Untested lights can ruin holidays

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

They're pretty. But are they the real deal? Consumer advocates are asking people shopping for Christmas lights to proceed with caution. Many light sets bearing fake Underwriters Laboratories Inc. labels are finding their way to the U.S. marketplace, and consumers and businesses are getting burned.

The presence of the UL label, authorized by the company that tests products and writes safety standards, should give consumers a sense of security. But the company "has seen a dramatic increase in the amount of counterfeited products and trademark labels on those products in the past several years," said John Drengenberg, who works with the Illinois company's anti-counterfeiting operations. Most of the counterfeited products come from China, he said.

As a result, UL began using more sophisticated holographic labels on products it's tested. But the problem of untested lights getting into consumers' hands persists because consumers often don't look for the UL seal, said Jamie Schafer-Wilson, a consumer safety expert at Consumer Reports.

Many of these products are showing up in retail outlets, including dollar and discount stores, the publication said. "People are so busy that sometimes it's easier to see a deal and think it's a good buy and make that purchase without checking the labeling," Schafer-Wilson said. "The problem is especially significant now (in a tightened economy) with more people looking to buy secondhand products. That's where it's really easy to find items that aren't safe."

To highlight the problem, Electrical Contractor magazine is leading an effort to inform consumers on how to avoid the fakes, said Andrea Klee, editor of the

Maryland-based publication. The magazine has joined with two industry trade groups, the National Association of Electrical Distributors and the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, to launch the campaign.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers have seized $9.7 million worth of counterfeit consumer electronics and electrical goods this year, the Washington-based group said. "It's a problem for manufacturers because intellectual rights are being stolen, a problem for distributors because it could affect their reputations, and it could affect the reputation of electrical installers," Klee said. "But more than anything, it's a question of safety. Do you really want something plugged in your home that's not tested or certified?"

Consumers who are unsure of their purchases should either take them back to the store or take the lights to their local fire station to discuss their concerns, said Shane Cartmill, spokesman for the state fire marshal's office. He said the fire marshal discourages using counterfeit lights because "they aren't tested."

So how can consumers ensure they get the real deal when purchasing Christmas lights? Avoid buying lights that have a surprisingly low retail price or an unusual labeling or certification mark, and are sold with no sales taxes, as counterfeiters generally don't report their sales, Klee said. Consumers also should avoid purchasing from street vendors or unauthorized dealers, she said.

Safe lights

Tips for making sure the holiday lights you use or buy aren't counterfeit:

  • Look for the UL safety mark. A silver holographic seal is required on decorative lighting made worldwide and on fans, other lighting and the like made in China. Various other electrical products should include a circled UL, the word Listed, and a number of four or six digits.
  • Avoid buying at deep-discount and dollar stores, which have been sources of untested holiday lights, extension cords and batteries.
  • Be suspicious of third-party websites that offer deep discounts for products that are usually pricey.
  • Avoid no-name products. A manufacturer's name and address is no guarantee of safety, but at least you can contact the company to try to remedy problems.
  • Don't buy if the seller won't provide a receipt or if warranty data are missing.
  • Inspect labels and packaging for broken or missing safety seals, misspellings or unfamiliar or flimsy packaging for big-name brands.
  • If you've purchased them from a yard sale or thrift store, check to see whether they've been recalled by searching www.recalls.gov.