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Five products to think twice about before buying from overseas

Shopping for these products on foreign shores could end in disappointment, injury and even arrest.

laptop with online shopping for presents LEAD
Last updated: 18 November 2019

Buying products from overseas, either while travelling abroad or through online stores, can be a great way to find specialty products or save money (Australians often pay more than people overseas for everything from IT products to chocolate bars). 

But while bagging a bargain abroad can be a smart move, it's important to remember that some products from some countries may not measure up to Australian safety standards. That's not to say that everything you buy in Australia is safe – only a small number of products are subject to mandatory safety standards (see Australia's product safety laws still need strengthening, below).

Here are five products you should think twice about buying from overseas, and why.

child with projectile toy gun

1. Children's and babies' toys  

In 2017, children's products accounted for almost 40% of all product safety reports to the ACCC relating to online sales. 

The 2016 OECD Online Product Safety report offers some insight into the possible reasons behind these high numbers, with research revealing that dangerous recalled or banned toys are often widely available to buy online. In fact, research participants were able to find more than half the products from a list of banned or recalled toys and games still available for sale in online stores and auction sites.

However, even toys that aren't banned or recalled may not be safe if bought from overseas. Australia has safety standards for toys designed for children under three, such as aquatic toys, baby walkers, balloon blowing kits, projectile toys (like toy guns) and toys containing lead or magnets. 

That said, there are still plenty of unsafe toys available in Australian stores and people shouldn't assume that just because a product's for sale here that it's safe. 

Buying online vs buying while abroad

If you're travelling abroad and buy a toy from a local retailer, it's important to remember that the laws of that country apply. And depending on the strength of their local laws and standards, these products may pose a risk to your child. 

However, if you're in Australia and buying a product online from an overseas retailer, that business must comply with our product safety requirements. Unfortunately, as these retailers are based overseas, it can be harder for regulators to act against companies doing the wrong thing.

According to CHOICE child product expert Kim Gilmour, some of the main risks associated with buying toys online include:

  • insufficient warning labels which can lead to incorrect use
  • poor quality construction which can cause the product to break into small pieces that are choking hazards
  • unsecured button batteries.

"You also see rip-off 'fake' branded or licensed products which clearly look flimsy and not very durable," she warns. "Although even genuine products can sometimes be unsafe too."

pram stroller that was bought online

2. Nursery products and car seats 

Some baby products including cots, portacots, dummies, prams and car seats also need to meet mandatory standards in Australia. 

Mandatory safety standards for these products have been specifically designed to prevent injury and death of infants and young children. But not all baby products sold here are legally required to meet safety standards – find out more about Australia's weak product safety laws.

It may be tempting to buy slick-looking nursery products at rock-bottom prices from overseas retailers, but it simply isn't worth the risk. 

"Nursery products like cots purchased online from overseas could have inferior construction such as bars which could cause head entrapment risks, dodgy dropsides, or chemicals in the paint which aren't up to Australian requirements," says Gilmour. 

She says buying from third-party sellers on sites like eBay, Amazon, Catch and Kogan Marketplace can be risky. 

"You've got to keep an eye out on whether they claim their products meet Australian standards," she says. "You may think you're buying from an Australian seller, but the product might be sent from offshore."

The ACCC has recently recalled several prams sold on eBay due to multiple safety hazards.

As for car seats, Gilmour reminds parents that the law requires that car seats meet Australian standards: "It's not just unsafe to use a car seat that doesn't meet Australian standards, it's also illegal."

international travel power adaptor

3. USB chargers, travel adaptors and power banks 

A recent investigation by UK consumer watchdog Which? has found hordes of hazardous USB chargers, travel adaptors and power banks being sold by international online retailers including AliExpress, Amazon Marketplace, eBay and Wish. 

Their testing found that more than 75% of the 35 products from 'unknown' brands (those their experts didn't recognise) failed electrical safety tests, carrying risks of overheating, fires or electrical shocks, which may cause damage to electrical products, serious injury or even death.

But although cross-border websites may be the main offenders, there's also a risk of buying dangerous chargers in bricks and mortar Australian stores selling cheap imports.

In 2014, a woman was killed after being electrocuted by a faulty USB charger bought from a Sydney mobile phone accessory stall which was found to be selling uncertified chargers, travel adaptors and power boards that didn't meet Australian Safety Standards.

CHOICE product safety expert Chris Barnes says it can be tricky for people to check if electronics meet Australian standards. 

"It's easy for manufacturers to add fake compliance markings to their products," he says. "If you want to be confident the product you're buying is safe, buy from a local retailer like JB HiFi or Harvey Norman or buy licensed branded accessories."

pots of cosmetics purchased online from overseas

4. Cosmetics

According to the ACCC, cosmetics accounted for approximately 30% of injury reports in 2014. That same year, the ACCC raised concerns about an ongoing lack of information about ingredients used in cosmetic products offered online. 

Cosmetic dermatologist Dr Ritu Gupta says she's seen patients with permanent scarring as a result of using cosmetics bought overseas. 

"Products bought overseas or online may not only fail to deliver the benefits they claim to, they could also contain an unsafe concentration or formulation of ingredients causing significant irritation, skin rashes and even colour changes on the skin," she says.

"To make matters worse, these products often don't have an accurate ingredients list, so when patients come in with an allergic reaction, we aren't able to identify the ingredients that have caused it." 

She advises people to exercise caution when buying any cosmetics online or overseas, but to particularly avoid anti-ageing creams, skin lightening products, sunscreen or steroid-containing products.

And if you still want to buy cosmetics from overseas, try to choose products that list their ingredients so you have something to reference in case of an allergic reaction.

Counterfeit cosmetics

Many of these problematic products come from the booming counterfeit cosmetics and perfumes industry, which in 2016 was estimated to generate $37.5 billion annually.  

According to the BBC, seizures by police and councils in the UK in 2015 and 2018 revealed that counterfeit makeup being sold online contained toxic levels of chemicals and harmful substances such as arsenic, mercury and lead, while fake perfumes contained poisonous chemicals like cyanide as well as human urine. 

A 2018 investigation by The Guardian found counterfeit products readily available from online retail giant Amazon, including a highly convincing counterfeit Kylie Jenner lip gloss which was manufactured in China.

medication that was bought overseas online

5. Weight loss products and other medicines

Current research shows there's little evidence for the effectiveness of weight loss pills. But the weight loss pills spruiked online are not only unlikely to help you shed those extra kilos, they may actually be hazardous to your health. 

Weight loss products seized by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) sold by overseas websites have been found to contain heavy metals and undisclosed dangerous substances such as sibutramine, which has been linked with an increased risk of heart attack and stroke, and phenolphthalein, associated with an increased risk of cancer.

In 2018, NSW Health issued a public warning after several deaths were linked to weight loss products containing 2,4-dinitrophenol, or DNP, which was being marketed and sold online. DNP is prohibited for human use.

"DNP is a plant fertiliser and a highly toxic substance when ingested, inhaled or absorbed through the skin. Consumers should be aware that DNP presents a significant risk to health and has been associated with a number of deaths worldwide," says a TGA spokesperson.

But weight loss drugs aren't the only offender. The TGA advises consumers to exercise extreme caution when buying any medicine or medical device from online overseas retailers, as these products are not regulated by the TGA and may contain dangerous ingredients. 

In 2015, an international operation targeting the online sale of counterfeit and illicit medicines led to over 20 million falsified medicines being seized, offering some insight into the incredible volume of potentially dangerous drugs available online.

Erectile dysfunction drugs, herbal medicines, over-the-counter drugs like ibuprofen, medicines for serious illnesses such as AIDS and cancer, as well as other pharmacy products like condoms and contact lenses, are just some of the products that are commonly counterfeited or found to be substandard.

What are the main dangers when buying products from overseas?

Banned, recalled or regulated products

According to the OECD report, 68% of 693 products that were identified as banned or recalled were still available to buy online. 

All businesses who sell products to Australian consumers are responsible for ensuring that the products they sell are not banned or recalled, but this is hard to enforce, and it may take years for dangerous products to be completely eradicated from online shops. 

Products and ingredients which are illegal or regulated in Australia for safety reasons may also be freely available to buy in other countries. It's against the law to import products containing illegal ingredients, and you may need a permit to import certain regulated products.

Not meeting safety standards 

According to the OECD report, 55% of 60 selected products sold online didn't comply with product safety standards. Foreign retailers are often not aware of the relevant safety standards that apply in Australia and authorities face difficulties in enforcing breaches of Australian Consumer Law across borders.

When sold in Australia, medicines and certain cosmetic products that make therapeutic claims are regulated by the TGA, which is responsible for the quality, safety and efficacy of listed products. Items bought overseas are not regulated by the TGA and there 's no guarantee that they're safe to use.

Australia's product safety laws still need strengthening 

Although buying products online or from some overseas locations may come with added risks, you also can't assume that all products sold in Australia are safe to use. 

Mandatory safety standards only apply to a small number of products in Australia. 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. 

We're calling for the introduction of a general safety provision that would make it illegal for Australian businesses to sell unsafe products. 

Inadequate product labelling and safety warnings 

In 2014, the ACCC raised concerns over product labelling issues in online stores, including: 

  • a lack of age-grading on children's products
  • inadequate product descriptions 
  • low-quality product images 
  • a lack of ingredient lists. 

The OECD report confirms that online buyers often don't have access to adequate product labelling and safety warnings before buying, with only 21% of the products inspected found to have compliant labelling. 

And even when products that are bought overseas, either in person or online, do have labelling or safety warnings, they may be written in a foreign language, meaning people can miss important information.

Parallel imports 

Parallel imports are genuine branded products that are being sold in Australia without specific permission from the manufacturer. Common parallel imports include cheap phones sold online (for example on Kogan.com) and cut-price snacks sold at 'dollar shops'.

Although your consumer rights do apply when you're buying parallel imports, if there's an issue with your product, seeking a remedy from the manufacturer is more likely to be tricky.

woman shopping online overseas items

Product safety tips for buying overseas or online 

Before buying:

  • Do your research – check online ratings and reviews or buy from a trusted shop or website.
  • Check if the product needs to meet Australian mandatory safety standards
  • If it's a medicine or medical device, check if you can legally import it.
  • Check if the product has been recalled in Australia or overseas.
  • Read safety warnings, product information and instructions. If sufficient information isn't available, contact the seller for more details or don't buy.
  • Check the seller has clear systems for protecting the security and privacy of your personal and financial details, and that they display their business registration number, phone and fax numbers and physical address.
  • Check if warranties and return policies still apply in Australia, and if you can still get technical support. 

After buying:

  • Use common sense, and inspect your product for obvious safety issues before use.
  • If you find a safety issue, stop using the product and report it to the ACCC immediately. If the product is a medicine or medical device, report it to the TGA.
  • If possible, register your product with the manufacturer so you can be contacted about recalls or other safety information.

For more advice, read the ACCC's guide to shopping online.

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