Australians sold more than 90 million used goods in 2020.
Online marketplaces like Facebook Marketplace, Gumtree and eBay offer an easy and free platform for buying and selling secondhand goods, but using these sites carries some risk.
While conventional retailers are quick to pull recalled items from their shelves, home sellers offloading their secondhand goods online may not be aware their products have been recalled.
In 2020, a CHOICE investigation revealed that unsafe recalled children's products are still widely available for sale through online marketplaces.
We look at the reasons why these dangerous products can still be bought on secondhand sites, as well as provide practical advice on how not to get duped into buying them.
Various models of Kids2 rocking sleepers were recalled in 2019.
Our 2020 investigation: what we found
Kids2 inclined sleepers
Various models of Kids2 rocking sleepers were recalled in the US in April 2019, following reports of 73 infant deaths involving inclined sleepers. The products were recalled in Australia two months later.
In 2020 CHOICE conducted a search for the Kids2 sleepers on Gumtree, Facebook Marketplace and eBay, finding them available to buy on all three sites.
While we were able to positively identify several recalled products, there were many more suspected products that we were unable to confirm due to insufficient product information.
Judging by the product descriptions and our interactions with sellers, most were unaware that the products they were selling had been recalled and linked to suffocation and death when used as an infant sleep surface.
A Gumtree seller referred to the dangerous product as a 'lifesaver', recommending it as a safe sleep surface
One Facebook seller said the product was "great for day sleeps" in her ad, while a Gumtree seller referred to the dangerous product as a "lifesaver", recommending it as a safe sleep surface.
"This Ingenuity Moonlight Rocking Sleeper has been a lifesaver for my bub!" wrote the seller. "I can simply move it around the house and place baby down safely whilst I get some housework done. The soothing music and star projection helps baby rock to sleep."
One eBay seller appeared to be aware of the potential danger of the product and was selling it anyway, with the description stating "versions of this rocker have been recalled in the USA".
Older Bumbo models were subject to a recall. Newer models have a safety harness and updated warning labels to prevent falls.
The manufacturer of these popular baby booster seats launched a worldwide recall in 2012, in response to a number of incidents where babies had fallen while seated on raised surfaces.
Newer models have a safety harness and updated warning labels to prevent falls.
A simple search for the term "Bumbo" on all three online marketplaces turned up pages and pages of results, with about half the products missing the required safety harness.
Some of the products listed on eBay even advertised the fact that they had no harness in the product listing name.
We also carried out a quick sweep of the three marketplaces using a list of recalled children's products to see what showed up.
Gumtree: A Dymples Portacot with finger and limb entrapment hazards and tipping risks
eBay: A Steelcraft walker that could break and release small beads that pose a choking hazard.
Facebook: An Ikea swing that could break and injure the child. (Ikea later relaunched the swing after "a massive testing process", so if you're in the market for one, check the product number to make sure it isn't the original recalled version.)
Why is this happening?
Sellers don't know their product has been recalled
When a product is recalled, the company supplying the defective goods is responsible for administering the recall and spreading the message to consumers.
There is a set of guidelines outlining the steps manufacturers should take to ensure the public is properly notified, but they aren't mandatory, meaning that there isn't much onus on suppliers to make sure their product recalls are effective.
There are guidelines outlining the steps manufacturers should take to ensure the public is properly notified, but they aren't mandatory
In fact, while return rates of recalled goods vary widely, ACCC data suggests that for some product categories they can be as low as 5.3%. Toys, for example, have worryingly low return rates, ranging from 0% to 20%.
So it's hardly surprising that many recalled children's and baby products are still lying around people's homes and eventually ending up for sale on online marketplaces.
Product listings are vague
While conventional online retailers usually list the full model name and number of their products, home sellers often use more general terms.
Most of the recalled products we found were listed under generic names like "Baby rocker" rather than "Ingenuity Dream Comfort Automatic Rocking Sleeper Braden" (the full name of one of the recalled products).
Some of the listings we saw included a brief product description, but none of them included important identifying information such as model or serial numbers.
When asked for this information, many sellers did not provide it while others needed to be told exactly where the information was located on their product.
This lack of product information makes it very difficult for shoppers to determine whether the product they're buying has been recalled. It may also make it more difficult for online marketplaces to find and remove recalled products posted for sale on their platform.
NOTE: We alerted all the sellers we spoke to about the product recall, providing a link to the recall notice and advising them to remove the listing.
There's no onus on suppliers to make sure their recalls are effective, so many sellers are simply unaware their product has been recalled.
It's not illegal to sell a recalled product
It may come as a surprise, but pretty much every product recall you've ever heard of is a 'voluntary recall'. A voluntary recall is initiated by the manufacturer because they've become aware that their product represents a safety risk. A compulsory recall is enforced by the ACCC and they are very rare. In fact, the only compulsory recall in the past 10 years has been the Takata airbag recall.
According to the ACCC, it's not illegal to sell products that have been voluntarily recalled. It's illegal to sell banned products or products that fail to comply with mandatory standards, but these only cover a very small number of products.
A general safety provision could help
Some people may assume that all products sold in Australia must be safe to use, but this isn't the case.
While countries such as the UK have general safety provision laws that state that businesses cannot supply a product unless it's safe, there's no such law in Australia.
So if there's already no guarantee that a new product is safe, it's no wonder there are still unsafe children's products available for sale secondhand.
Every day, two people die and 145 people are injured from unsafe productsJulia Steward, CHOICE head of policy and government relations
"Baby products are often something that children grow out of before they are worn out. This is why they are such popular items to be re-sold online," says Julia Steward, CHOICE head of policy and government relations.
"Parents need to be able to trust that the products they are buying are safe, so that children's lives are not put at risk."
CHOICE is calling for the introduction of a general safety provision so that Australian businesses must make sure their products are safe before they start selling them.
"Every day, two people die and 145 people are injured from unsafe products," says Julia. "A General Safety Duty in the law would stop these unnecessary injuries, and more tragically, fatalities."
Shopping online during the COVID-19 pandemic
Many of us made the switch to working from home either part- or full-time during the COVID-19 pandemic. And while offices are opening up, for a lot of Australians flexible working is here to stay. This has made it easier than ever to switch from buying instore to buying online.
If you buy something from Gumtree, Facebook Marketplace or eBay, you can ask (and pay for) the seller to post the item to you. But in many cases you'll need to meet the seller to pick up the item. Despite Australia's high rates of vaccination, it's still worth following the social-distancing rule of staying more than 2m from people, practising good hand and sneeze/cough hygiene, and staying away from others if you're ill.
You may also want to clean and disinfect your item thoroughly (and the package, if it was posted) to remove any potential traces of the virus that causes COVID-19 and limit its spread.
For detailed advice on how to do this, visit our guide to cleaning in the time of coronavirus.
What are online marketplaces doing to stop the sale of recalled items?
Our 2020 investigation found that online marketplaces such as eBay, Facebook Marketplace and Gumtree all occupy a legal grey area regarding their accountability for the products sold through their sites.
When asked, the ACCC wasn't able to give a clear answer about the legal responsibility of these online marketplaces, stating, "the more a platform is involved in the transaction and supply of the goods, the more likely it is the platform may have legal liability under the ACL".
As a marketplace that does not hold stock nor sell anything directly, it is the responsibility of the sellers we have on the site to comply with any applicable lawseBay Australia spokesperson
In the US, Amazon Marketplace has avoided being held legally accountable for unsafe products sold on its site by arguing that it acts merely as an intermediary to connect buyers and sellers.
A spokesperson for eBay Australia says the site enjoys the same lack of legal responsibility: "As a marketplace that does not hold stock nor sell anything directly, it is the responsibility of the sellers we have on the site to comply with any applicable laws."
Regardless of legal liability, the ACCC says they expect platforms to take positive steps to manage product safety on their sites. And despite the fact that selling recalled products is not illegal, all three of the online marketplaces we investigated claim to make efforts to prevent the sale of recalled products on their sites.
The product safety policy adopted by eBay seems to contradict itself. On the one hand, it states that items recalled by the manufacturer are prohibited from sale. But later down the page it says sellers can list items subject to a recall as long as the items aren't prohibited by law and the listing includes the recall information.
While it's unclear whether or not eBay actually prohibits the sale of recalled items, according to a spokesperson the site takes a number of actions to prevent the sale of unsafe items.
"We use block filter algorithms to prevent unsafe products from being listed," the spokesperson says. "When we are aware of unsafe or recalled products – whether via contact from the ACCC or through our own regular proactive checks of the ACCC's website – we take immediate measures such as introducing new filters and manual sweeps to remove the products."
An eBay representative says the company has also taken action to ban the sale of certain products that pose a safety concern, even if they haven't been formally recalled.
"For example, we banned all inclined baby sleepers on our platform in 2019," says the spokesperson.
However, the results of our 2020 investigation demonstrate that this ban has not been successful, with at least two of the officially recalled sleepers easily located in our search last year.
Facebook's commerce policy unambiguously prohibits the sale of recalled products, and according to Facebook, adherence to the policy is closely monitored.
"We use a combination of technology, human review and reports from our community to find and remove any content that violates these policies, and provide tools that make it easy for our community to report content they think may violate [them]," says a spokesperson.
We had to dig a little deeper and experiment with a number of search terms to find the recalled sleepers for sale on Facebook in our 2020 investigation. Using search terms which closely resembled the recalled items' product names yielded no results. The recalled sleepers we did find were listed under very generic names like "Baby rocker" and "Bright Starts rocker/bouncer".
Gumtree's policy says that recalled items (along with banned products or products that do not meet the mandatory product safety standards) are not allowed on Gumtree, and provides a link to Australia's product safety site.
According to Gumtree, it relies mainly on educating its sellers about unsafe or recalled products, and on letting other users or manufacturers report ads.
Gumtree seems to be the only one of the three sites that doesn't use digital filtering and manual review to police the sale of recalled or unsafe products. This may explain why we were able very easily to find the recalled sleepers, as they were listed with fairly specific product names that closely matched those on the recall list.
Making a complaint
In 2020, we decided to test the complaints process by finding three examples of listings that were selling recalled items, then reporting them following the guidelines given by Facebook Marketplace, eBay and Gumtree. One week later, we checked in to see if we received any correspondence from the sites and whether the listings were still live, then asked for comment on our findings.
Very easy to report recalled items for sale. From the listing you can click on a 'report item' button, then select the reasons from the drop down menu, fill in any extra information and submit.
You select the reason, eg 'recalled items', from eBay's dropdown menu.
We didn't receive any correspondence from eBay, but one week later all three listings were no longer available.
"Users can easily report an item on eBay," says an eBay spokesperson when we contacted them for comment. "Our team reviews any reported listings and any that are found to be recalled items are usually removed within 24 hours. Items that are not officially recalled and require further investigation may take up to a week."
Gumtree offers a comments box so you can explain your complaint.
It was very easy to report recalled items for sale. From the listing, you click the 'report ad' button, select a reason, give any additional information in the comments field – then submit.
We didn't receive any correspondence from Gumtree. When we checked the listings one week later, one was marked as 'sold' and the other two were still live.
You can follow up on your report by contacting Gumtree's support team and quoting the ad ID. We did this for the two remaining listings and received the following response: "Thanks for your email. I will send your report to our Ad moderation team. If you see any Ads that do not comply with our policies, please continue to let us know through the report flag in the Ad. We really appreciate the community bringing any issues to our attention. Please let me know if I can help with anything else."
We didn't receive any correspondence from Gumtree. When we checked the listings one week later, one was marked as 'sold' and the other two were still live
"Gumtree's 'report ad' function is anonymous for users, and due to this we are not able to proactively inform those reporting ads of the action we have taken. Should users require a quicker response they can contact us via the 24/7 live chat.
"We continue to encourage our community of sellers to check product manufacturer information on goods, if they are unsure of the products' safety status."
There is no 'recalled product' option when reporting a listing on Facebook Marketplace.
It's very easy to report a complaint, but lacking the detail needed to flag that the product has been recalled. Click on the '…' symbol on the top right of the listing, then click 'report listing'. You then click on the relevant issue and click 'next'. Unfortunately, there is no 'recalled product' issue to click and no comments box to explain you're reporting a recall. We selected 'inaccurate description' for lack of a better option.
We didn't receive any correspondence either by email or messenger. Interestingly, when viewing the listings a week later from the complainant's login, each listing displayed the following message: "You won't see this item on Marketplace", and the listing didn't come up when we searched for them in Marketplace. But when viewing them from another login, we could easily see the listings – one was sold and the other two were still live.
Facebook declined to comment on our findings.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.