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Safety Office Removes Risky Electric Products

By Bradford Pearson
Gazette Staff Writer
Thursday, February 7, 2008

Gennadiy Novitskiy of Rockville bought an extension cord in September. After he plugged it in, the cord melted, causing the carpet and a 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.

Last week, the office announced that 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.

Products that included extension cords, space heaters, lamps and coffee percolators were pulled from shelves in stores from Takoma Park to Germantown. Most of the stores were dollar-style stores or grocery stores.

Friedman said his office searched more than 20 stores, with a special emphasis on the smaller dollar stores. The products, which either had no testing certification labels or had counterfeit labels, 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 one for Underwriters Laboratories, of UL, one of the most popular 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 after investigators found 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 surveyed, and the consumer protection staff found space heaters and heating pads with no testing labels.

Store manager Justin Kim said the store has not bought 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 was warned, 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.

At least one shopper was relieved the products were no longer on the shelves. "It makes me nervous," Hector Salazar of Gaithersburg said 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 will continue to periodically check the businesses, as well as others, in the upcoming months to ensure compliance.

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