TOYING WITH DANGER: The rise of online sellers putting children’s safety at risk

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Beware of the quick click on Amazon: Calls are being made to the Government to crack down on dangerous toys being sold online as demand soars for unregulated marketplaces. Here’s how to spot and avoid buying unsafe toys and keep children safe.

Buying toys online has never been easier. It is often the cheapest and easiest way of buying children’s playthings, with even the most sought-after toy available to buy with a quick search and the click of a single button.

Last year 74% of parents said they bought children’s toys online. But at what cost is this easy access bringing?

Shock realities of online retailers

The findings of separate studies conducted by consumer group Which? and The British Toy & Hobby Association (BTHA) have revealed an alarming reality among online marketplaces which use third-party sellers.

Put simply, the BTHA states: “Children in the UK are at risk of death or serious injury from the sale of unsafe toys through online marketplaces.”

While responsible toy brands work tirelessly to adhere to costly health and safety standards, the lack of regulation in popular online marketplaces such as Amazon and ebay are now posing serious threats.

In one investigation Which? discovered toy slime readily available to buy that had levels of the mineral boron above the EU limit. It also got hold of a flammable children’s Halloween costume, among other items.

The BTHA conducted a detailed study during which it tested 200 toys from three of the largest online platforms – Amazon, ebay and AliExpress (a Chinese online retailer). Its findings revealed 58% of toys bought via third-party vendors did not comply with UK safety requirements.

Among the legal disregard, traders failed to provide safety warnings on products or traceable contact details, and counterfeit copies of genuine products were found, including Disney Frozen dolls, Elf on the Shelf, LOL Electric Princess Doll and a Harry Potter Movie Castle game.

toy trade infographic

A threat to children’s lives

More concerning though is just how dangerous the illegal toys were found to be. The BTHA said that 22% of the toys tested exposed serious safety failures, with many posing a terrifying risk to children. Among the breaches were toys with small parts that are a choking hazard to under-3s, as well as small button batteries that could be easily removed by young children and would kill them if swallowed. Similarly, overly powerful batteries in some unsafe online toys could cause seriously injury or death.

Some 84% of parents asked agreed that more should be done to ensure only completely safe toys should be available to buy online.

Findings from the British Toy & Hobby Assocation’s study into toy safety. Out of 200 toys tested, 58% of toys from third-party sellers on online marketplaces did not comply with safety regulations.
Findings from the British Toy & Hobby Association’s study into toy safety. Out of 200 toys tested, 58% of toys from third-party sellers on online marketplaces did not comply with safety regulations.

Who is responsible?

While the issue of cheap, unsafe or fake toys on the market is not a recent issue, there is an increasing trend towards unregulated sellers flooding online marketplaces, making it difficult for consumers to realise the scale of the problem.

The BTHA highlights the fact that the boom of online retail is to blame for the worsening problem, saying it is giving third-party traders a ‘legitimate online shop window to the word’. Surprisingly, online marketplaces do not have defined laws and allow third-party sellers to upload unchecked stock to sell via their websites.

Official responsible toy makers and sellers must abide by stringent EU and UK rules and there are obligations upon manufacturers, importers, distributors and authorised representatives. In online marketplaces, however, no-one is taking responsibility, and with lack of legal repercussions comes a lack of incentive to comply.

Trading Standards does not have powers to take on overseas sellers, nor does it have the resources to make enforcements in the UK either. And with marketplaces not stepping up to take the onus on, it is unlikely that anyone will be held liable or even traced in the event of serious injury or even death of a child caused by a dangerous toy.

The BTHA scathingly accuses:

“Currently there is lack of clarity as to the role of the online marketplace in the overall supply chain, and many of the online marketplaces do not consider that they fall within the scope of any of the existing ‘economic operators’ under the Regulations. As a result, they do not take steps to discharge the various obligations attached to those roles.”

Calls for a change in law

Considering online sales of toys accounted for 37% of all toy sales last year and that number is growing each year, what can be done to tackle this issue?

What campaigners want from Government is for laws to be changed. They are demanding for more accountability from online marketplaces for products sold under the umbrella of their name. Only then, they say, will sellers be incentivised to comply with the UK’s existing toy safety requirements.

Consumer groups want to see the law makers strengthen the powers of enforcement agencies such as Trading Standards, and demand online marketplaces take on a duty of care to customers. They are also suggesting more work is done with overseas partners to tackle the unsafe goods coming from abroad and that stricter legislation is imposed on the online marketplace industry.

As well as the vital argument to banish the dangerous toys from marketplaces for the sake of children’s wellbeing, there is also concern about the real threat to the £3.3 billion toy industry in the UK, which could be ruined because of unfair competition from unscrupulous sellers. The BTHA believes that the UK toy economy could benefit from a £850 million surge if illegal and unsafe toys were removed from the market.

Will anything change?

In a report filed in the US by Amazon in 2019, the conglomerate acknowledged they may be ‘unable to prevent sellers in our stores or through other stores from selling unlawful, counterfeit, pirated or stolen good.’

When challenged by the BBC, an ebay spokesperson said: “Consumer safety is our number one priority and we invest significantly in keeping our marketplace safe and educating users on the product safety.”

child playing

How to avoid buying dangerous toys online

Consumers often trust online sellers as they would recognised bricks-and-mortar brands, and find it difficult to identify non-compliant and fake toys.

Want to know how to make sure you’re buying safe toys online? Here are a few tips:

Trust traditional retailers
If you don’t feel comfortable with buying online, go for peace of mind with a brand you know and trust. Most retailers now sell their stock online too and the eCommerce efforts of some are impressive. Often they have more choice online than in their stores.

Do some research before you buy
Search the company that makes the toy you want and include the name in your online search. All toys that flouted Toy Safety Directive regulations in the BTHA’s study were from third-party sellers. Never assume the marketplace has done any checks on these traders.

Check the reviews
While some reviews on product information can be unreliable and generated dishonestly, try to assess who is responding. Pay particular attention of genuine-sounding negative feedback.

Does the trader usually sell toys?
If not, this could be a red flag. Check the reviews.

Do they have a UK or EU address?
This should be listed somewhere on their site. Having an address is a legal requirement to sell toys in the UK. If they’re not traceable, they’re not accountable. And if they’re not accountable, what else are they not bothering to comply with?

Do the photos of a child in the marketing material match the age range of the toy?
If not, why not? Another reason to be vigilant in case the vendor is not being thorough with age restrictions and other safety regulations.

Beware of the lowest price.
If it’s too good to be true, it probably is. The reason is might be cheaper is that it could be falling short of the standards required in the UK, with poor quality materials that may be unsafe. Quality testing is costly to firms, which is why genuine products can be more expensive to manufacture.

How to spot a counterfeit toy
If you see the words ‘compatible with (brand name)’ on packaging or marketing, it could be that this product is posing as a genuine known brand. Is the product cheaper than usual without being on sale?

Checks when you receive your purchase

  • Check your receipt. Check the source of the product. Third parties should be named on them.
  • Does it have an EU or UK address?
  • Does it have a CE mark?
  • Is the labelling age appropriate for the toy?
  • Does it have relevant warnings on the information or packaging?
  • Does it appear to be a quality and genuine product?
  • Look out for small parts – watch your child carefully with the product initially
  • Be particularly aware of loose batteries, loose stuffing, battery compartments or accessible small magnets.
  • Some illegal toys arrive without any packaging or information at all.
  • If you think you have bought something illegal or safe, write a review to warn others and talk to Trading Standards.

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