Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend

Consumers should be proactive in recalls

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Notices don’t always reach buyers, but you can find details

What do ice cream, dog food, toys and heart defibrilla­tors have in common?

All are products that recently have been recalled.

Chances are, you’ve purchased a product that’s been recalled for one reason or another, but with hundreds of recalls every year, you probably don’t know about it.

Some recalls, ones that affect lots of people or involve contaminat­ed food or well- loved toys, will probably make the newspaper or the evening news. Most others won’t.

“ The problem with recalls is that people don’t hear about them,” said Tod Marks, senior editor for Consumer Reports. “ These things are going on all the time. It’s nothing new. But most media outlets fail to report on a recall unless it grabs public attention.”

Depending on the product, the maker might not have the responsibi­lity or ability to contact you.

Carmakers are required to attempt to contact affected owners, said Elly Martin, spokeswoma­n for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administra­tion, which oversees recalls of autos and some related parts and equipment.

But even with mandatory registrati­on and computeriz­ed databases, that’s not going to be 100 percent effective, she said.

With smaller household items, the maker probably doesn’t have any idea who the owners are. So the onus is on consumers to find out about the recall and stop using the product.

“ Basically, it’s caveat emptor, let the buyer beware,” Marks said. “ If you want to protect yourself, you have to go that extra yard and do your homework.”

First things first: If something’s been recalled, stop using it.

“ When we announce a recall, it’s announced for a reason,” said Patti Davis, spokeswoma­n for the Consumer Product Safety Commission. “ There is a danger.”

Check the Web site of the agency that issued the recall. That’s where you’ll find the nittygritt­y on getting a replacemen­t, repair or refund. The agencies usually have a toll- free number where you can get the same informatio­n.

In the case of autos, a recall usually involves taking the car to the manufactur­er’s local dealer, regardless of where you bought it.

In the case of household items, you can sometimes return the product to the store for a refund. Or you may have to send it back to the manufactur­er. Makers will either pay postage or reimburse you, Davis said.

For food, the most important thing is to stop using the product.

But you may or may not be offered a chance to recoup your money. If not, just throw it out. ( One exception: If you’ve already gotten sick, your doctor may need the item for testing.)

Sometimes the recall also will include special instructio­ns for consumers.

“ The consumer needs to be proactive,” said Rachel Weintraub, director of product safety and senior counsel for the Consumer Federation of America.

With autos and related safety products ( such as some auto parts and car seats), the federal government posts consumer complaints, informatio­n on pending investigat­ions into safety concerns, and safety warnings.

The upshot is that consumers may know about product safety issues well in advance of a recall.

That informatio­n puts consumers in the driver’s seat when it comes to making decisions about cars, safety equipment and parts.

The only downside is financial. Absent a recall, if consumers decide to replace a part or repair their cars to prevent potential problems, they may have to do it at their own expense.

Usually, manufactur­ers seeking to preserve good relations will try to make things easy for customers during a recall, Martin said.

“ There’s a lot of sensitivit­y to bad publicity,” she said.

So most of the time you should have no problem getting repairs, replacemen­ts or refunds after a product recall.

Often there is some sort of identifica­tion or lot number that is used, which can help.

Many times, when there is a recall, manufactur­ers will set up a consumer hot line to answer questions or handle problems.

But if you get stuck, try calling the company directly through its main switchboar­d.

You also can complain to the government agency overseeing the recall and likely get some additional advice on troublesho­oting the problem.

If the company issuing the recall also is going bankrupt or is already out of business, you probably won’t get a refund. Throw it out and cut your losses.

In every case, try to remember how you paid for the item.

Recalls are another situation where your credit card may offer additional protection.

Not only do you have a record of your purchase date, place and price, you may also have another avenue for recovering your money, said Joe Ridout, spokesman for Consumer Action.

“ A credit card may include benefits that will extend the manufactur­er’s warranty,” he said. “ And it’s one of the things not everyone knows. It can be a money saver.”

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