‘Rogue traders’ finding new ways to sell misleading coronavirus products online

26 May 2020

Image: © Artem /Stock.adobe.com

A major EU sweep has identified online ‘rogue traders’ that are exploiting people’s fears over the coronavirus.

A sweeping operation carried out by the Consumer Protection Cooperation (CPC) network, coordinated by the EU, has identified a number of online ‘rogue traders’ exploiting consumer fears over the coronavirus. A focus was put on sites displaying offers for personal protective equipment, sanitising gels and testing kits, as well as food supplements and non-food products with alleged healing effects.

The first part of the operation involved a screening of online platforms, followed by analysis of specific adverts and websites linking to products in high demand because of the pandemic.

The initial screening showed these rogue traders are using new predatory practices that make it more difficult to find them. These include implicit claims of curing qualities of products with pictures, or even intentional misspellings to avoid automatic text-based filters.

A total of 268 websites were analysed across 27 European countries, of which 206 were flagged for further investigation for potential breaches of EU consumer law. Of that total, 88 websites contained products with claims of alleged healing or preventative effects against the virus, 30 websites falsely claimed a scarcity of products, and 24 were suspected of unfair practices to boost prices for goods.

The sweep also revealed that in 39 cases, the selling price and the unit price were not displayed in an unambiguous, easily identifiable and clearly legible manner. In a number of cases, consumers weren’t provided the identity of the trader (58 sites), the address of the trader (62 sites) or the trader’s contact details (58 sites).

‘There are no miracle online cures’

The EU welcomed the fact that major online platforms have helped remove a significant proportion of these rogue traders, including Google blocking or removing more than 80m coronavirus-related adverts globally. Amazon has also reported a 77pc decrease in the weekly number of new product listings with coronavirus-related claims compared to March.

“The major online platforms have positively replied to the European Commission’s (EC) call to address scams and misleading offers and have shown a clear commitment to remove harmful content,” said Didier Reynders, the EC commissioner for justice.

“However, as this recent sweep has shown, rogue traders continue to find new ways to exploit consumers’ vulnerabilities, circumvent algorithmic checks and set up new websites. In the midst of a global pandemic, you need to be aware of this as a consumer – there are no miracle online cures.”

The EU said it is calling on all platforms to remain vigilant for any other rogue traders, with the EC set to coordinate with the CPC and domain registers to take down harmful websites.

Other major online platforms have attempted to limit the spread of coronavirus misinformation, such as Facebook actively informing users if they have interacted with any content that has been flagged as false.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic