The car seat technicians with St. Luke's Pediatric Education and Prevention Programs in Idaho could not believe what they were seeing when they came across the first fake car seat.
We live in a world where anything we want can be ordered online, and if that item is too expensive cheaper, knock-off versions of all kinds of everyday products are just a scroll away.
A counterfeit purse or a cheaply made pair of shoes probably isn't going to hurt the end user, but a fake car seat absolutely could, and unfortunately, they're ending up in the back seats of parents' cars.
After KTVB-TV in Idaho reported car seat technicians with St. Luke's Children's Hospital had come across two families in possession of brand new car seats that were missing vital safety features (including five-point harness chest clips), Motherly began looking into where such car seats are coming from and why American consumers would be buying them.
Our investigation revealed that both generic knock-offs and more sophisticated counterfeit versions of specific high-end car seats are sold by third-parties through popular and trusted online retailers like Amazon and Walmart.com.
The good news? If you know what you're looking for these fakes are easy to spot and avoid, and when we alerted Amazon and Walmart.com to the existence of these unsafe car seats, both companies acted quickly to remove the third-party listings we referenced from their marketplaces.
Car seat technicians raise the alarm
The car seat technicians with St. Luke's Pediatric Education and Prevention Programs in Idaho could not believe what they were seeing when they came across the first fake car seat. For people who deal with car seats day in and day out, the missing chest clip was a dead giveaway that something was wrong, but for new parents who don't have much experience with car seats, it's an easy thing to miss.
According to Josie Bryan, the Program Coordinator for Pediatric Education and Prevention Programs at St. Luke's, the first car seat was noticed by a car seat tech who was helping the parents of a newborn baby prepare to leave the hospital. "She was checking their seat out, talking with them, and noticed it was missing the labels that were needed, and then as she picked it up and nothing seemed to be moving right. She noticed it was missing its chest clip, and was quite flimsy."
Bryan says the family explained that the car seat was part of a three-part travel system they'd received as a gift. They were told the gift-giver had ordered it through Amazon. The travel system was branded as "SafePlus," a name similar to a product line of a popular European brand.
The car seat tech at St. Luke's told the disappointed family their car seat was not safe for use. "She let them know that this isn't a federally regulated car seat," Bryan tells Motherly. "So we provided that family a car seat to take home their little one and they gave us the seat so that we could use it for kind of an education."
That was on a Friday. The following Monday St. Luke's was doing a car seat check event in Meridian, Idaho when a mom approached with her seat. She was looking for some reassurance after a friend had questioned the safety of the seat.
"Again we realized the seat is counterfeit, nearly the same exact seat as the other one, however, this one is like a fake leather," Bryan explained.
The mom was disappointed to learn that her fancy leather travel system (again, given as a gift), wasn't safe for her baby.
The families involved told St. Luke's staff the travel systems (which consisted of a bassinet, the car seat and a stroller and seems to take design cues from several high-end brands) cost $250 and were ordered through Amazon.
Motherly looked through Amazon listings and found many examples of such travel systems sold by third-party sellers, sometimes for more than $300. The exact travel system that St. Luke's had come across was also listed on Walmart.com.
(Again, both Amazon and Walmart promptly removed the links to the items in question when Motherly alerted the retailers, but similar items can still be found online).
"They're not cheap, which has been a big misconception," explains Bryan, who says new parents can pick up a safe travel system in their local stores. These systems may seem inexpensive when compared to some trendy high-end brands with a similar silhouette and bassinet attachment.
Unsafe high-end dupes
That's the case when it comes to the Doona. This high-end car seat/stroller hybrid is a thoroughly tested, safe and innovative design. As such this sought after product can command a $499 purchase price.
A $350 knock-off may seem expensive when compared to the $50 car seat you can pick up at your local Walmart or Target, but when compared to the nearly $500 Doona, it seems like a deal.
One Amazon reviewer seemed very pleased with the fake knock-off Doona they purchased (the listing was removed when Motherly alerted Amazon to it). In a review dated December 29, 2018, the purchaser wrote: "I Uber a lot since we only have one car. It's easy to collapse and put into any vehicle and strap it down without any issues. I'm putting it to good use and getting my money's worth."
Unfortunately, the $350 counterfeit seat that parent purchased likely wouldn't do much in the event of even a minor accident, says Yoav Mazar, Doona's founder.
Mazar's team has tested multiple counterfeit versions of the Doona in the same lab they use to test the real thing. "The results were horrific," Mazar tells Motherly.
The dupes failed flammability tests, tested positive for dangerous chemicals in the textiles, and in the crash test the dummy babies fell right out of the car seats.
Those making the fake car seats use materials that appear to be similar to those used on the real thing but aren't as strong or fire-retardant as the authentic version. This results in expensive dupes that offer little actual protection to babies, and according to Mazar, can actually be more dangerous. "There's no question. They for sure, one hundred percent are unsafe," says Mazar.
After Motherly first published this story CNN started investigating this, too. CNN "bought the copycat Doona and had it crash-tested at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute" and the results were not good.
"The car seat broke into pieces in a 30 mph crash test commissioned by CNN, failing to meet the basic standards set by US regulators," CNN reports.
What's being done to stop this?
The sale of counterfeit and unsafe car seats is something the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is aware of and taking steps to prevent. A spokesperson for The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration tells Motherly the "The NHTSA is working with its partners to address concerns about the sale of child seats that do not meet or are not certified to Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards No. 213, Child Restraint Systems."
At the retail level, both Amazon and Walmart tell Motherly they too are concerned about third-party sellers using their sites to sell unsafe car seats.
"Thank you for bringing this to our attention," a spokesperson for Walmart said in a statement to Motherly. "The safety of all the products offered for sale on our site is a top priority. We expect that all products, including items sold by third-party marketplace sellers, comply with legal regulations and safety standards. After investigating these items, that were sold by third-party sellers, we have removed them for not complying with our policy."
An Amazon spokesperson provided a similar statement: "Customer safety is important to us. Selling partners are required to comply with all relevant laws and regulations when listing items for sale in our stores. Those who do not will be subject to action, including removal of selling privileges and withholding of funds. The items in question have been removed."
The specific links that Motherly highlighted have been removed, but the problem persists. We checked both sites again the morning of February 14, 2019, and still found listings for other non-compliant car seats.
What parents and gift-givers need to look out for:
1. Look for the proper labels
According to the NHTSA, "parents should always check for labeling that states 'This child restraint system conforms to all applicable Federal motor vehicle safety standards' on the warning label with a yellow header. If a label with this statement is not present on the seat, it is likely a counterfeit or noncompliant seat. Do not buy it or return."
Non-compliant seats often feature poorly worded safety labels that seem to have been translated to English from another language.
2. Strange or generic brand or seller names
The car seats in Idaho were branded "SafePlus," and one of the online listings for it was titled: "3 In1 [sic] Foldable Baby Kids Travel Stroller."
Josie Bryan from St. Luke's recommends that parents research which brand names are sold in brick-and-mortar U.S. stores, and stay away from online listings for brands with unfamiliar or misspelled names.
When you're buying something on Amazon or Walmart.com, stay away from third-party sellers with names that seem to just be a random string of letters, or a strange phrase (like "Rapidly boy" or "YANFAMING"). Instead, look for items that are shipped and sold by the retailer itself.
3. Serial numbers to register your product
If you've received a car seat as a gift, one way you can be certain of its authenticity is to register the product with the manufacturer using its unique serial number. According to the folks at Doona, the most sophisticated counterfeit operations will often print copies of the stickers that belong on the Doona, but they will use a serial number already in use or a fake serial number.
Registering your product's serial number allows you to check its authenticity, and allows the manufacturer to contact you if there is ever a recall or issue impacting your car seat.
Bottom line: When buying a car seat, it's best to buy from a trusted source.
Bryan recommends parents purchase through brick-and-mortar stores. For online purchases, Mazar suggests parents check a brand's website to make sure the site they're purchasing through is an authorized retailer of the brand.
Online marketplaces can help us find great deals, but when it comes to baby's safety, we unfortunately can't put our trust in third-party sellers.
If you have purchased or been given a non-compliant child safety seat, you can file a complaint with the NHTSA.
[A version of this story was first published February 14, 2019. It has been updated.]