Seller, beware: Feds cracking down on garage sales

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 20, 2009 

WASHINGTON — If you're planning a garage sale or organizing a church bazaar, you'd best beware: You could be breaking a new federal law. As part of a campaign called Resale Roundup, the federal government is cracking down on the secondhand sales of dangerous and defective products.

The initiative, which targets toys and other products for children, enforces a new provision that makes it a crime to resell anything that's been recalled by its manufacturer.

"Those who resell recalled children's products are not only breaking the law, they are putting children's lives at risk," said Inez Tenenbaum, the recently confirmed chairwoman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

The crackdown affects sellers ranging from major thrift-store operators such as Goodwill and the Salvation Army to everyday Americans cleaning out their attics for yard sales, church bazaars or — increasingly — digital hawking on eBay, Craigslist and other Web sites.

Secondhand sellers now must keep abreast of recalls for thousands of products, some of them stretching back more than a decade, to stay within the bounds of the law.

Staffers for the federal agency are fanning out across the country to conduct training seminars on the regulations at dozens of thrift shops.

"Even before this law, we had good mechanisms in place for pulling recalled products," said Jim Gibbons, the chief executive of Goodwill. "The law just kicks it up a notch, so Goodwills around the country will continue to improve our process."

Goodwill uses $2 billion in annual sales at its 2,300 thrift shops nationwide to pay for its job-training and employment placement programs.

Gibbons said the nonprofit group was accustomed to inspectors from the Consumer Product Safety Commission making unannounced visits to its stores.

Scott Wolfson, a spokesman for the agency, said it wouldn't be dispatching bureaucratic storm troopers into private homes to see whether people were selling recalled products from their garages, yards or churches.

"We're not looking to come across as being heavy-handed," he said. "We want to make sure that everybody knows what the rules of engagement are to help spur greater compliance, so that enforcement becomes less of an issue. But we're still going to enforce."

The agency is working with eBay, Wolfson said, to help the online sales giant install software filters that will flag auction items subject to manufacturers' recalls.

The commission's Internet surveillance unit is monitoring Craigslist and other "top auction and reselling sites" for recalled goods. If the agency discovers that a recalled product has been sold online, it will try to find and inform the buyer, Wolfson said.

To kick off its Resale Roundup, the federal agency released a list of the 11 most dangerous previously recalled children's products.

The oldest is the March 10, 1993, recall of 11,600 portable cribs sold as Playskool Travel-Lite Play Yards and made by Kolcraft, an Aberdeen, N.C., firm that's the nation's largest crib manufacturer.

Adele Meyer is the executive director of the National Association of Resale and Thrift Shops, which represents more than 1,100 store owners.

"Even before it was criminal to resell recalled goods, our members have always been diligent because children's safety is always foremost in their minds," she said. "But having consumers look out for recalled products that are sold at garage sales and flea markets, that is a problem, and hopefully this law will help."

Nancy Lothrop, a mother of two in Monroe, Wash., was surprised to learn that she might be violating the law by selling about $200 worth of Polly Pocket dolls and accessories on Craigslist that her 12-year-old daughter no longer wants.

In two large recalls from November 2006 to August 2007, the El Segundo, Calif.-based Mattel asked consumers to return 9.7 million units of several dozen different sets of Polly Pocket dolls.

The recalled dolls and accessories, made for Mattel in China, had tiny magnets that could become loose and then swallowed or inhaled by young children. The magnets have caused three serious injuries — intestinal tears requiring surgery — that the Consumer Product Safety Commission knows of.

Lothrop's daughter, Laura, was upset about four years ago when Mattel changed the clothing for many of the Polly Pocket dolls from a rubber-type material to plastic and inserted small magnets to hold it on the figures.

Laura didn't like the new material or the way it fit her dolls. So, at 8, she e-mailed a complaint to Mattel. The toy giant never responded.

Now, Nancy and Laura Lothrop must do a painstaking inventory of her collection, searching for tiny model numbers to see whether they match any of the recalled items. If they find matches, they'll pull the recalled dolls and accessories from the group that they're selling.

Nancy Lothrop, though, doesn't quite understand why the dolls are being singled out.

"Many toys have small pieces that could be dangerous," she said. "My son played with army men, Lego blocks, all kinds of things with little parts. A toddler can put anything in his mouth. Parents need to have common sense. Ultimately, the parent needs to really evaluate and be watchful of what the child is playing with. We as consumers have to be careful. It really comes back to us."

The Resale Roundup is being enforced under the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, which Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed into law last year.

The law has a number of other beefed-up consumer protections, including much tougher standards for selling products that contain lead or lead-based paint. After stalling for years, the legislation gained new life after widely publicized massive recalls of Chinese-made dolls and toys with lead paint that started in late 2007.

The law also restored the full five seats on the Consumer Product Safety Commission for the first time in a quarter-century.

President Barack Obama and Democratic congressional leaders are crafting an appropriations bill that would boost the agency's funding next year by more than 11.4 percent — to $117 million — and it's already hiring new inspectors and other employees in anticipation of the funding infusion.

MOST DANGEROUS RECALLED PRODUCTS:

The Consumer Product Safety Commission has launched a drive to prevent used goods that have been recalled from being resold. Among thousands of recalled products on the market, the federal agency has identified 11 that it considers very dangerous for children:

Product..........................................................................When recalled

Playskool Travel-Lite Play Yards (portable cribs)...........March 10, 1993

Baby Trend Home and Roam.(portable cribs)...............Dec. 19, 1994

Evenflo Happy Camper Play Yards (portable cribs).......June 25, 1997

Baby Express Portable Cribs and Play Yards...............Feb. 28, 2001

Magnetix Magnetic Building Sets..................................March 31, 2006

Polly Pocket dolls with magnets....................................Nov. 21, 2006

Easy-Bake Ovens..........................................................July 19, 2007

Simplicity Drop Side Cribs..............................................Sept. 21, 2007

Simplicity Bassinets....................................................... Aug. 27, 2008

Hill Sportswear hooded drawstring sweatshirts.............Feb. 12, 2009

Evenflo Envision high chairs..........................................April 2, 2009

ON THE WEB

Details and information about the new law and other product recalls

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