Thursday, Feb. 7, 2008

Investigators remove potentially dangerous electrical appliances

Suspect products taken from 12 county stores

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Brian Lewis⁄The Gazette
Montgomery County officials removed potentially dangerous electrical products that had counterfeit or nonexistent certification stickers from 12 stores in a recent three-month sweep. J. Dennis Gentzel, chief fire protection engineer for the state fire marshal’s office (right), and Thomas W. Carr Jr., Montgomery County’s fire chief, announced the products and warned consumers at a Jan. 28 news conference.
Last September, Gennadiy Novitskiy of Rockville purchased an extension cord. After he plugged it in, the cord melted, causing the carpet and a nearby sofa to burst into flames.

Novitskiy contacted Montgomery County’s Office of Consumer Protection, and what followed was a three-month countywide search for potentially hazardous electrical products.

On Jan. 28, the office announced at Bethesda Fire Station 6 it found and removed suspect products from 12 stores throughout the county, mainly because the products were not properly tested or certified.

‘‘We found electrical items for sale that were not tested by approved laboratories or had phony labels of certification,” said Eric Friedman, director of the Office of Consumer Protection.

Stores from Takoma Park to Germantown had products, including extension cords, space heaters, lamps and coffee percolators, pulled from shelves. Most of the stores were dollar stores or grocery stores.

Friedman said his office searched more than 20 randomly chosen stores, with a special emphasis on smaller ‘‘dollar-style” stores, known to sometimes carry illegal products.

The products, which had either no testing certification labels or counterfeit ones, were removed as a precaution, he said.

‘‘These products are potentially unsafe,” he said. ‘‘We can’t say for sure they’re unsafe, but we can say they’re illegal.”

The most familiar label to consumers is the ‘‘UL” label, which stands for Underwriters Laboratories, one of the most popular electric testing facilities in the country, Friedman said.

‘‘People need to be aware that you can’t always trust the labels,” he said. ‘‘Stickers may be counterfeit. People need to be aware that this could happen.”

At Lotte Plaza, an international supermarket in Germantown, space heaters and coffee percolators were removed from shelves after investigators discovered during the week of Jan. 21 that the products had no testing labels.

Tek Lee, manager of the supermarket, said he has little control over the products he sells.

‘‘We have a main office, and they purchase [the products] from a vendor,” he said. ‘‘This isn’t something that we carry just here; it’s all over.”

According to the store’s Web site, there are 16 locations in the country.

Grand Mart International Food in Gaithersburg was also investigated, and Consumer Protection turned up space heaters and heating pads with no testing labels.

Store manager Justin Kim said the store has not purchased replacement products, which is hurting business.

‘‘Ever since we took the electric products off the shelves, we’ve lost a couple customers who wanted to buy things for the winter,” he said. ‘‘But [the Office of Consumer Protection] said we can’t sell them, so we won’t.”

Each store has been given a warning, and if future offenses are found the stores face fines up to $1,000 for each unlawful product, plus possible jail time for store owners if the products are not pulled.

At least one shopper was relieved the products were no longer on the shelves.

‘‘It makes me nervous,” said Hector Salazar, of Gaithersburg, outside Lotte Plaza. ‘‘But also, it’s good knowing [the products] aren’t there now.”

Friedman said his office and the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service would continue to periodically check the implicated businesses, as well as others, in the upcoming months to ensure compliance.

Spot a fake

Retailers in Montgomery County who were caught selling unapproved or untested products were sent a letter highlighting how to spot counterfeit certification stickers. The following rules apply to products certified by Underwriters Laboratories, one of the country’s most popular certifiers:

The UL symbol is always enclosed in a circle, and the letters are staggered, not side by side

If the word ‘‘Approved” instead of ‘‘Listed” appears on the label, it may be counterfeit

If the product does not contain the trademark UL, and instead just prints a UL on the packaging, it may be counterfeit

A control number (four alpha-numeric characters) or issue number (sequence of typically four to six numbers) will appear under the UL symbol

Underwriters Laboratories is not the only approved certification company. For a full list of approved laboratories visit www.firemarshal.state.md.us.