Newborns Are Going Home in Fake Car Seats—Here's What Parents Need To Know

Hospitals have sent out warnings about counterfeit car seats they've seen during safety checks. Here's what fake car seats are and how to avoid accidentally buying one.

Baby girl sleeping in rear-facing infant seat during a road trip.
Photo: Jessica Byrum/Stocksy

While online ads and your friend's baby registry might have you believe otherwise, there are only a few things you absolutely need during your baby's first year of life. A good baby carrier, diapers, wipes, a few outfits, and a car seat are some of the most critical items. When parents are shopping for these must-have baby items, they usually trust that what's on the market is safe to buy. Unfortunately, that's not always the case. Experts say parents need to be on the lookout for counterfeit car seats—an important message in time for National Child Passenger Safety Week, this year taking place between September 18-24.

In the past few months, hospitals across the country, including in Texas, Ohio, and Florida, have sent warnings to their communities about the numbers (mostly in the dozens) of counterfeit car seats they've seen during the routine safety checks conducted before sending newborns home.

These car seats, created to look like familiar, popular brands, are often flimsy, made of sub-par materials, and not able to withstand the force of a crash. "These seats are not federally regulated in the U.S.," says Courtney Gleaton, injury prevention coordinator and certified child passenger safety technician (CPST) at Orlando Health. "They offer little to no protection to a child in a crash and, when crash tested, these car seats have been shown to shatter into many pieces. Many have been found to have high levels of chemicals and have highly flammable materials for padding."

Despite this, these car seats look real enough to fool many parents. Here's what you need to know about counterfeit car seats.

What Are Counterfeit Car Seats?

Car seats sold in the United States have to meet regulatory standards set by both the Consumer Safety Product Commission and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. These agencies require extensive testing to ensure that the babies who ride in the car seats will be as safe as possible in the event of a crash.

Other countries have their own regulatory agencies that govern car seat manufacturers. So, for example, while European-made and tested car seats may look different than American car seats, when they are used properly they are safe (but not legal) in the U.S. Since they've been tested and are made by the manufacturer they claim to be made by, these are not considered counterfeit car seats.

Car seats that have been manufactured in other countries and sold in America, but that have not been tested to meet regulatory standards anywhere are considered counterfeit car seats. These car seats are often designed in color and style to look like popular U.S.-based brands and may even bear the same name, though some appear to be unbranded.

Why Are Counterfeit Car Seats on the Rise?

Counterfeit car seats are not a new issue, but the rise of online shopping (especially since the COVID-19 pandemic encouraged people to stay home as much as possible) and the ability of online stores based outside the United States to sell directly to American consumers has exacerbated the issue.

The rising cost of living, without a rise in wages, has also left many parents looking for lower-cost options for the items they need. Since counterfeit car seats are usually sold at much lower prices than their legitimate counterparts, parents are susceptible to getting a counterfeit seat while looking for a good deal.

How Can You Tell if Your Car Seat Is Counterfeit?

If you recently purchased a car seat, you may be wondering how to be sure your baby's seat is legit. "All car seats manufactured in the United States are required to have a sticker or label on the seat that states the manufacturer's name, address, and phone number," says Alisa Baer, M.D., a pediatrician and co-founder of The Car Seat Lady. "If this sticker is missing, that's a huge red flag."

Parents can also look at the paperwork that came with the car seat for clues that it's legitimate. "A car seat manual and registration card will be included in all federally compliant car seats in the U.S.," says Gleaton. "If your car seat did not come with a registration card and/or car seat manual, there is a high probability that it is counterfeit."

How To Avoid Buying a Counterfeit Car Seat

Generally, if you're shopping in-person or online through a U.S.-based store, you can feel confident that the car seat you're buying meets U.S. safety standards. Opt for authorized sellers like Buy Buy Baby or via manufacturers' sites directly. Counterfeit car seats are largely sold through third-party sellers on popular shopping sites (that includes Amazon and Walmart) or on stand-alone sites that have red flags like misspellings in the product descriptions, very long shipping times, or bad reviews/scam warnings when you Google them.

Another clue that a car seat you're considering is not legitimate is a price that's far lower than you're used to seeing. "If the price looks too good to be true, it probably is," says Dr. Baer. While U.S.-based retailers will sometimes have sales on car seats, many counterfeit car seats are sold at well below the price of the model they're imitating.

What Else Parents Need To Know About Car Seats

While counterfeit car seats are a major problem, a far more widespread issue is the improper use of car seats that are tested and approved. Research shows more than half of car seats are not installed correctly and nearly half of car seats and booster seats are misused. "Using a car seat properly is more difficult than most parents realize," says Dr. Baer. "Studies show that second and third-time parents make the same mistakes in installation and harnessing as first-time parents."

And yet, proper car seat use reduces serious and fatal injuries for kids by up to 80%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). If you want to be sure you're using your child's car seat properly and keeping them as safe as possible, there are things you can do: "Reading the car seat's manual, watching installation videos by the manufacturer or a CPST, and getting the installation checked by a CPST are ways to increase the chance that your child is riding as safely as possible."

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