Press releases

Call for action after dangerous electrical chargers

The mother of a boy killed while using a faulty games console charger today joined up with the Trading Standards Institute (TSI) to warn consumers after an investigation found similar dangerous products are easily available online.

Seven-year-old Connor O'Keeffe lost his life last Christmas while on a family holiday to Thailand. He was electrocuted while playing with his Gameboy, using a counterfeit, unsafe charger bought on the holiday island.

Now a trading standards investigation has discovered that potentially dangerous chargers and adaptors that fail European safety standards are also being sold online by UK based traders.

Ron Gainsford, chief executive of TSI, said: 'The tragic loss of little Connor is a terrible price for his family to pay for the all too readily available market in counterfeit and dangerous products.

'In the UK, Europe and the rest of the world we must raise our collective game to pursue those who too readily trade in products that can kill or maim.'

Trading Standards Officers from Hertfordshire bought 21 electrical chargers and adaptors from UK based sellers on auction sites in a test purchasing exercise. Worryingly, 15 of them were found to not comply with European and UK safety legislation.

Seven were deemed dangerous enough to pose a risk of electrocution. All of the dangerous products have been now recalled by their UK sellers, under guidance from trading standards, and Europe-wide product safety alerts have been issued.

Guy Pratt, head of trading standards in Hertfordshire, said: 'We have worked closely with the auction site to identify the traders involved and they are co-operating to ensure buyers are notified of the danger.'

The information has alarmed Connor's mum Patsy, still coming to terms with the loss of her young son, who died on December 30 last year. (2006)

'It's terrible that other people might be unwittingly putting themselves or their children at risk. God forbid that what happened to Connor could happen to someone else.'

Today, speaking at the launch of National Consumer Week in London, TSI chief executive Mr Gainsford added: 'This is an alarming finding and it demonstrates the risks people are taking when they buy cheaper, unbranded and possibly counterfeit products of this type online from traders they do not know.

'The unsafe items are now the subject of Europe-wide product withdrawal notices and the traders involved are cooperating, but it is extremely difficult to be sure that similarly dangerous products are not available or will not crop up again through different sellers, nor is it possible to know how many are out there in use.

'I would advise people to be very wary of buying this type of product except from recognised firms they trust, and to always follow the recommendations of reputable manufacturers.

'A further concern is that most of the products purchased in the Hertfordshire survey carried the CE mark, commonly interpreted by consumers to mean the product meets European safety standards.'

Anyone who has purchased a charger or adaptor and who has any concerns is advised not to use it unless it complies with manufacturers' recommendations. They should also contact the company or individual it was purchased from for additional information.

Southwark Coroner John Hampson, who investigated Connor's death, also backed warnings to consumers to take care.

He has written to Foreign Secretary David Milliband - because Connor's death occurred abroad - to highlight the case and make recommendations for the future.

They include calling on Mr Milliband to consider doing everything possible to raise awareness of the potential risks when buying goods abroad.

There has been growing consumer anxiety about product safety, particularly involving products imported from the Far East, including China-made Mattel toys.

The TSI is now asking the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) to:

  • Make product safety a key priority to restore consumer confidence and protect buyers
  • Promote a national sampling and testing programme for products, backed by adequate funding, and collate the details on a central database
  • A review of the use of the famous CE mark - commonly interpreted as a declaration that a product meets strict European safety standards but which, in the case of toys and electrical equipment, is, in fact, a self-declaration of safety by the manufacturers. (Other consumer products, including gas appliances and personal protection equipment, can only legally carry the CE Mark after being tested and/or accredited by an independent organisation)
  • Re-introduce a government-funded central database listing details of incidents and injuries in the home and outside (these databases were maintained centrally until 2001/02) to highlight trends and areas of concern more quickly and effectively
  • Work closely with auction sites like eBay and others to ensure they are aware of their responsibilities on safety

Trading Standards Officers in Hertfordshire acted after receiving a single complaint about a faulty electrical laptop adaptor.

They followed it up by carrying out their own test purchase of 21 electrical adaptors and chargers from online auction sites, including products advertised as compatible with games consoles, mobile phones and lap-tops.

They opted only to buy from sellers with UK addresses. Some of the items arrived directly from Hong Kong and China, while others were posted on from within the UK.

Mr Pratt said: 'All 21 were sent for screen testing and only six were found to fully comply with UK safety legislation. Seven failed to conform to safety regulations to the extent that have been subject to immediate withdrawal notices. Another eight failed to varying degrees.'

The type of problems found included:

  • mains wiring in contact with low voltage circuitry, leaving users at risk of electric shock
  • incorrect and unsafe conversion plugs supplied with products, leaving users at risk of touching live pins when mated with the adaptor and so being electrocuted
  • under-rated capacitors fitted between the mains and low voltage circuitry, causing risk of a shock
  • gaps within circuitry failing to meet European guidelines

'Consumers are at risk when buying products that are potentially extremely dangerous from sellers they do not know and with little hope of comeback if a problem does occur,' added Mr Pratt.

'Some of the traders we purchased items from have since closed down their sites.'

Officers from Hertfordshire and other authorities are making further inquiries and investigations to determine what action to take against the UK traders and individuals involved.

Christine Heemskerk, TSI's lead officer on product safety, said consumers needed to weigh up the risks of buying unbranded products in this way.

'Buying electrical goods from market stalls, car boots and discount stores can throw up many of the same problems as buying online. The main difference, though, is that consumers may find it more difficult to take action if they discover a problem.'

She added: 'When buying electrical appliances that come from overseas, the main thing to check is that the plug is the correct type and voltage for the UK market and meets the requirements of UK plugs and sockets legislation.'

TSI and Consumer Direct give the following advice to online shoppers:

  • know who you are dealing with
  • check the trader's details on their website, including their geographic and email addresses
  • don't assume 'UK' addresses mean the seller is based in the UK
  • follow the manufacturers' guidelines in connection with add-on accessories
  • always be wary of low cost bargains

Anyone with any concerns should contact Consumer Direct, the government-funded online and telephone consumer advice service supported by local authority trading standards services, on 08454 04 05 06.

Notes To Editors

For more information, press releases, case studies & interviews please contact the TSI press office on 0845 608 9430 or email pressoffice@tsi.org.uk

Background information: Connor O'Keeffe, 7, of Walworth, south east London, died on December 30 2006 while on holiday with his family in Phuket, Thailand. He was electrocuted while holding a counterfeit Gameboy charger that had been bought from a shop on the holiday island. Tests on the device found it had serious defects, with the wires within it dangerously close together, so meaning it could become live and electrocute a user. The gap between the primary and secondary circuits was 1mm wide, compared with European standards that require a 4.6mm gap. At the inquest hearing last month, Southwark Coroner John Sampson recorded a verdict of accidental death, but condemned the sale of counterfeit goods. Gameboy maker Nintendo said it would continue to work with Connor's family in an effort to trace where the charger came from.

The Office of Fair Trading published its fact-finding report into Online Shopping in the summer. The full report can be read by going to www.oft.gov.uk/advice_and_resources/resource_base/market-studies/internet

Some 27 per cent of complaints to Consumer Direct this year about online purchases related to electrical equipment.