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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

On Depop, Sellers Are Pushing Shady Secondhand Pills

Six syringes, a pot of cod liver oil, and seven glass vials have been neatly arranged on a blanket and photographed for a listing on the secondhand marketplace app Depop. Two blister packs of fertility supplements lie next to them, covering a third packet which has torn foil and capsules missing.

“Womens Fertility Trying To Concieve Vitamins & Supplements IVF,” reads a typo-laden caption for the items. “I am not a doctor, take at your own advise,” urges the seller, based in Milton Keynes, England.

Across the teen-focused reselling app, buyers can browse hundreds of health products and supplements, ready to purchase alongside secondhand clothes. Their suggested benefits, according to sellers, include acne “cleansing,” tanning, weight loss, erectile dysfunction help, and “skin-whitening.”

What isn’t immediately obvious is that these listings are illegal and could harm users, experts say. “You’re not meant to sell something that is prepacked when it’s been unsealed,” says Katrina Anderson, a UK ecommerce lawyer at law firm Osborne Clarke, who specializes in food industry and regulation issues. “If you’ve got an opened product, it could be contaminated with something.”

Founded in 2011, Depop is one of the world’s most popular reselling apps. The company says it has more than 30 million users in more than 150 countries, with 90 percent of active users under the age of 26. From vintage flares to handmade dresses, it has become synonymous with thrifting and more sustainable shopping globally. During the Covid-19 pandemic, its user base more than doubled, according to data from Statista, while over half of US and UK consumers spent more on health products, including supplements, according to Trustpilot. The interest extends to Depop, where users are “liking” and buying health-related items in droves. However, the platform is also home to a growing unregulated market of food products, with users flogging secondhand supplements.

WIRED found at least 208 listings for supplements and nearly 100 protein products for sale in the UK, with more than a dozen making unfounded health claims, and there was no evidence that sellers were authorized to sell supplements. Supplements are legally treated as food in the UK, requiring sellers to register as a food business operator with their council, a law that applies to anyone selling supplements online, including on marketplace apps. Yet all the “shops” were absent from the Food Standard Agency's (FSA) database of food businesses, and no registrations were found by local authorities. 

A London-based seller advertised skin “whitening” products and supplements, which contain the antioxidant glutathione, an unproven chemical that the Food and Drugs Administration says may be dangerous. In the ad for whitening products, posted on the site a year ago, the seller boasted that the product could “Prevent Dull Skin Problems Dark Spots, and Increase Skin Clarity” and “Helping to Reveal Radiant Skin.” The seller, who had a five-star rating and reviews that raved about the products, did not appear to have a food business registration. They also advertised “collagen caps,” featuring a picture of a teenage girl holding the supplements and asserting without evidence that “usually collagen alone can make skin whiter clean,” “eradicate acne,” and “make the nipple color more pink.”

Another London-based Depop seller advertised pantothenic acid capsules, also known as vitamin B5. Having previously sold similar products on the app, the user also claimed the ingredient “reduces acne,” which is unproven. Searching buyers can also purchase a discontinued liquid beauty supplement, which the post claims is “great for anti aging.” “Extreme testosterone” boosters marketed for male enhancement are also on sale with a discount from a highly rated seller. A listing for apple cider vinegar “gummies” tagged with “#weightloss” has attracted 40 likes, despite limited scientific evidence that the ingredient helps people lose weight, according to Harvard Health Publishing.

The ads are piquing users’ interests, with many individual listings gathering upwards of 20 likes from potential buyers, and are being regularly sold through the site.

"Experimenting with items that have unfounded health promises could result in long-term damage to both physical and mental health,” says Linda Papadopoulos, a child psychologist and ambassador for Internet Matters, a nonprofit for online safety.

"Being exposed to illegal content online that feeds on our desires to be picture-perfect is worrying for a number of reasons. The issue of low body image and self-esteem leaves many, especially young people, susceptible to items that claim to have the answer to solving their insecurities.”

Small businesses in the US are also legally obliged to distribute products under conditions that protect them against “contamination and deterioration.” WIRED found more than 100 supplement ads on Depop in the US, with over a dozen featuring opened, used, or expired products. Half-used supplements were also available on the site in Italy and Australia.

Sellers seeking extra cash may be breaching regulations unknowingly, says Osborne Clarke’s Anderson. “I’m assuming there is a high level of ordinary people who don’t know anything about legal requirements for sale of food supplements and are just trying to sell stuff,” she says. “But I’m not sure you need legal advice to know selling half-used medicines online is probably quite reckless.”

Health products ​​implying nonapproved treatments and making misleading medical claims appear on Depop despite being prohibited by the app. They are also subject to medicine regulators. “Food supplements can’t claim to treat, cure, or prevent diseases,” Anderson explains.

A spokesperson for Britain’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency confirmed to WIRED that some posts met its definition of a drug because they made medical claims. "The MHRA takes public health seriously,” the person said. “There are robust regulatory requirements on medicines—including their manufacture, distribution, retail sale, supply, and advertisement. Breaches of the legal requirements are investigated and appropriate action is taken.”

Regulators work with online trading platforms, and procedures are in place to request the withdrawal of unauthorized medicines. Many sites also have “notice-and-take-down” processes for users to report content. “But notice-and-take-down procedures only work on a case-by-case basis, which makes it difficult to stop this happening unless the issue is reported to the platform,” says Anderson.

Tech platforms have been largely left to self-regulate and are not obliged to proactively vet what’s being sold on them or implement their own guidelines. WIRED reported several prohibited items on Depop through the complaints form offered to users on February 26, but they were still live on the app at the time of publication.

In a statement after publication, a Depop spokesperson said that medical products, including prescriptions, over-the-counter products or unlicensed products are not permitted on its site, and that the company is "conducting an extensive search and removal exercise" on its site.

Problematic sales aren’t confined to Depop’s platform—they are easily found via Google Search. The picture is also much the same with thrifting apps Shpock and Vinted, where secondhand supplements and out-of-date health products have also been advertised. Shpock and Vinted removed unlawful posts sent by WIRED within one working day.

Shpock COO Andrej Bielicky says it has “automated moderation” and a user-reporting function, but that it is difficult to control the posts that are offering illegal goods on its own site. “Despite our constant efforts to optimize the moderation rules, it can happen that some of the prohibited items are not removed immediately,” he says.

In a statement, Vinted said it is “regularly revising and updating its processes” to catch and remove these types of prohibited listings earlier.

Ecommerce platforms may be forced to take down dubious posts faster in the near future, says Anderson. General product safety regulations are being updated in the UK and EU, which will impact online marketplaces.

“What the EU and UK legislators are trying to achieve from this is for platforms to take more responsibility for what is sold on them,” Anderson says. “They are looking for the Depops of this world to have a role in policing what is sold on the platforms. At the moment, it’s not that easy to hold platforms to account.”

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