Friday, March 26, 2010

Counterfeit Dangers

The Fire just waiting to start in your home
Counterfeit and Knock off Electrical Items

By Nick Markowitz Jr.
Fire Investigator

You find yourself on a nice sunny spring day deciding to go for a walk what better way to enjoy it than a stop at a local Flea Market. All the great smells from food vendor's carts and the busy activity everywhere make this a special time. Unfortunately you do not realize that the choices you make this day may well result in the destruction of your home and possibly your family.

You see a vendor selling all kinds of new, cheap dollar stuff from many different boxes he has laying on plastic sheeting on the ground. You find he has some plug strips you have been needing for your computer system and kitchen, very cheaply priced at $3.00 each. Anywhere else they would cost you $12.99. And so you buy a couple of them, totally unaware that what you think is a good deal on a legitimate item is actually a dangerously-built counterfeit or look alike, also known as a Knock Off.

You go home, plug one of these power strips in your computer system and start working with your new laser printer. You get everything set up and ready to go. It's getting late and it's nearing your bedtime. You leave your computer and printer on because it also works as a fax machine. You go to bed to later awaken to the sound of your smoke detector. Your house is filling up with smoke and you instinctively get everyone up and out, just in time as flames come out of the family room where the computer is located.

Luckily tonight everyone is safe and firefighters arrive in time to stop the fire in the family room, but there's water and smoke damage everywhere.

The Fire Marshal arrives after the fire is out and he begins his investigation. He traces the fire's origin to just about where the plug strip was, but it's almost totally destroyed. Luckily, you have the duplicate strip from the kitchen to give him. On closer examination, he finds that it's not what it appears, it's counterfeit, a knockoff, made to look like a good product. Instead, it is made very cheaply.

For example, instead of a #14 gauge wire cord, it's only #16. This means that it can only carry half of the 15-Amps that the packaging says it can carry. To make matters worse, the on/off switch is also inferior because it's undersized. The unit also has no UL, FM, or any other testing agency's approval and no manufacturer's name is on it, other than "made in China."

This plug strip never should have been imported and sold in this country because it is absolutely illegal under Federal Import rules. Yet everyday illegal and dangerous items made cheaply and dangerously make it into this country. They are being sold at flea markets; dollar stores; and 2nd-hand, variety-type stores.

This is a serious problem. Just a survey of local flea markets here in the Pittsburgh area revealed 10 out of 12 vendors had illegal items for sale. All of them having been imported illegally through an importer in New York City. But when it comes to electrical items, it not just the small stuff being made, its large frame breakers and switch gear as well.

Cutler Hammer, a division of Eaton Corp., has started a campaign to make electricians aware of knockoffs. Can you imagine that the apartment or office building you may be in has illegal, copycat electrical switch gear items in it? But it happens. It even happens in the airline and automotive industries and it has caused numerous accidents and deaths. In a word, it is a growing problem.

Sometimes manufacturers will also illegally copy the UL  testing label just to make an item look legit, but it's not. The Consumer Products Safety Commission, also known as CPSC, is in charge of protecting consumers from dangerous products and they have field agents in every state. But with the rapid proliferation of illegal items coming into this country, agents are often overwhelmed and in need input from average citizens when it comes to reporting dangerous items.

When these agents come across them, which is almost weekly, the CPSC issues bulletins about all kinds of dangerous items being recalled--from children toys with lead paint issues to exploding candles, to lawnmowers with blades that break.

A recent effort by the CPSC is a down-loadable booklet which is being issued to every  2nd-hand and variety-type store in order to help them identify dangerous products that they may otherwise sell to an unsuspecting public. This helps in the removal and destruction of of illegal goods that should not be on the U.S. market.

Merchants and vendors who continue to sell these dangerous items face fines well in excess of $10,000.00. In additional these illegal items can be seized and destroyed.
The only way to stop this scourge going across America is for consumers to become educated so they can avoid these problems in the first place. As a general rule, if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is.

For more information on how to identify and report a dangerous product, go to

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