Consumer safety gets online database

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission says these Batman figures sold by Mattel have small, powerful magnets inside the toys' accessories that can fall out. If more than one magnet is swallowed, they can attract each other and cause intestinal perforation or blockage, which can be fatal.

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Tess Vigeland: This could be a big year for consumer protection. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is getting up and running. That's the agency that's supposed to make sure banks and others don't sell us things like exploding mortgages. Meanwhile we're getting a little more shielding from products that literally could explode. Or poison us.

New legislation kicks in this week -- the result of all those toy recalls a few years ago. Sally Herships has more.


Sally Herships: What you don't know can hurt you. If you ask Drew Avril, a 39-year-old Brooklyn dad, he'll tell you. Avril got hurt -- really badly -- while doing something many of us do every morning.

Drew Avril: I'm making coffee. I pour the hot water in. I reach for the wooden spoon. I'm stirring it.

He's using a French press, a glass coffee maker. And as he's stirring, the glass breaks and sprays Avril with scalding hot water. He suffered third-degree burns. And if that's not painful enough, Avril didn't have health insurance.

Avril: And an overnight stay in a hospital is very expensive. So between the hospital bills, the ambulance bills, and missed work, the injury probably cost me more than $10,000.

Before he bought the coffee maker, Avril hadn't checked any online reviews. But now he says he's a hyper-aware consumer. And that's exactly who the government has in mind. Beginning next week, a new online database will launch, allowing consumers to report, and read reports, of products with problems.

Alex Filip: Safety and health hazards. People get burned, they can get lacerated, they can get contusions, they can be harmed by projectiles.

That's Alex Filip. He works for the Consumer Product Safety Commission. He says the database is not a product review site.

Filip: I'd personally recommend you go to Consumer Reports to find out if something is good.

Instead, he says the database's job is to identify products with safety or health hazards. This system has existed for decades. But consumers could only find out when a product was recalled. The only way to learn about product complaints was to submit a Freedom of Information Act request. Now, everything is available online. And, like before, if there's a significant problem, a product can be recalled. Then the government will ask the manufacturer some questions.

Filip: 'Are you going to be refunding the people's money? Are you going to replace the product or are you going to repair the product at no cost?'

Filip says when consumers file complaints, they'll have to certify information is correct. And businesses will get a chance to respond.

But like with any online forum, how do you know what to trust? Derek Rucker is a consumer psychologist at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management. First, he says, we need to understand negative behavior is more motivating than positive.

Derek Rucker: You're much more likely to tell someone you didn't like a movie than you liked the movie.

So if you don't like a product ,you're more likely to say so. Which can make it tough to evaluate online reviews because, Rucker says, we're also more influenced by negative feedback than positive.

Rucker: As soon as I see something negative related to it, that's a problem.

One bad comment can trump a lot of good ones. And people whose opinions fall in the middle are even less likely to share. So Rucker's advice is wait until there's enough feedback to tell if the bad reviews, or good ones, are accurate.

As for Drew Avril, the Brooklyn coffee drinker: he bought a new French press -- made out of metal.

I'm Sally Herships for Marketplace Money.


Vigeland: The website Sally's talking about is SaferProducts.gov. The database won't be available until March, but as of a week from Monday, you can start filing product complaints.

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