A Texas family said they shopped online for a car seat and a stroller travel system they liked. When the patient care technician at a children’s hospital saw the car seat, she had questions.
The car seat was missing key information that would have shown it passed federal safety standards in the United States.
There are specific things safety advocates want parents to know about a growing problem.
'This is not right at all'
At Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth, patient care technician Christie Clemons’ role is focused on preparing parents.
“My main responsibility is to educate parents on how to do infant CPR and how to use their car seats correctly in the neonatal ICU,” she said.
In a recent class, the family of a newborn brought in a car seat that made Clemons want to take a closer look.
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“I noticed, first, that it didn't have a chest clip,” she said.
Chest clips aren’t required, but just about all car seats made for U.S. consumers have them.
“The more I look at it, the more I'm thinking to myself, this is not right at all,” Clemons said.
She said she noted the car seat didn’t list a manufacturer name; there was no model name or number and no date of manufacture. U.S. regulations have strict labeling requirements an car seat makers must include that information, in English, on the car seat.
The car seat did have a square, orange compliance sticker on the side – a label typically seen on car seats in Europe.
However, without a label showing the car seat passed federal safety standards in the U.S., Clemons questioned putting a young patient in it.
“How would it react in a crash? What would happen to the child?” Clemons asked.
The parents, Gilbert and Karla Ruiz of Midland said they found the car seat after they searched online. They landed on a website that sold multiple baby products and zeroed in on a car seat and stroller system with rose gold trim and tan leather accents. The reviews posted on the website were positive.
“Every comment says, 'It’s amazing, it’s beautiful,'” Karla Ruiz said.
A family member offered to buy the travel system as a gift for the new baby.
“The price before was $399 and now it’s on special – it’s $289.99,” Ruiz said.
The family said they expected the car seat would meet the required safety standards.
“You feel kind of safe that, especially here in the U.S., I'm sure the car seat has all the required testing that I would need,” Gilbert Ruiz said.
Expert: Two categories of potentially problematic seats
Before they can be sold on store shelves, car seat manufacturers must show federal regulators their seats pass hundreds of tests. Stores then purchase the car seats that meet federal standards from the manufacturer.
But safety advocates say many consumers are now shopping for their baby gear online and it may not always be clear if the car seat is made for use in the U.S.
“There are two categories of seats that families might encounter that could be problematic,” said Dr. Alisa Baer, a pediatrician and co-founder of The Car Seat Lady.
Baer reviewed video of the Ruiz family’s car seat and said she believes they unknowingly bought a car seat that passed another country’s safety standard.
“If used, according to its instructions, it should keep your baby safe, whatever country you're in,” Baer said. “But it is technically illegal to use in the U.S.”
She said the second category of concern: counterfeit car seats that look like safety-tested name brands.
“From a distance, they look very similar. But, the closer you look, they are missing or have changed important parts,” Baer said.
One real brand dealing with counterfeits is Doona – a car seat that folds out into a stroller. It retails for around $500.
Doona told NBC 5 Responds it spent years investing in the development of its product to ensure its safety and that counterfeits are a big issue.
Doona shared a presentation on how it’s combatting the problem – saying the company is actively monitoring online platforms and social media to take down fakes.
Doona said it’s not aware of a fake Doona product being sold under the Doona name. The fake product usually uses a different name, though the installation artwork and appearance may look similar.
“A lot of these websites are, you know, up one day and gone the next day,” said Sarah Haverstick – a safety advocate for Goodbaby International – which makes the Evenflo brand.
Haverstick said if you’re shopping for a car seat online, confirm who is selling the seat. If it’s a third-party seller on an online platform or a social media post that takes you to an unfamiliar website, try reaching out to the car seat manufacturer.
“What brand is it? Contact that brand directly and say, 'I'm looking at a product on XYZ website. Is that an authorized reseller of your product?'” Haverstick advised.
“Sometimes we find deals online, right? I'm not saying you can't use those -- just do a little bit of research to make sure that it is a car seat from a legitimate manufacturer,” said Cass Herring with the nonprofit Safe Kids Worldwide.
If you’re shopping for a car seat, you can check with the American Academy of Pediatrics, which maintains this list of car seat products approved for use in the United States along with basic information about height and weight requirements and retail price.
“Reference the American Academy of Pediatrics site to make sure that what you're buying is a car seat and it's not a carrier or something like that,” Herring said.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration offers ease-of-use ratings for car seats.
How to ensure you buy a car seat that meets federal requirements
You can buy in person where stores have purchased certified car seats directly from a manufacturer.
If you're shopping online, confirm who is shipping and selling the car seat.
If you find a price that’s too good to be true, do more research. If a car seat looks like a brand you know and it’s selling for a much lower price, Baer said shoppers should be skeptical.
“If the seat that you want is not in your budget, it is much safer for your baby to pick a seat that is in your budget that is safe and approved for use in the U.S. rather than going for the reach item that might look prettier but could cause serious harm to your child in a crash,” she said.
If you already have a car seat and want to confirm it meets federal safety standards, look for the labels required on car seats made for U.S. consumers.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration requires permanent, visible labels that say the car seat is certified to Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards or FMVSS 213.
- The car seat should come with basic instructions for installation in English.
- The car seat should be marked with the manufacturer name, model name or number and the date of manufacture.
- The car seat should also be labeled with child height and weight limits, an airbag warning label for rear-facing car seats and a statement that the car seat conforms to standards for use in aircraft -- if the car seat is certified for use on a plane.
“Also, look for a registration card. Registration cards are required for all car seats that meet U.S, standards,” Herring said. “Look for instruction manuals. If the manual seems a little off, it might give you another indicator there's something going on that's not right.”
The Manufacturers Alliance for Child Passenger Safety also published this guide to show consumers how to determine if a child restraint system can be used in the U.S.
“Maybe a two- or three-time parent would know to look for that. I didn't know to look for it,” Gilbert Ruiz said.
The Ruiz family gave their car seat and stroller to Cook Children’s so the hospital could use it as an educational tool. Cook Children’s gave the Ruiz family a new car seat – one they know meets U.S. standards.
“We’re not talking about a T-shirt. We're talking about something that could cost somebody their life, their baby's life,” Gilbert Ruiz said.
“I feel for families this happens to because you're trying to do the right thing, you're doing research, there's so much involved in having a baby and it's just overwhelming the amount of gear,” Haverstick said. “To later find out the product that you spent time looking for wound up not being a safe option for your child, that’s hard."
What to do if you suspect you have an unapproved car seat
If you have questions about your car seat, reach out to the manufacturer.
“We all have customer service teams. Most of our customer service representatives are car seat technicians too. We have them go through this training as well. They understand the questions that are being asked,” Haverstick said.
Joe Colella, director of child passenger safety at the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association, said parents can also play an important role – trusting their instincts if something doesn’t seem right about a product or seller.
The Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association said if a caregiver believes they purchased a questionable product, they should also report it to federal agencies.
Non-compliant child restraints and related products should be reported to NHTSA online or by calling 1-888-327-4236.
You can contact the Consumer Product Safety Commission online to report an unsafe product at or call 1-800-638-2772.
Include as much information as possible, like photos, purchase information and packing slips.
Confirm you’re using your car seat correctly
Safety experts interviewed for this story said they also want parents to ensure they’re using their car seats correctly. Even experienced parents can get it wrong.
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