according to Amazon’s site.

The FCC put regulations in place in 2014 to minimise how certified signal boosters interfere with wireless networks, but illegal ones like those sold on Amazon and other online marketplaces ignore all that red tape. Without these safeguards, these models can cause a lot of dropped calls, mobile network interference, and some serious headaches for network providers.

The majority of the Amazon listings detailed in these reports came from the many thousands of third-party vendors on Amazon. Despite being responsible for most of the sales on the site, these types of sellers have been a constant headache for Amazon when it comes to keeping crappy bootleg products off its marketplace.

Counterfeit products have littered the platform for years now, everything from knock-off Snuggies to off-brand cables that could fry your electronics.

Amazon took one of its first major steps toward combatting this practice in 2016, when the company announced plans to make an international brand registry so that only vendors with the right permissions could sell their Amazon-registered products on the site.

But Amazon still retained the sole right to remove allegedly counterfeit listings. So in 2019, it debuted “Project Zero,” a project aimed at allowing registered brands to identify and remove these fake items themselves with the help of machine learning. Despite this, Amazon hasn’t really explained how it plans to keep these companies from potentially abusing this authority or pushing legitimate competition out of the running.

The e-commerce giant seems to have as much trouble with regulating potentially harmed listings as it does with these counterfeits. After the Journal noted the problematic products its investigation found, Amazon purportedly removed or reworded 57 per cent of these listings.

“We invest significant resources to protect our customers and have built robust programs designed to ensure products offered for sale in our store are safe and compliant,” the company wrote in a blog post addressing the investigation on Saturday.

However, within two weeks Journal investigators reportedly came across “at least 130 items with the same policy violations reappeared, some sold by the same vendors previously identified by the Journal under different listings” in addition to more than 2,000 new listings for balloons that lacked proper choking hazard warnings.

So while Amazon definitely seems more on the alert for these potentially harmful products given all the recent press coverage, it’s already looking like the same game of Whack-a-Mole the company plays with trying to block knock-offs.

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