Snake Oil Salesmen: Are Top Online Marketplaces Doing Enough to Stop Covid-19 Fraud on Their Platforms?
We monitored dozens of fraudulent listings related to the Covid-19 pandemic on Alibaba, Aliexpress, Amazon, Craigslist, and eBay to find out how efficiently these marketplaces protect their clients by removing potentially harmful products. Alarmingly, most platforms allowed deceiving and potentially harmful Covid-19 test kits and listings of medicine/herbal drugs to stay on their platforms for up to 342 hours; as new misleading products appear every hour, several listings are yet to be reviewed or removed.
When you place an order on the most popular online marketplaces, you probably expect that the platform has thoroughly examined the seller’s listing, ensuring that the product matches its description and is safe for use.
Unfortunately, even in these uncertain and challenging times, there are plenty of sellers trying to benefit from the current situation. They use the panic to exploit vulnerable consumers, offering fake or untested Covid-19 test kits for humans and animals alike. They also sell questionable medicine and herbal drugs that claim to protect against the Covid-19 virus and prevent infection.
Luckily, since the early outbreak of the Covid-19 virus, the most reputable marketplaces have announced that they are actively monitoring the situation on their platforms around the clock. Many of them have introduced strict measures against listings that are unfairly priced or fraudulent. For example, eBay claims to have already removed astonishing 6M coronavirus-related items and suspended hundreds of rogue accounts.
These kinds of statements should reassure buyers that the platform they use is safe. However, the research carried out by Proxyway reveals how quickly marketplaces deal with fake listings in reality. It uncovers that some misleading or harmful listings took days to remove, with likely hundreds of successful transactions processed. Several listings remained undetected altogether at the time of writing this report.
To run an objective investigation, Proxyway monitored the top 5 marketplaces for listings with the keywords “coronavirus test kit”, “covid-19 test kit”, “coronavirus medicine/treatment”, and “covid-19 medicine/treatment” between March 13th 00:00 and March 31st 24:00 CEST.
- Craigslist (the Los Angeles, New York, Miami & Calgary boards).
A tailor-made Proxyway script crawled the five marketplaces identifying listings with the predefined keywords. Upon discovering a relevant listing, we monitored the following data points:
1) The date and time when the listing was added or found on a given platform.
We used the timestamp from the “date added” data field. If it was not publicly visible, the date when the listing was discovered was used as the initial listing date.
2) The date and time when the listing was removed from a given marketplace. We added each marketplace’s listings and URLs to a separate script. It checked hourly whether the URL was still online and recorded the date and time when the listing was removed.
3) The listing logs were reviewed by a technical staff member, as well as a medical doctor, to eliminate any potential discrepancies and ensure that the listings fit the research criteria.
– The findings and figures are provided as of the date of publishing this article (15th April 08:00 CEST).
– When we state that the listing was ‘removed’ – it could be either by the seller or, most likely, by the platform.
Summary of the Results
- A total of 35 listings were discovered and monitored on the Alibaba marketplace (26 test kits for Covid-19 intended for humans, 8 medicine/herbal drugs to prevent or treat Covid-19, and 1 animal test kit).
- 26 out of 26 test kits for Covid-19 intended for humans were removed.
- 8 out of 9 monitored listings on Covid-19 medicine and herbal drugs to treat or prevent the virus were removed. The remaining 1 Covid-19 medicine /herbal drug to treat or prevent the virus was still available for purchase on Alibaba at the time of writing.
- 1 test kit for Covid-19 intended for animals was removed from the Alibaba marketplace.
- In total 34 out of 35 monitored listings were removed, with an average lifespan of 58.5 hours.
- The quickest listing to disappear from the platform was live for 18.8 hours. The slowest listing to be removed remained live for 177.4 hours or 7.3 days.
- A total of 8 listings were discovered on the AliExpress marketplace (6 test kits for Covid-19 intended for humans, 2 medicine/herbal drugs to prevent or treat Covid-19)
- All 6 test kits for the Covid-19 virus were removed, with an average time of the listing being live for 46.4 hours.
- 2 medicine/herbal drugs to prevent or treat Covid-19 were removed, with an average lifespan of 342.4 hours.
- In total 8 out of 8 monitored listings were removed, and their average time of being available for purchase was 120.4 hours.
- The quickest listing to disappear from the platform was live for 31.9 hours. The slowest listing remained live for 342.4 hours.
- A total of 3 listings were discovered on the Amazon marketplace (2 test kits for Covid-19 virus intended for humans, 1 animal test kit)
- Both test kits for the Covid-19 virus for humans and animals were removed, with an average lifespan of 40.3 hours.
- The quickest removed listing was live for 6.5 hours. The slowest listing to be removed remained live for 65 hours.
- A total of 12 listings were discovered on the Craigslist marketplace (11 test kits for Covid-19 intended for humans, 1 medicine/herbal drug to prevent or treat Covid-19)
- 11 out 11 test kits for Covid-19 intended for humans were removed, with an average lifespan of 77.2 hours.
- 1 medicine/herbal drug to prevent or treat Covid-19 was still available for purchase on Craigslist at the time of writing.
- The quickest removed listing was live for 3.6 hours. The slowest listing to be removed remained live for 173 hours.
- A total of 15 listings were discovered on the eBay marketplace (11 test kits for Covid-19 intended for humans, 4 medicine/herbal drugs to prevent or treat Covid-19)
- 10 out of 11 test kits for Covid-19 indented for humans were removed, with an average lifespan of 46.9 hours. The remaining 1 test kit for Covid-19 was removed by a seller after remaining live for 61.2 hours on the platform.
- Combining the listings that were removed by the platform and the seller, their average duration on the platform was 48.3 hours.
- 4 medicine/herbal drugs to prevent or treat Covid-19 were still available for purchase on eBay at the time of writing.
- The quickest removed listing was live for 11.2 hours. The slowest listing to be removed remained live for 93.6 hours.
- The research also reveals an interesting insight: at least 2 historical and original listingswere revised, potentially indicating that their descriptions were modified to incorporate “coronavirus protection” or similar statements.
Expert Doctor’s Commentary
We asked Dr Balu Pitchiah MBBS, MRCPsych, MBA for a comment. Dr Pitchiah was awarded “Doctor of the Year 2018” by Asian Voice in a ceremony at the British Parliament. He is currently working as Director of the Harley Street Health Clinic.
Counterfeit tests that claim to diagnose Covid-19 and drugs that potentially treat the infection can pose health risks to people who buy them. It is important that some of these claims are not backed up by scientific evidence. These products could prevent or delay infected people from seeking medical treatment or cause unwanted complications. They also may discourage people who don’t have obvious symptoms from following the advice of social distancing and self-isolation.
There are many rapid Covid-19 antibody blood tests kits available for home testing online. It is very important to check the relevant quality certificates and information such as sensitivity and specificity of the test, CE mark, etc.
The primary diagnostic method for Covid-19 is RT-PCR (Reverse Transcription-Polymerase Chain Reaction), which is performed by healthcare professionals that take a nasopharyngeal swab and send it to an authorised laboratory. No home test kits have been approved by the regulatory authorities yet.
There is no approved effective vaccine, supplement, or specific antiviral medication that could treat or prevent Covid-19 infection. Public health measures such as personal hygiene, including hand washing, use of masks and personal protective equipment, as well as physical distancing remain the main tools to mitigate the impact of the current pandemic.
Anyone who develops symptoms suggestive of Covid-19 (high fever, dry cough, diarrhoea, loss of smell/taste and shortness of breath) should seek medical advice immediately, as only medical professionals can help determine if the testing for coronavirus is needed.
Taking a Closer Look at Each Marketplace
During the monitoring period, Alibaba contained the most Coronavirus test kits, as well as medicines or herbal drugs that claimed to treat or prevent Covid-19. In total, 34 out of 35 monitored listings were removed, but their average time of being available for purchase was 58.5 hours, resulting in the third-worst average of all monitored marketplaces.
On top of that, for medicine/herbal drug listings that claimed to prevent or treat Covid-19, it took Alibaba considerably more time to review and address the listings. The shortest timespan in which a medicine/herbal drug was removed from the marketplace was 67.6 hours.
The longest lifespan of a medicine/herbal drug listing on the platform was 177.4 hours. Extremely slow reviews of medical/herbal drugs related to Covid-19 might have resulted in a higher number of successful purchases of potentially deceitful products.
Monitoring of Craigslist boards for this research revealed mixed results. For instance, Craigslist had the quickest listing removal, letting it stay on the platform for only 3.6 hours. On the other hand, we also discovered that the longest lifetime of a listing on Craigslist recorded an astonishing 173 hours until it was removed.
Craigslist came in as the second worst amongst all monitored marketplaces with an average lifetime of potentially fraudulent listings at 77.2 hours.
Of the listings we monitored, only 1 medicine/herbal drug listing that claims to prevent or treat Covid-19 is still live on the platform at the time of writing this report, with a somewhat misleading description “Build your immune system now with CBD. Protect yourself against the coronaviruswith a strong, healthy immune system”.
It seems that crafting a misleading description by focusing on the immune system gave this seller a better chance to slip under the radar, even though, so far, there’s no scientific proof that CBD oil can be an effective countermeasure against Covid-19.
When it comes to eBay platform, a total of 15 listings related to Covid-19 were discovered and monitored. All of the 11 test kits for Covid-19 have been removed. The first listing to get removed was live for 11.2 hours on the platform, while the last listing to get removed was available for purchase for 126 hours.
However, 4 medicine/herbal listings that claim to treat or prevent Covid-19 were still live on the platform at the time of writing this report.
Upon closer inspection, we found that sellers have been actively editing and changing their listing descriptions, which could explain why some of these listings are still available for purchase.
At least 2 listings that fall under the medicine/herbal drugs category were created on the platform before the Covid-19 global outbreak. Here is a medicine/herbal drug listing that claims to protect users against the Covid-19 virus:
A potential vulnerability could lie in the fact that this particular listing was created on the 7th of December, 2019, as shown in the revision summary:
Also the meta description of this specific listing doesn’t include any Covid-19 related information:
However, the revision summary for this particular listing shows multiple description changes between the 9-17th of March 2020:
We believe that during that period the seller modified the listing’s description, incorporating “Coronavirus protection” as a subheading for the listing. Furthermore, this could mean that eBay is not monitoring historical listings, and some sellers might exploit this. Once the sellers bypass the initial screening of the listing, then they can modify the description and target vulnerable consumers.
As for Aliexpress, 8 out of 8 listings were removed from the platform, with an average lifetime of 120.4 hours – the worst average amongst all marketplaces. The first listing to be removed was available on the platform for 31.9 hours, while the last one was available for purchase for over a week – a staggering 342.4 hours.
A rather unnerving fact is that 2 of the discovered listings that fall under the medicine/herbal drugs that claim to prevent or treat Covid-19 were online for 342.4 hours on average.
Lastly, we discovered 3 deceptive listings on Amazon: 2 test kits for Covid-19 virus intended for humans, 1 animal test kit. All 3 listings were removed with an average lifetime of 40.3 hours (the best result amongst all monitored marketplaces).
1 of the test kits for Covid-19 intended for humans was live and available for purchase on Amazon for 65 hours. The first listing removed by Amazon was live for only 6.5 hours.
There’s no doubt that the COVID-19 outbreak is the largest global economic, societal and political challenge of 2020. And, as in most crises, there are people who hope to profit from fraudulent claims and, in this case, miracle cures. Unfortunately, the current online landscape is extremely favorable for these new-age snake oil salesmen.
Major online marketplaces have become platforms for deceitful and alarming listings that claim to sell preventative medicine or even cures for the novel coronavirus, while others sell uncertified tests for humans and animals. Monitoring these listings rests solely on the marketplace owners, such as Aliexpress, Alibaba, eBay, Craigslist or Amazon.
Currently, their efforts are not sufficient to protect the global community from fraud and deceit. For this very reason, Proxyway carried out this monitoring research. It should be considered as an alarming signal to everyone working on these online marketplaces. While active citizens can help their efforts to discover, track and report these frauds, they cannot remove the listings from the websites.
Our findings show that online marketplaces are reacting to potentially fraudulent and harmful listings. Yet, the platforms we monitored must further strengthen their screening operations and react a lot faster in this time of a global pandemic. It should go without saying that letting a fraudulent COVID-19 test kit to stay available on a popular online marketplace could cause severe repercussions, if an infected person was to use it and get a false sense of security.
Most importantly, consumers around the world should rely on critical thinking to protect themselves and their loved ones, as our data show that all major online marketplaces were targeted with deceitful listings.