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Back to School Knives: The Dark Underbelly of Influencers’ Favourite New Shopping App

How is a shopping site operating in the UK able to market knives seemingly at school kids without sanction? Katherine Denkinson investigates.

“Back to School” knives hosted on Temu’s website. Photo: Temu screengrab

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Temu is the newest discount sales app to hit the market, following in the footsteps of Wish and AliExpress. In the last six months hundreds of influencers in the US and UK have taken to social media, proudly showing off their discount “hauls” of mass-produced plastic to thousands of followers. But is Temu all they claim it to be?

Offering everything from chastity cages to hats for hens, the Chinese app has recently raised concerns from parents with a ‘Back to School’ sale which includes knives and concealable weapons.  A Byline Times investigation can reveal this to be one of many issues with the company, whose data gathering policy, questionable sales practices and insidious marketing techniques have led the US to consider banning it completely.

If you use Facebook, you will likely have encountered Temu’s trademark orange advertisements. A one-stop shop for everything you never knew you never needed, their main gimmick is ridiculously low prices, with many products costing less than a pound.

Their explanation for such bargains is that they operate as a ‘middleman’ between sellers and customers, thus keeping operating costs to a minimum and ensuring that the knives (and everything else they sell) are made and stored by other companies. 

Fans across various social media platforms regularly extol the virtues of Temu, sharing reels and posts showcasing their latest buys and challenging the idea that Temu is a scam. Dig a little deeper and the reason for such loyalty becomes apparent. Alongside their cheap products, Temu runs a number of affiliate marketing schemes.

Some of the original “Back to School” weapons recently marketed on the site

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Offering influencers the chance to “earn up to $100k a month”, they provide discounts and free products to creators who post links to the website, write reviews of the app and share their shopping hauls on social media. 

To boost their reach even further, the company has swamped Facebook with hundreds of ads, most of which are hosted by fake Facebook accounts and linked to equally fake Instagram profiles. Indeed the only reliable appraisals of Temu that we could find, came from negative reviews on TrustPilot and the Better Business Bureau. 

Customers on both sites noted the poor product quality, non-existent customer service and an alleged tendency for Temu to take payment for products they had not purchased.


School Knives

A recent Better Business Bureau complaint also highlighted the “realistic-looking handgun” which the site was selling as part of their Back to School promotion. 

A representative from Temu responded to this complaint saying: “We are sorry for the inconvenience. We have checked the details you provided and can confirm that our customer service department has emailed you and offered you a resolution and a compensation plan…We’ll continuously improve our advertisement to avoid further misunderstandings but hundreds of knives remain on sale as part of the same promotion.”

Temu terms and conditions state that customers should be 18 years of age to set up an account, but the sign-up process requires no proof. Unlike Amazon, which states that age verification will be required to receive packages containing knives etc, Temu has no such safeguards. Despite numerous reviews noting the poor quality of many Temu products, videos  on YouTube clearly show how sharp and potentially dangerous these knives can be.

Patrick Green, CEO of the Ben Kinsella Trust, which works to tackle knife crime, told Byline Times  It is totally unacceptable that dangerous knives and other bladed articles are being openly marketed as “back to school” accessories. It is important to remember that knives such as these bring tragedy and heartache to hundreds of families each year. 

“It is against the law to sell knives to anyone under the age of 18, yet this site appears to have insufficient safeguards in place to stop this happening. By openly advertising these knives as school accessories this unscrupulous site is seeking to lure young people into breaking the law.”

He added that irresponsible marketing of knives is a “contributing factor” in the normalising of knife carrying among young people: “These knives should be removed from this website with immediate effect.”

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From Data Harvesting to Alleged Human Rights Abuses

Temu operates as a subsidiary of Whaleco, which is itself a subsidiary of Chinese agriculture company Pinduoduo (now known as PDD Holdings) who made $383 billion last year. PDD’s own sales app was removed from Google Play stores earlier this year when it was revealed that the app was asking for 83 permissions including access to biometric data, Bluetooth and information about users’ Wi-Fi networks. 

Temu asks for far fewer permissions, but it is unclear how these are used or whether they are being sold to third parties. Negative customer reviews reveal that orders to Temu have resulted in them being “inundated with spam” and “bombarded with phishing emails”.

Temu respond to all of these complaints with the same ‘cut and paste’ text: “Hello, we greatly appreciate your feedback and are happy to assist with any questions or concerns you may have. Customer satisfaction is of the utmost importance and we are constantly working to improve our service quality. If you have any additional questions or concerns, please message us on our Temu.com or Temu app live chat. Best wishes, Temu team”

The Temu privacy policy is equally opaque, requiring users to sign up to the site before they can read it. Having circumnavigated this via an archive site, we were able to locate their full policy, including their suggestion that “We may offer features that help you invite your friends or contacts to use the Service and, with your permission, we may collect information from your contacts list to help you send invitations”.

Most of their data collection clauses include the codicil “with your permission” but, given customer complaints, it seems this does not always work.

PDD moved their base of operations from Boston, Massachusetts to Dublin at the end of last year and, since December, have set up four UK offices; two under the Whaleco name, one as Temu Pricedown and one as Pinduoduo Ltd. Their Whaleco offices operate from a building which also houses the Agricultural Bank of China, whilst their Temu office address is a luxury apartment in Southbank Towers. In contrast to these, the address for Pinduoduo Ltd leads to a tiny industrial estate in Warrington

Their 80,000 sellers are primarily based in China, but a US Select Committee meeting from last year, examined the steps Temu had taken to comply with forced labour laws in relation to products from the XinJiang area and noted that “there is an extremely high risk that Temu’s supply chains are contaminated with forced labour.” The report also noted that the company had failed to provide “even the façade of a meaningful compliance program”. 

A private members’ bill to ban the import of products made with forced labour in XinJiang is currently on its second reading in the House of Commons. 

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A government spokesperson said: “The sale of knives to under 18s is completely unacceptable and we continue to do everything in our power to tackle knife crime. Since 2019, we have removed over 100,000 knives and offensive weapons from our streets and have recently announced proposals to ban the sale and possession of zombie style knives and machetes.

“Under the Online Safety Bill, the government will also introduce measures requiring platforms to identify and take down content relating to the sale of offensive weapons and knives to under 18s.”

A spokesperson for the Advertising Standards Authority told Byline Times they were not currently investigating the ads, but added: “While the [advertising] code doesn’t have a specific section on weapons, where they can be legally sold and advertised, our rules require advertisers to advertise them responsibly. 

“We understand that certain weapons (including specific types of knives) cannot be legally sold or advertised, and these products should therefore never be advertised, and if we become aware of examples of such advertising, we would refer them to the relevant law enforcement bodies.” 

However, they called for advertisers to “carefully consider how they advertise any type of legally available knife, ensuring that such ads are not targeted towards children.”

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“The content, context and media placement of ads for products that can legally be sold and advertised should always be in line with the CAP Code, including ensuring that targeting is appropriate, and that ads are socially responsible. We encourage anyone with concerns about ads they’ve seen to get in touch,” the ASA spokesperson said.

The Offensive Weapons Act 2019 included new measures for knife offences, making it an offence to possess certain offensive weapons in private, and stopping knives being sent to residential addresses after they are bought online, unless the seller has arrangements in place with the delivery company to ensure that the product would not be delivered into the hands of a person under 18. 

The government has been consulting on plans to outlaw certain machetes and so-called ‘zombie style’ for several weeks. The consultation closed on 6 June 2023 and ministers are expected to respond in due course.

Under the Online Safety Bill, currently going through Parliament, platforms need to put in place systems and processes to identify and take down content which they believe breaches offences listed in Schedule 7 of the bill. This list includes offences relating to the sale of offensive weapons and the sale of knives to under 18s. However, the Bill faces an uncertain future and has been heavily delayed.

Under the Bill, Ofcom, as the regulator, will be required to design codes of practice setting out the steps that companies can take to comply with the safety duties and publish guidance on illegal content judgements. Ofcom will then be able to enforce against social media sites for failing to have adequate systems and processes to remove illegal content, including activity relating to priority offences.

Temu did not respond to requests for comment. 

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