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STUMO: Country-of-Origin Labeling Should be Mandatory for Internet Sales

U.S. consumers assume that the United States always leads the world in safety issues. For example, they expect federal regulations will ensure the trustworthiness of the food and medicines they buy. However, when it comes to the products they purchase online, things are less clear.

Millions of packages are shipped directly to U.S. consumers daily — but few are inspected. When Americans shop online, they frequently have no idea where the products they buy are manufactured. With unsafe imports causing safety issues, it’s time for Congress to mandate “Country of Origin” (COOL) labeling for all internet transactions.

How serious is the problem of unsafe e-commerce? A Wall Street Journal investigation found 10,870 items for sale on Amazon that had been declared unsafe by federal agencies were labeled deceptively, lacked federally required warnings, or were banned by federal regulators. This included many items that big-box retailers would bar from their shelves. Of the 1,934 sellers whose addresses could be determined, 54 percent were based in China.

China has become the epicenter of unsafe e-commerce, with 83 percent of all intellectual property seizures in the United States now originating from the People’s Republic. In fact, China accounts for 40 percent of all Amazon sales, and 75 percent of all new sellers on Amazon are Chinese companies. It’s even estimated that multiple new product listings are uploaded to Amazon from China every second.

Americans already know this is a problem, and polls show they want to buy American-made goods — 40 percent saying they’ll no longer buy anything made in China. They have already seen news stories about unsafe imports — like the Missouri man killed in a motorcycle accident due to a fraudulently labeled helmet bought online or the Georgia family whose home burned down because of a faulty hoverboard bought on Amazon.

Requiring country-of-origin labeling should be a no-brainer. Amazingly, though, some in Congress have blocked efforts to mandate COOL labeling. They appear to be following the whims of importers who claim that COOL labeling would add encumbrances to their business. That’s ludicrous since Amazon sales in Mexico already require this type of country-of-origin information. And Amazon recently started collecting similar information for new postings of products sold in the United States.

A Senate committee recently passed bipartisan legislation requiring clear country-of-origin labeling for all website product descriptions. This is a helpful first step, but the full Senate and the House must also take action.

More and more Americans are shopping online. They want to ensure the medicines, electronics, toys and household items they buy are safe. Country-of-origin labeling for this type of e-commerce would mark an important step toward reclaiming internet shopping safety.

Consumers deserve safe e-commerce. Requiring COOL labeling would be a small price for safe, reliable online shopping. Congress should move quickly to pass bipartisan country-of-origin labeling provisions and ensure that consumers’ lives aren’t put at risk by unsafe imports.

STEIN: As Holidays Approach, Dangers Lurk For Online Shoppers

“Buyer beware,” the old saying reminds us. It is advice everyone shopping for Christmas gifts on the internet should take to heart.

Including me.

I’m a shoe aficionado. A few months ago, I bought an adorable pair from a Facebook ad that advertised them as a name brand. When delivered, the shoes were too small and not well-made. With no return address and Chinese characters on the invoice, one did not have to be a detective to realize this footwear was a Chinese knockoff. An email to the website that sold it bounced back.

Jennifer Hanks tells Delaware Valley Journal my experience was hardly unique.

Hanks, director of brand protection with the American Apparel and Footwear Association (AAFA), said thousands of consumers are falling for these counterfeit product pitches. She spoke to us during a national conference on counterfeiting and the sale of illicit goods in Washington, D.C., hosted by United to Safeguard America from Illegal Trade (USA-IT), a private-public partnership to fight the problem.

There is a “destructive value chain across commerce,” she said. “It’s the fraudulent advertising that is posted on social media. The dupe social influencers are adding hidden links that take consumers offline to fake websites.”

And many times, money from counterfeit goods is not just going to a bogus manufacturer. According to USA-IT spokesperson Alysa Erichs, formerly acting assistant director with Homeland Security, money from fake goods may be funding human traffickers, drug smugglers, and even terrorists.

Years ago, people bought counterfeit items from a physical location. And that pathway to dupe unwary consumers continues. Recently, an Upper Dublin man was convicted in federal court of selling fake Rolex watches from the Philadelphia jewelry store he owned.

But now, the internet brings them into your home while you peruse them in your pajamas, adding more opportunities for crooks to fleece buyers.

“The internet is obviously the vehicle to shop for legitimate products, and it’s being flooded with illegitimate products,” she said.  “While people may think, ‘What’s the harm?’ that they’re getting a bargain, they don’t understand what is happening down the road.”

“So, if you multiply that one click by how many people are purchasing and the money made from the product and where that money is going, it’s not your onesie, twosies. It’s going to an organization, an organization that is, in some cases, sophisticated enough to manufacture a product and have it shipped into this country. This is not your next-door neighbor who is putting a bag together in his basement. This is full production.”

“It’s a $2.2 trillion problem,” she added. The money in counterfeit goods trumps the illegal narcotics trade. “And there’s less risk” for the bad guys.

While getting ripped off is frustrating, even more worrisome is the items could very well be manufactured with poisons like arsenic and lead.

Hanks says an AAFA study released in March found 17 out of 47 products tested contained dangerous components.

“I put the shoes on my kindergartener. My kid goes to school,” she said. “The Halloween costumes that we just packed away in October. It’s these things that everyday items that we, as consumers, buy constantly. And busy families are turning to e-commerce because it’s reliable, it’s easy.”

“Arsenic is one of 10 chemicals that are a major health concern, according to the World Health Organization,” said Hanks. “Lead can cause serious harm to a child’s health, with well-documented adverse effects.”

And there is another unpleasant surprise that could wind up in your Christmas stocking: Stolen goods. Some of what is being sold online is not counterfeit but stolen from stores and resold. In fact, the demand is so high, it is driving part of the surge in the high-profile “smash-and-grab” robberies of major retail outlets you have seen on TV.

“These folks that are being smuggled across the southwest border are agreeing to be boosters (thieves) because they make their money (to pay back coyotes) so much quicker,” said Erichs.  “Maybe they have a list of things to steal. Maybe they have a booster bag. Or a booster skirt.”

Or some gangs use juveniles, literally giving them a list of items to shoplift to meet online sales demand.

Why should we bargain-hunting Christmas shoppers care?

“It matters in several different ways,” she said. “It impacts businesses and communities. There’s health and safety.”  And criminal websites can steal your identity or reuse your credit card number.

What can a consumer do to be sure they are not buying stolen or counterfeit items?

If an item is more than 20 percent less than the retail price, it’s probably bogus.

Look at the website’s ratings and its appearance. Are there misspellings? Logos that don’t quite match the company’s?

Know who the seller is and check their reviews. If there is a street address, you can go to Google maps and see a street view of the business. Pay with your credit card, not a debit card linked to your bank account. Make sure you are paying on a secure site. It should read “https” with the “s” for secure, Erichs said.

And make sure your device is updated, so it has the latest software safety patches.

One way to shop safely, says Hanks, is to go to the retailer’s own website and buy direct.

Erichs, knowing what she does about online theft, said she is going old-school. “I stick with the brick and mortar.”

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