How to (Mis)use SaferProducts.gov
Today, I submitted a false report to SaferProducts.gov.
As you've probably heard, the CPSC launched their product safety database this morning. Consumer advocates have been applauding the CPSC for developing the site, while manufacturing associations have lamented it as an error-riddled nightmare for businesses. It's a lot of bravado and ballyhooing for something that didn't properly exist 24 hours ago, and that most people have never used.
So, how does it actually work? I went through the process of submitting a report (about a fictitious company) to see just how easy it is to falsify information. My first impressions is that there's cause for concern.
From beginning to end, the entire process took me fewer than five minutes, and I was able to do it completely anonymously without providing any real information. While the site recommends the submitter provide contact information and as much detail as possible, very little is actually required. In fact, other than selecting what you are (consumer, government agency, and so on), the product category, the incident date (which doesn't need to be exact) and product description, absolutely nothing else is required to submit a complaint.
For the experiment, I set the date as January 1, 2001, which is the furthest date available, made up a description of the product and what happened, provided the company name, and submitted it. There are options to include a serial number, when and where the item was purchased, and other details about the manufacturer, but they aren't mandatory. The CPSC also asks the user for personal information but never demands it; if it is provided, the submitter can choose whether that data is made available to the manufacturer. Once I hit submit, a report number was created and it was in CPSC's hands.
That's it. Pretty simple. It's easy to fill out, and easy to fill out inaccurately. Once submitted, the CPSC has five days to review the report and submit it to the manufacturer, who then has 10 days to respond. Fifteen days after a report is first submitted, it will be published on the website (which is why, when you search right now, you can only find official CPSC recalls).
It should be noted that it is illegal for SaferProducts.gov to publish reports submitted anonymously on the site, so that is one safeguard against competitors maliciously sending inaccurate information. However, that in no way prevents the site from publishing non-anonymous false claims if the manufacturer doesn't respond within 10 days. As for what happens if a company does respond in the appropriate time, I'll leave it to the site's FAQ section to answer that:
"Will filing a claim of material inaccuracy prevent publication of that information in the Database?
No. The CPSC cannot withhold publishing a Report beyond the 10-business-day deadline unless a determination has been made that it contains materially inaccurate information. In that circumstance, the CPSC may briefly withhold the Report in order to resolve the inaccuracy."
Even if a manufacturer is able to respond in time, if the CPSC cannot review the information and verify that the original report was inaccurate within that same 10-day span, it will be published. How much damage do you think can be done to a company's reputation if an inaccurate report is published for even one day?
This isn't merely a manufacturer issue. As the the site says, "The CPSIA requires the CPSC to send reports of harm (Reports) to manufacturers, which includes importers, and private labelers identified in a Report." That wording cuts a pretty broad swath, affecting large segments of our industry. If you think this could affect your business, educate yourself by reading the FAQs on the site, particularly the Accuracy FAQ, to see what your rights are and how you can protect yourself. You can also contact your state's senators, who have yet to vote on the budget funding the site, and tell them what you think.
It will be two weeks before reports submitted today are published on the site, and only then will we get an idea of how well the CPSC is vetting claims. Check back here soon, as I'll be writing more on this topic as the site grows and we see what affect it is having on suppliers and distributors.
One last thing: when I went to the site for the first time today, Safari gave me an error. It said the site wasn't safe.