Product recalls: How to find out if something you bought is dangerous — and protect yourself

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From defective cars that accelerate on their own to exploding SodaStream bottles to salad with bats in the mix, products of all types have recently surprised consumers in unexpected and sometimes unpleasant ways.  

It's not just paranoia if you worry about the quality of products you buy and use regularly: A record 53.2 million cars were recalled in 2016, along with, among other purchases, more than 58 million pounds of meat and fish and 8,300-plus other products regulated by the Food and Drug Administration

When you're buying any product, from household cleaner to a stove for your new home, it's vital you first check whether the purchase is subject to a recall. This is especially important when buying used, but you can't always count on even brand new or certified products to be safe — since stores have been caught selling recalled products. Even car dealers can get away with selling "certified pre-owned" recalled cars with un-repaired defects. 

So, how can you know if the products you're using aren't going to make you sick — or worse? Follow these tips. 

Register new products right away

You know when you buy a product and you get that little white card you're supposed to mail in to register your ownership with the manufacturer? Don't just toss that away. Fill out your contact information and send it in to the company. Many companies also allow you to register online, so visit the company website if that's simpler. 

"A company that has your name and contact information, and the product model and serial number, can reach you if the product is recalled," Consumer Reports advised. 

While you aren't usually required to fill out this registration information to activate a warranty, letting the company know how to reach you gives you the best chance of being alerted when a safety issue arises with a product.  Plus, you may get perks like an extended warranty for completing your registration information.

Know where to look for recall info

If a product is dangerous, the item should be recalled. A recall is the process used to remove dangerous products from the marketplace or used to alert product owners the product they're using has a defect that needs to be fixed. 

Government agencies with authority to regulate different types of consumer products each have their own websites where you can find out about recalls. Here's where you should look to see if the products you're using are safe:

• General household products: Search the Consumer Product Safety Commission by product name to find information on recalls of appliances, clothes, electronics, furniture, children's products, sports equipment, outdoor gear and household items. A list of the latest recalled products is also available on the CPSC website.

Vehicles and transportation products: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has information about car recalls and school bus recalls, recalls of car parts and tires and child safety seat recalls. Search by VIN number or product make and model. If you're concerned about boat recalls, the U.S. Coast Guard Recalls Database has the info you need. 

Food products: The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration both provide searchable lists of recalled food products. The reason for the recall such as contamination or an undeclared allergen is also listed so you'll know how serious the problem is. Food Safety.gov is another resource and is a centralized database of info from the FDA, Department of Agriculture, Centers for Disease Control and Health and Human Services. 

Medications and personal care products: The FDA is your go-to source for information on prescription and non-prescription drugs, vaccines, veterinary products and medical devices. You can search by keyword or recall type. The FDA also handles recalls of beauty products, like shampoo and makeup. 

Know how to find out if there's a problem
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Sign up for recall alerts

Checking for a recall before you buy a product is smart, but sometimes problems aren't discovered until after you've brought a dangerous item into your house. To make sure you're alerted to an issue, sign up for recall alerts. 

• Consumer Product Safety Commission allows you to subscribe to various newsletters and alerts. You can sign up to receive daily summaries of all recalled products in different categories including sports gear, children's products, household items and outdoor equipment. 

• National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has a Recall Notification Email System so you can sign up to receive an alert whenever a car, car part, or transportation equipment is recalled. 

• Food Safety.gov allows you to input your email address to receive automatic alerts about recalled food. There is also a Food Safety Widget you can put onto your own web page that will display recall alerts and food safety tips. 

• FDA allows you to sign up to receive email or text notifications about recalled medications, medical devices, veterinary products, food products and personal care products.

Signing up for these different alerts could potentially save your life or prevent serious injury if you're notified about a problem discovered with your car or your over-the-counter medications.  Emails that help you prevent harm are definitely worth the space in your inbox.

Finally, watch out for scams, another way that consumers can end up in big trouble. You can sign up for scam alerts from the FTC here.

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