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PERSONAL TECHNOLOGY: Attention Amazon Shoppers: How to Safety-Proof Your Order

By Joanna Stern 

If you want a real-life Debbie Downer at your child's next birthday, I'm available for hire.

At a recent party, after my son's two-year-old buddy had unwrapped some magnetic building blocks, I slyly grabbed the box to check it wasn't an unsafe counterfeit. Then I began to tell parents about the potentially dangerous, possibly untested children's products on Amazon. At least I waited...until after the cake?

This is what happens when your colleagues have spent months investigating the safety of Amazon products. You should read the entire piece and watch the in-depth video above but here are some of the most shocking stats:

--The Journal found 4,152 items for sale on Amazon.com that have been declared unsafe by U.S. government agencies, are deceptively labeled or are banned by federal regulators -- items that big-box retailers' policies would bar from their shelves.

--We identified 157 items for sale that Amazon had said it banned, including sleeping mats the Food and Drug Administration warns can suffocate infants.

--We commissioned tests of 10 children's products. Four failed tests based on federal safety standards, according to the testing company, including one with lead levels that exceeded federal limits.

After the Journal brought the listings to Amazon's attention, the company removed most of them. "Safety is a top priority at Amazon," a company spokeswoman said, adding that it has advanced tools and a compliance team geared to prevent unsafe and noncompliant products from being listed.

Still, the safeguards don't always work. Amazon these days resembles a giant flea market far more than it resembles Buy Buy Baby or even Target, with most products now coming from third-party sellers. At least 40% of sellers on Amazon.com, the company's U.S. marketplace, are based in China, according to Marketplace Pulse, and some share little -- or misleading -- information about what they're actually selling.

And it's beginning to affect our safety. Last December, Jennifer White of Appleton, Wis., received Imden Magnetic Blocks for her 4-year-old son as a gift. Her son was rushed to the hospital after the toy broke and he ingested some magnets, Ms. White said. The magnetic toy set was purchased on Amazon, which removed the product after it became aware of the incident. A company called Shenzhen asos E-Commerce Ltd., which says it is the owner of the Imden brand, declined to comment.

The worst part? The Imden-branded product was listed right next to industry-leading brands like Magformers and Magnatiles, which meet U.S. safety standards. Amazon's website and app make it difficult to distinguish the legitimate from the illegitimate. Here are some routes to safer shopping.

Route 1: Buy directly from Amazon.com sellers

When shopping, you first need to identify products that should meet higher safety standards. What products are those? Rachel Johnson Greer, a former Amazon safety and compliance manager who now advises Amazon sellers at her firm Cascadia Seller Solutions, helped me make a list:

--Anything for children or babies

--Anything that plugs into the wall

--Anything that has a lithium-ion battery

--Anything that touches your skin (i.e. makeup)

--Anything that covers your head or face (i.e. a scuba mask)

Items that meet those criteria should be bought directly from Amazon.com, which can be trickier than you think. On a product page, look at the text under the buy button. You'll typically see one of three variants:

-- Ships from and sold by Amazon.com. This is the one you're looking for. Like other retailers, Amazon has bought the item from the company and sells it itself. Ms. Greer said the biggest benefit is that Amazon requires these manufacturers to have sufficient insurance.

-- Sold by [name of third-party seller] and Fulfilled by Amazon. While this one may have an Amazon Prime badge, don't be fooled. The product is shipped from Amazon's warehouses but the e-commerce giant merely functions as the fulfillment, shipping and returns service for the seller.

-- Ships from and sold by [name of third-party seller]. This one comes right from that seller, and is never touched by Amazon.

There is a way -- a hard-to-find way -- to filter searches to just Amazon.com products. On the website, search for a product. On the results page, look at the left rail and click whatever the top category is under the word "Department." Now scroll down to where it says "Seller" and select "Amazon.com."

Follow a similar process on the Amazon mobile app. Search for your product, tap Filter on the right side of the screen, select the top department and you should see an "Amazon.com" filter when you scroll down.

Route 2: Do Your Homework on Third-Party Sellers

Not all third-party sellers market unsafe or shady goods, of course. In the electronics category, for instance, some of the best options are sold by third parties. Anker, a technology brand I've long recommended, uses Fulfilled by Amazon.

This just means that if you choose to go with a third-party seller, you have to be more diligent in your inspection. Here's what I do, following advice from experts:

Search the web for the company and product. Search the name of the manufacturer of the product. If it has a website, look for signs that this is a real, well-established company (customer service, mission statement, etc.). Can't find a website? Red flag!

Also check if the product is available at other retailers such as Target, Best Buy, Buy Buy Baby or Walmart.

Carefully read product descriptions. Look over how the Amazon product descriptions are written, keeping an eye out for basic grammar errors and broken English. One of the biggest giveaways, according to Ms. Greer? Commas with no spaces after them.

The word "approved" is another biggie and a strong indicator of counterfeits because companies that comply with safety regulations generally don't use the word. "Very few products in a compliance sense can be approved," Ms. Greer said. "You register with the FDA, or something complies with a particular law or is accredited."

Look at the reviews. Read the text of the reviews to see if anyone else has had issues with the product. But beware: Fake or incentivized reviews are a problem on Amazon and they're typically found on listings of shady sellers. To spot these, read the text versus just looking at the rating, use a review rating site like ReviewMeta and read my column on other ways to spot fakes.

"Any attempt to manipulate customer reviews is strictly prohibited," the Amazon spokeswoman said, adding that in the last year the company has spent over $400 million to protect customers from reviews abuse, fraud and other forms of misconduct.

Something we all need to commit to memory: "Amazon's Choice" isn't a quality guarantee. Amazon doesn't test these products; it crowns them using an algorithm that takes into account various factors, including popularity, shipping speed, price and more. Sellers have begun to figure out ways to manipulate the algorithm, experts say.

Dig into the safety. If something you really want falls into one of the higher risk categories above, take extra steps to make sure it's safe. Check product recalls at recalls.gov -- a one-stop site with info from the Consumer Product Safety Commission and other federal agencies.

If you're buying electronics and they're supposed to be listed or certified by UL, a globally recognized, independent safety-testing organization, check to see if the product detail page links to certification documents. If not, ask the seller to provide them.

Buying food, drugs, supplements or medical devices? Check the FDA's website. It alerts the public to safety issues in warning letters to companies, recall notices, lists of approved drugs and more.

Some sellers promote their products' safety features by claiming they've been tested by independent parties or are certified by regulators. Contact the seller for documentation. If it's an item for a kid, ask for the children's product certificate or CPC.

I was debating between two toy trucks for my son. I contacted both companies for the CPC. One sent it within a few days. The other hasn't returned my emails or calls. Sure, it slowed down the process but -- and this is what I've gotten very good at guilt-tripping parents about at birthday parties -- a lot more should factor into our Amazon purchase decisions besides price and convenience.

I also do weddings and bar mitzvahs.

Frank Matt and Robert Libetti in New York and Crystal Tai in Hong Kong contributed to this article.

Write to Joanna Stern at joanna.stern@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

August 23, 2019 09:10 ET (13:10 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2019 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.