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US senators call on Amazon to investigate its unsafe inventory

The request follows an investigative story from The Wall Street Journal that highlighted thousands of questionable products on the site.

Ben Fox Rubin Former senior reporter
Ben Fox Rubin was a senior reporter for CNET News in Manhattan, reporting on Amazon, e-commerce and mobile payments. He previously worked as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and got his start at newspapers in New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Ben Fox Rubin
3 min read
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Senators want answers about unsafe products on Amazon's site.

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Three Democratic US senators sent a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos on Thursday, calling for a "sweeping internal investigation" into unsafe and banned products listed on its website.

"Unquestionably, Amazon is falling short of its commitment to keeping safe those consumers who use its massive platform," the letter said. The letter was signed by US Sens. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Edward Markey of Massachusetts.

The letter was in response to an extensive investigative story from The Wall Street Journal published last week that detailed thousands of problematic product listings on Amazon's site, including infant sleeping mats Amazon itself had banned for danger of suffocation, motorcycle helmets that didn't pass safety standards and supplements that contained illegally imported prescription drugs. In many cases, the listings the Journal reported on lacked required warning labels, including over 6,000 listings for balloons that didn't have choking-hazard warnings.

After being presented with the Journal's findings, Amazon made changes to listings or removed some altogether, though the Journal was able to find similar products that had again popped up.

When asked for comment Thursday, Jodi Seth, Amazon's head of policy communications, pointed to a blog post the company published last week. In that post, Amazon highlighted its many safety protocols, including its $400 million in spending last year to protect its store and make sure its products are safe, compliant and authentic. In recent years, the company has also worked to take down counterfeit items and fake reviews to help clean up its site.

In addition to the senators' concerns, Federal Trade Commissioner Rohit Chopra said last week on Twitter that the Journal's article "raises real concerns about whether Amazon is profiting from widespread deception on its platform."

The Journal's investigation highlights how Amazon's marketplace has perhaps grown too large for Amazon to properly control, with questionable, banned and unsafe products cropping up faster than Amazon can monitor them. The company now lists hundreds of millions of products online, helping it to become the go-to source for product searches and the world's largest online retailer. But, in its effort to provide so many products, especially through independent sellers, it may now lack the same control over its inventory as a more traditional retailer like Walmart or Target.

Independent third-party sellers accounted for nearly 60 percent of merchandise sold on Amazon last year, the company said.

In addition to the latest letter from Capitol Hill, Amazon is already facing scrutiny from Congress members for its treatment of warehouse workers and use of its Alexa voice assistant. It's also one of the big tech companies -- along with Alphabet, Facebook and Apple -- being investigated for potential antitrust issues by Congress and regulators.

The three senators called on Amazon to immediately remove all the questionable product listings the Journal mentioned in its story, conduct a thorough internal investigation and make changes to keep unsafe products off its site.

They also asked Amazon to answer a series of questions on why its existing safety procedures failed to stop the problematic listings and what it will do to stop similar situations from happening again. Amazon's Seth said the company plans to respond to those questions, which the senators requested back at the end of September.