Many of the millions of people who shop on Amazon.com see it as if it were an American big-box store, a retailer with goods deemed safe enough for customers.
In practice, Amazon has increasingly evolved like a flea market. It exercises limited oversight over items listed by millions of third-party sellers, many of them anonymous, many in China, some offering scant information.
A Wall Street Journal investigation found 4,152 items for sale on
’s site that have been declared unsafe by federal agencies, are deceptively labeled or are banned by federal regulators—items that big-box retailers’ policies would bar from their shelves. Among those items, at least 2,000 listings for toys and medications lacked warnings about health risks to children.
The Journal identified at least 157 items for sale that Amazon had said it banned, including sleeping mats the Food and Drug Administration warns can suffocate infants. The Journal commissioned tests of 10 children’s products it bought on Amazon, many promoted as “Amazon’s Choice.” Four failed tests based on federal safety standards, according to the testing company, including one with lead levels that exceeded federal limits.
Of the 4,152 products the Journal identified, 46% were listed as shipping from Amazon warehouses.
After the Journal brought the listings to Amazon’s attention, 57% of the 4,152 listings had their wording altered or were taken down. Amazon said that it reviewed and addressed the listings the Journal provided and that company policies require all products to comply with laws and regulations.
“Safety is a top priority at Amazon,” says a spokeswoman. Amazon uses automated tools that scan hundreds of millions of items every few minutes to screen would-be sellers and block suspicious ones from registering and listing items, using the tools to block three billion items in 2018, she says.
“When a concern arises,” she says, “we move quickly to protect customers and work directly with sellers, brands, and government agencies.”
Amazon declined to make executives available for interviews.
Christy Stokes blames her son’s death on a fraudulently labeled helmet bought on Amazon. Albert Stokes trusted Amazon’s quality control, she says, when he picked a motorcycle helmet with an Atlanta Falcons logo for his girlfriend to buy for his 23rd birthday in 2014. It was listed on Amazon as certified by the U.S. Transportation Department.
On June 3, 2014, Mr. Stokes was riding his red Kawasaki in rural Missouri when a Ford Ranger pulled out. He crashed into it, and his helmet came off. A friend phoned his mother to alert her. “When I came up over the hill on the interstate,” she says, “there was my son laid out on the highway.”