These products have killed kids. 121, in fact. Yet they're still for sale on Facebook Marketplace.
By Tricia L. Nadolny, USA TODAY,2021-11-03
After eight infant deaths were blamed on the popular Boppy Newborn Lounger , federal safety regulators in September announced a full recall and warned that babies who doze off and roll over in the plush pillow are at risk of suffocation. Major retailers pulled the item from store shelves and websites. As with any recalled product, selling a Boppy lounger is now a violation of federal law.
But on Facebook Marketplace, secondhand Boppy loungers — and other deadly recalled products — are still widely available for purchase.
USA TODAY found at least 170 listings for recalled items posted on Facebook Marketplace in recent weeks. They include Fisher-Price Rock ‘n Play seats tied to infant suffocations; Magnetix toys with small magnets that, when swallowed, can rip through a child’s intestines; and collapsible Maclaren strollers that have caused fingertip amputations. In all, USA TODAY’s examination found listings for 14 separate recalled products that have contributed to the deaths of at least 121 children and an additional 375 incidents or serious injuries. USA TODAY reporters also had no problem purchasing recalled goods on Facebook Marketplace or creating posts for recalled items as if they would be available for sale.
Facebook, which has faced an onslaught of criticism in recent months that the company places profits ahead of safety, has been warned before that recalled goods are often sold on its platform. But any measures taken thus far by the social media giant have been insufficient, and Facebook appears to have largely ignored easy fixes for many still-circulating recalled goods, like blocking the product names.
“It's appalling. And it's scary,” said Michigan father Brian Thiel, whose 4-month-old daughter, Juliette, suffocated in a Nap Nanny inclined sleeper in 2010. The product was recalled two weeks after her death and is now blamed for the deaths of at least six infants.
Yet USA TODAY found more than a dozen listings for the Nap Nanny on Facebook Marketplace. Two were later marked as having been sold. Thiel said he and his wife had no idea that the Nap Nanny was dangerous when they purchased it. He called Facebook “negligent and reckless” for letting the product fall into the hands of other unsuspecting parents.
“It just shows a lack of accountability for public safety,” he said. “This is something that's been proven to be unsafe. So, what's it doing out there?”
Facebook spokeswoman Devon Kearns told USA TODAY that the company prohibits the sale of recalled goods and enforces the policy primarily through automated reviews, and occasionally manual checks, before a listing goes live. She declined to say how many or which recalled products the system checks for but said Facebook works closely with interest groups, manufacturers and regulatory agencies to create the list.
Kearns acknowledged the system isn’t perfect.
“Like other platforms where people can buy and sell goods, there are instances of people knowingly or unknowingly selling recalled goods on Marketplace. We take this issue seriously and when we find listings that violate our rules, we remove them,” Kearns said. “We are heavily invested in our approach to safety and any suggestion that we aren’t trying to solve these problems or protect people who use Marketplace is false."
Patty Davis, spokeswoman for the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, told USA TODAY the agency’s surveillance team looks for recalled products online and contacts third-party platforms when they are found.
“We monitor Facebook Marketplace and reach out to Facebook regularly to demand the removal of any recalled products on the site, which we have done for thousands of products this year alone," she said. "We have urged Facebook to do more to prevent listings for recalled products."
Given a second life through Facebook, dangerous products have gone on to harm.
In July, a 5-month-old girl smashed her head on a laminate floor and had to be taken to the hospital after she flipped out of a recalled Bumbo baby seat that a day care provider had purchased on Facebook, according to a report made to the safety commission. At least 112 children have been injured from falling out of Bumbo seats, including 24 who suffered fractured skulls, federal safety regulators have warned.
Yet 14 years after they were recalled, USA TODAY found dozens of Bumbo seats that lacked required safety straps on Facebook Marketplace. Seven of the seats were later marked as sold.
“I have never seen a recall for these seats until now and it's too late!” the day care provider wrote in her report to the CPSC. “I unfortunately bought the seat I have off of Facebook so I had no idea how unsafe it was!”
In total, 40 of the recalled products USA TODAY found were later marked as sold. It’s possible that many more found new homes because sellers have the option of removing a posting without disclosing whether the item was purchased.
Facebook launched its Marketplace application in 2016, offering a convenient way for users to buy and sell items within their community. The company has since added the option to arrange payment and shipping directly through the platform, allowing users to sell items nationwide — and giving Facebook a 5% cut of some sales.
Facebook's commerce policy states that it restricts the sale of recalled goods. But the company has put more effort into blocking other illicit items, like firearms and drugs, by filtering posts with specific terms or asking users to report suspect listings. Sellers have skirted the restrictions. A 2019 Wall Street Journal investigation found people listing gun cases for sale at inflated prices and then carrying out the sale of firearms by private message.
Though not the only place where recalled products are sold, Facebook Marketplace is a leading online platform for selling secondhand goods. Today, more than 1 in 3 people on Facebook in the United States use the platform each month, according to the company.
USA TODAY found far more recalled products on Facebook Marketplace than on eBay and Craigslist, the other leading secondhand sites. Last week, a reporter found only four Boppy loungers for sale on Craigslist within 100 miles of the five largest cities in the United States. On eBay, USA TODAY found only covers for the Boppy lounger, not the item itself. USA TODAY successfully posted a Boppy lounger it did not intend to sell on Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace, but eBay blocked the post, saying it violated the company’s product safety policy.
Nancy Cowles, executive director of the consumer safety advocacy group Kids in Danger, said she met with officials from Facebook at an international safety conference in early 2020 and asked them to at least allow users to report recalled products found on the site. Users can flag listings for numerous reasons, including if the item is counterfeit, but there is no option to say that it has been recalled. Cowles said she had one follow-up call a few weeks later and has reached out to Facebook a few times since but has never been told why her suggestion wasn't adopted.
“It’s like the garage sale went virtual. But it's still being run like a garage sale, instead of like a multinational company is in charge of this,” she said.
After reviewing the listings USA TODAY found, Cowles said she was particularly concerned because most of the products had already caused serious injuries or deaths.
“These are the recalls you would think Facebook Marketplace, the U.S. CPSC, the companies would be clamoring to try and make sure they got them all,” she said. “Because they know children have died using them.”
The Boppy lounger is the latest recalled product to recirculate on Facebook Marketplace. USA TODAY found dozens for sale in a single metro area in the days after the September recall of 3.3 million units. New listings have been posted regularly ever since, including after USA TODAY told Facebook it was reporting on the proliferation of used Boppy loungers on the platform. More than a quarter of the Boppy lounger listings USA TODAY tracked were later marked as sold.
Many Facebook users still buying and selling Boppy loungers are likely unaware it has been recalled. Others know — and have found on Facebook an open platform to barter for it.
“Looking to buy a boppy lounger like in the picture,” one woman in Wisconsin wrote in a listing in late September. “They were recalled last week so can’t buy brand new any more and my daughter would like one.”
Across the country, a seller in Texas told USA TODAY she updated her post after receiving more than 50 messages from people asking her to take the listing down because the product was recalled.
“DO NOT MESSAGE ME ABOUT THE RECALL!” she wrote. “I know it’s a recall on these and it’s because of Irresponsible parents.”
Two days later, she marked the item as sold.
Technology exists, but no pressure to use it
Facebook has the technology to reduce the number of recalled products on its site.
Tim Mackey, a professor at the University of California at San Diego who runs a startup that works with Snapchat and other tech companies to find illegal activity, said the approach is similar whether Facebook is blocking the sale of a firearm or a recalled product. He said Facebook could restrict listings with certain product names, use photo recognition to identify recalled items or even require users to enter serial numbers if only certain batches of a product were recalled.
As a less restrictive option, Facebook could promote information about a recall if someone searches for that product, similar to how it uses machine learning to identify users at risk of suicide and intervenes with support services.
“The technology issue is a moot point,” Mackey said. “It can be done, no problem.”
Though Facebook says it looks for recalled items, it’s unclear why the site has been unable to remove so many of them. Nearly 3 out of 4 recalled items USA TODAY found on the site had the product name, or a slight variation of it, in the listing’s title or description, making them easy to weed out or flag for further review.
As a test, USA TODAY reporters recently created postings on Facebook Marketplace of eight recalled products, using the product names and photos taken from the CPSC recall announcements. Several of the listings received responses from interested buyers. Only one was taken down by Facebook, more than a week after it was posted.
Facebook blocked only one item from being posted: the Rock ‘n Play. The company has previously come under fire for that item, which has been linked to nearly 100 deaths, being available on the site. Shortly after it was recalled in 2019, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., wrote to Craigslist and Facebook executives saying the companies had a “moral obligation” to address the problem of recalled products being resold. Later that year, Consumer Reports found hundreds of recalled sleepers still for sale on the marketplaces.
USA TODAY recently found 14 Rock ‘n Plays for sale on Facebook Marketplace, three of which were later marked as having been sold.
When a USA TODAY reporter attempted to post a listing for the Rock ‘n Play, Facebook initially said the post violated its commerce policy, without specifying that it had been recalled. The reporter was able to instead post the item as a “Fisher-Price baby rocker.” Facebook allowed two similar recalled Fisher-Price products – the Rock ‘n Glide and Soothe ‘n Play – to be posted with the product name.
Mackey and others said Facebook has little motivation to do more.
While it is illegal under the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 to sell a recalled product, Facebook is merely facilitating the sale. A similar debate has been playing out in numerous court cases, with judges weighing whether Amazon can be held liable for defective or dangerous products sold on its site, said Justin “Gus” Hurwitz, a professor of law at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who focuses on regulation in the tech world. Amazon has generally been considered responsible only if the item shipped from an Amazon warehouse, Hurwitz said. The fact that Facebook might make a small commission for coordinating some sales likely wouldn’t increase the company’s liability, he said.
“There is no legal framework that would require Facebook to do anything about recalled products,” Hurwitz said. “The issue here is that Facebook isn't doing the sale. Facebook is only mediating the sales between buyer and seller.”
Hurwitz said the issue dovetails with a larger conversation about content moderation and whether platforms should be responsible for the conduct of their users, whether that be posting misinformation or selling dangerous goods. He said he doubts that debate will result in legislation requiring Facebook to police its marketplace or generate enough public pressure that Facebook takes a more proactive stance on its own. Doing so, he said, could actually invite legal scrutiny.
“Companies could be reasonably worried that if they start policing these products and a dangerous recalled product is sold, that consumers or courts might say, ‘Hey you’re responsible for this. You had told us that you were protecting us,’” Hurwitz said. He added that Facebook might be concerned about "creating liability that does not exist.”
‘It was mentally exhausting’
When Jan Hinson realized the type of baby bouncer in which her grandson nearly died in 2014 was still available for purchase on Facebook Marketplace and other resale sites, she started buying them herself. The Georgia lawyer said she contacted more than three dozen sellers of recalled Rock ‘n Plays on Facebook Marketplace in late 2019 and early 2020. Some items, she picked up. Others, she had shipped to her. For a few, she asked the seller to send a video of them dismantling it.
“I’d say, ‘We're just going to have a lot of fun and you're going to destroy this thing because you don't want somebody dying in it,’” she said.
Hinson is one of many concerned consumers who, in the absence of a solution from Facebook, have stepped up to raise awareness about recalled items on the site.
In early 2019, Janet McGee scrolled through post after post for Ikea dressers that looked like the one that had tipped onto and fatally crushed her son Ted a few years before. But there was no way for McGee or any potential buyer to know if the items were part of the massive dresser recall Ikea announced in 2016. The retailer redesigned most of its bureaus — which have been linked to at least 144 injuries and eight deaths — to meet industry stability standards, and then rereleased them under the same product names.
So McGee started messaging sellers.
Many sent back condolences, promised to remove the post or assured McGee they had purchased the dresser after the redesign. One woman contacted Ikea for a refund, then days later messaged McGee for advice when Ikea hadn’t responded. But others either never wrote back or sent dismissive replies. “Have a good day,” one woman typed, before ending the chat.
After 54 listings, McGee stopped.
“Reaching out to these people, it was mentally exhausting,” she said. “Constantly telling Ted's story over and over again. And that anxiety of not knowing what they're going to say.”
She said she wonders why Facebook couldn’t provide information on the recall to buyers and sellers of Ikea dressers.
“I understand how Facebook can say, 'Hey, we're just providing this platform. It's always buyer beware. It's the same as if you were to go to a garage sale,'” she said. “But as Facebook, as a company, what do you think about a lot of products being sold that are not safe and that are just passing into the next family's hands, waiting for another tragedy to happen?”
Others are now doing the same for the Boppy lounger.
After learning about the recent recall, Pennsylvania mother Melissa Minor messaged a few sellers and tried to report the listings to Facebook. She was surprised to not see a way to flag the items as recalled, so she sent a note to Facebook through the company’s Instagram account.
“How should we handle sellers on Facebook marketplace selling items that have been recalled for killing babies?” Minor asked, according to a screenshot she provided USA TODAY. “I would like to be able to report an item for sale for being recalled, but there is no such option.”
She said Facebook did not respond.
Tricia L. Nadolny is a reporter on USA TODAY’s national investigative team. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @TriciaNadolny.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: These products have killed kids. 121, in fact. Yet they're still for sale on Facebook Marketplace.