Part of Laurel Schamber’s job at the fire station in Elk Grove, Calif., involves teaching people how to install their car seats correctly. But when a grandmother came in this past August, holding two cellophane bags packed with fabric and straps and no instructions, Schamber was at a loss.

Car-seat installation can be complex even in the best of circumstances. Each model has its own specific instructions, and every seat fits differently from one vehicle to the next. Once you get the seat installed, you still have to adjust it to fit the child and must continue to do so as the child grows.

Schamber, a certified child-passenger safety technician, is deeply experienced in the ins and outs of such fittings. The woman’s seats, advertised for children 6 months to 5 years of age, however, were like nothing she’d ever seen.

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One was light blue, one pale pink. Neither was safe.

“It looked like a deconstructed backpack,” Schamber says. “It’s made of backpack material, no manufacturer name, no labeling, nothing.” She puzzled out installation, but the result was so discomfiting and wrong, she says, that all she wanted to do was take it right back out again. “There was no chest clip. There was nothing to hold the child into the seat of the vehicle.”

Although the contraptions had been labeled and marketed as car seats, there was no indication that they had ever been tested. In fact, she says, a child strapped into one would likely be tossed right off the seat in even the smallest crash.

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The woman had seen similar seats at Walmart.com and “ got them from Groupon for $20,” Schamber says. “She ordered it because she assumed that if Walmart had it . . . it should be safe.” (It has since been removed from Walmart’s site.)

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Buying a seat that shouldn’t be allowed on the market at all is one thing. Another issue is a proliferation of knockoff seats that look just like the safety-tested seats.

There has been an explosion of untested, uncertified car seats for sale online, and they’re putting children at risk. Car-crash injuries remain a leading cause of death among children in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but many of these can be prevented by restraining children correctly.

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At the time of this writing, dozens of similar seats are available on eBay and AliExpress; others had been for sale on Amazon but were recently removed, while Walmart had removed all but one. (EBay removed only the links to products a reporter sent as part of the inquiry, while AliExpress didn’t respond to requests for a statement.)

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Federal regulations require car-seat manufacturers to prove their seats pass hundreds of tests. And then, traditionally, retailers decide which of those seats to make available for their customers. But such practices were established when most caregivers bought their baby products in person from bricks-and-mortar stores.

With third-party sellers introducing thousands of items on Amazon, Walmart and elsewhere, curbing the sale of untested products has become a tricky problem. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

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“The Internet is the Wild West,” says Stephanie Tombrello, a CPST instructor and executive director of the nonprofit SafetyBeltSafe USA, who has been working in car-seat safety since 1970. “People know that by law they need to have their kids restrained, but they have no training in safety and see something for $12 and say, ‘That’s a good deal.’ ”

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“As a society, we want a deal. And that can lead us down paths we wouldn’t necessarily go down if we weren’t Internet shopping,” says Alisa Baer, a pediatrician in New York City, CPST instructor and co-founder of the Car Seat Lady, an advocacy organization dedicated to educating about child car safety.

Baer notes that the “fabric and strap contraptions,” as she calls them, are not the only online product being peddled as car seats to unwary parents. Perhaps even worse, knockoff seats that look similar to certified, safety-tested seats but provide little to no protection in an accident are being sold online.

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Most of those are being sold abroad, but as Schamber and others have seen, they’re slowly infiltrating the U.S. market. Baer encountered her first while walking along 14th Street in Manhattan. From across the street, she saw a mother pushing her baby in what appeared to be a Doona — a combination stroller-car seat that typically sells for about $500. But, she says, something didn’t look quite right.

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She hurried to catch up, introduced herself, and then told the woman the stroller she was pushing was a fake. Baer asked where she got it. “ ‘AliExpress,’ the woman said, ‘and I got a really good deal because it was only $239.’ ”

Not only was it a knockoff, Baer told her, but it was not crashworthy and possibly not even safe as a stroller. “She thanked me and then told me that she rarely uses it as a car seat.” The problem, of course, is that it only takes one quick cab ride, just one driver misjudging the timing of a traffic light, for that seat to do untold harm to its tiny passenger.

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Doona knows these knockoffs exist. The company has bought them and run them through the battery of tests required to pass U.S. and European Union safety standards. (Car seats and boosters not only have to hold up in a crash but, among other things, their fabrics must be free of noxious chemicals, and nothing should be able to pinch little fingers or be removed in such a way as to pose a choking hazard.) The fake Doona failed in every category. In the crash test, it fell to pieces, the top crumbling away from the bottom on impact.

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Another commonly copied seat is the MiFold, a booster for older children that can be folded small enough to fit in a purse or backpack. But while the original uses sophisticated polymers and reinforced steel, the knockoffs use thin plastic and a silver paper sticker. “Parents and caregivers can’t be expected to know by looking at the product whether it’s good enough,” says Jon Sumroy, MiFold’s chief executive. “You can buy the MiFold at Walmart or Target or Buy Buy Baby in the United States,” he says. To get its seat included in its product offerings, the company had to show that it complied with motor vehicle safety standards. “But to sell something on eBay, there’s nobody checking that.”

In a statement provided by eBay, the company said it prohibits products that don’t meet safety regulations. But there are currently dozens of fake Doonas, MiFolds and other knockoffs available on the site, and new ones are listed daily. Amazon has far fewer, and they’re increasingly harder to find on the site; the company said in a statement that it is continuously scanning the site to detect concerning products. And Walmart, upon discovering that third-party sellers had been selling seats like the ones Schamber encountered, says it is beginning to restrict those sellers from offering “select booster car seats, convertible car seats, and infant car seats.”

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It’s a start, but some say it’s not enough. “As these devices become increasingly available, mostly online, it’s a legitimate safety concern,” says Joseph Colella, director of child passenger safety for the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association. “Caregivers want to protect their kids and think they’re doing that by buying these products.” He notes that solving the problem, however, is complex. It has to involve the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which regulates and monitors safety seat compliance, as well as U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which is working to prevent imports from making their way into the country in the first place.

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Tombrello and other leaders in the car-safety field say it’s time for retailers to step up and take responsibility by refusing to sell seats by unvetted third-party vendors. “Parents who are buying these things are putting kids at risk in their vehicle every time they use it,” she says. “This is not a time for fake seats,” she says. “It’s wrong in every possible way. And I am outraged that I would have to spend five minutes on this in the 21st century.”

Avoiding the sham

There are a number of ways to help ensure the seat you buy meets federal safety requirements and is produced by a reputable manufacturer.

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Buy in person. This is the best way to ensure you’re getting the car seat you intended. It will involve lugging home a massive box and won’t necessarily be the best deal, but going to a retail store helps ensure the product you’re buying was bought directly from the manufacturer.

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If you’re buying online, ask the following questions:

●Does the manufacturer have a website you can find easily?

●Is the car seat on the American Academy of Pediatrics list? It lists only seats that meet federal motor vehicle safety standards and are approved for use in the United States.

●Does the deal seem too good to be true? If so, there’s a good chance you’re looking at a knockoff.

●Is it being sold directly by a trusted retailer? Stores such as Target, Buy Buy Baby and Nordstrom sell only certified seats directly from the manufacturer. With other online sites, such as Amazon and Walmart, be absolutely sure the seller is not a third party and the seats are being sold directly by the manufacturer or the site itself.

If you already have the car seat or booster, ask yourself the following:

●Is there a label with this required wording? “The child restraint system conforms to all applicable federal motor vehicle safety standards.”

●Is the brand stamped on the seat itself? Most knockoffs don’t use the genuine brand name. Some don’t include any brand at all.

●Did it come with clear instructions?

●Is there a model number, customer-service number and manufacture date printed on it?

●Did it come with a registration card to send back to the manufacturer? All car seats sold in the United States are required to come with one so the manufacturer can contact you in case of recall.

●Are there clear labels on the seat that indicate its use and correct installation?

If you have any questions about whether a seat is genuine, go straight to the manufacturer. A genuine manufacturer will be easy to contact and want to help. In fact, MiFold and Doona both discovered their first knockoffs when customers contacted them to ask whether the good deals they were seeing were the real thing.

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