Jane Bradley: Internet sales can be a web of deceit

These conventional fidget spinners are safe if used sensibly, but another version has three blades which stick out when it spins. Picture: John Devlin
These conventional fidget spinners are safe if used sensibly, but another version has three blades which stick out when it spins. Picture: John Devlin
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Online items are not fully regulated, and might turn out to be unsafe or even fake. So if a price looks too good to be true, it probably is, says Jane Bradley

There have always been toys which are potentially lethal.

A Cabbage Patch Doll sold in the US in the 1990s – whose gimmick was that it appeared to “eat” snacks – was found to be accidentally consuming children’s fingers and hair as well. Then there was the Austin Magic Pistol, which produced a ball of fire. Real, hot, fire.

The best has to be the U-238 Atomic Energy Lab science kit released in 1951 – which was withdrawn from sale after it was found to contain real radioactive materials.

These days, things are generally more stringent and dangerous toys – at least those containing nuclear energy – are not allowed to be put on sale. In shops, at any rate.

However, while toys sold in physical retailers have to meet a British standard for safety, there is a loophole which means products flogged on websites do not necessarily have to go through the same tests.

A few weeks ago, a dangerous version of the fidget spinner – the must-have toy purportedly created for children with attention deficit disorders – was found to be on sale online.

The danger was not a simple error on the part of the maker. This version, the “Naruto Razor Tri-Spinner Fidget Toy Game”, was intentionally laced with razor blades.

What seems particularly bizarre is that this product, which has three blades which flick out from the sides of the device when it spins, is described as “unregulated” and “counterfeit” but not “criminal” – apparently it is parents who should make sure that their kids are not handed these potentially lethal playthings. It is not, apparently, the police’s job to find out why people want children to buy toys which couldslice into their hands.

However, while the fake spinners are perhaps at the extreme end of the spectrum, they are just the tip of the iceberg of unregulated toys sold to parents which could cause harm to their children.

This week is Child Safety Week, when the Child Accident Prevention Trust is urging people to be aware of risks to children and young people. The problem is that selling toys online is somewhat unchartered territory.

Toys purporting to be a well-known product could actually be cheap and dangerous knock-offs, with unregulated and potentially toxic materials. They may have small parts which fall off and could be a choking hazard, paint which contains poisonous materials or cords which could be long enough to easily wind around a young child’s neck.

Even “real” fidget spinners have been reported to come apart – meaning that the small, round, metal buttons could easily go into a child’s mouth. However, although perhaps kids who are old enough to manipulate fidget spinners should also be old enough to know not to put them into their mouths, the fact is that some children will do just that – like ten-year-old Britton Joniec from Texas, who got one of the metal buttons lodged in her throat and had to undergo surgery to have it removed a couple of weeks ago.

Quality products, however, are likely to be safer.

And companies trying to flog cut-price fakes have become sneaky. Large e-commerce sites such as eBay and Amazon are quick to investigate when an item, sold by a third party seller, is flagged as potentially fake. But unless these items are flagged, the selling sites cannot know there is a problem.

Experts tell me that fake toy companies are pricing their wares at just under recommended retail price (RRP) to make them more attractive to consumers, but still pertaining to be a quality product, rather than a bargain basement item.

Rachel Jones, founder of Edinburgh-based firm SnapDragon, which offers services to help small businesses tackle online sales of counterfeit goods, says that the products are not just found on dodgy websites – they actually look so similar to the originals that some can slip through the net and even be sold on regularly used e-commerce websites such as Amazon and eBay.

She says that while luxury brands have for years been plagued by forgeries, consumers have been able to tell that they are buying a fake due to a large discrepancy between, for example, a £5,000 designer handbag and a £200 knock-off.

With cheaper products, however, it is not as easy.

What seems like only a slightly cut-price bargain for a consumer could actually be a huge mark-up for a dodgy firm which has produced the goods cheaply and with inferior, potentially hazardous, materials.

Ms Jones explains: “Online means people are duped more easily into buying the wrong thing. Large companies spend a lot of money on watching and seeing if things which contravene intellectual property regulations are happening – but small businesses do not have the money to do so.”

Neither, she points out, do most consumers. Citizens Advice Scotland, which deals with around a couple of hundred such cases a year at its bureaus and through its helpline, says that consumers have the right to ask for a refund if a product is not “of satisfactory quality”.

It is not always that easy. Emails go unanswered and companies are hard to track down, especially those on the wrong side of sketchy. In most cases, shoppers have to write off a bad purchase as a bad job.

And it is not just children’s toys which are affected.

In addition to cosmetics, designer clothes and handbags, dog food and shampoo are just two of the more bizarre products which are freq­uently cloned and sold online at a cheaper price.

Just by looking at a product online, it is tricky to spot whether a logo looks exactly right, or if a product seems to be good quality.

The advice is to check out the reviews and if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

But one tip is definitely worth remembering: if it contains radioactive material, it is best avoided.