Can you trust what's sold on Amazon? A Wall Street Journal probe suggests not

With Takealot, the buyer is on his or her own in a dispute over a third-party sale

26 August 2019 - 14:36
By Wendy Knowler
Transport robots move goods in an Amazon centre in Robbinsville, New Jersey.
Image: Getty Images Transport robots move goods in an Amazon centre in Robbinsville, New Jersey.

A Wall Street Journal (WSJ) investigation has found that the world’s biggest retailer, Amazon, was selling more than 4,000 items which were mislabelled or have been banned or declared unsafe by various US government agencies.

They included about 2,000 toys and medications which lacked warnings about health risks to children, the newspaper reported at the weekend.

The WSJ said: “Amazon has increasingly evolved like a flea market. It exercises limited oversight over items listed by millions of third-party sellers, many of them anonymous, many in China, some offering scant information.”

Third-party sellers are crucial to Amazon and other online retailers because their sales have skyrocketed — they made up nearly 60% of physical merchandise sales in 2018, compared with just 30% a decade ago.

The investigative journalists bought 10 children’s products from the site, some of them highlighted as “Amazon’s Choice”, and then commissioned independent tests on them.

“Four failed tests based on federal safety standards, according to the testing company, including one with lead levels that exceeded federal limits,” the WSJ reported.

After it alerted Amazon to the 4,152 products it had highlighted as being mislabelled, banned or unsafe, 57% of them had their wording altered or were removed from the site.

An Amazon spokesperson was quoted in the WSJ as saying: “Safety is a top priority at Amazon. (We) use automated tools that scan hundreds of millions of items every few minutes to screen would-be sellers and block suspicious ones from registering and listing items, using the tools to block 3-billion items in 2018.”

Amazon said that when a concern arises "we move quickly to protect customers and work directly with sellers, brands, and government agencies".

Many South Africans have fallen for Facebook adverts, mainly for cosmetics, asking them to provide their credit card information in order to pay a relatively small shipping fee to receive a “free” trial offer.

Those who provide their card details soon discover that they've been charged much more — about R2,600 — under terms hidden in the fine print on the websites.

This is an international scam, controlled by a company with a footprint in the US and UK, which has multiple fronts peddling multiple products.

South Africa’s biggest online retailer, Takealot, indicates if a product listed for sale on its site is being sold by a third party, for example: “Sold by Monthly Madness -fulfilled by Takealot.”

“In such cases, Takealot provides only the platform to facilitate transactions between third-party sellers and Takealot customers,” the retailer states in its terms and conditions.

“Takealot is not a party to that sale. The third-party seller is solely responsible for fulfilment of delivery of the goods.”

It adds: “Because Takealot wants the registered user to have a safe and consistent experience, Takealot will handle any returns under the CPA or the Electronic Communications and Transactions Act arising out of the sale between a user and a third- party seller on behalf of the seller, according to Takealot’s own returns policy.”

But should the claim escalate into a dispute, the buyer is on his or her own. “Takealot is not obliged to do so and any disputes must be resolved between you and the relevant third-party seller alone.”

GET IN TOUCH: You can contact Wendy Knowler for advice with your consumer issues via email: or on Twitter: @wendyknowler.


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