In 2015, Jon Sumroy, a British-born pharmacist-turned-inventor living in Israel, posted an Indiegogo campaign for his new product concept, a child's booster seat, for use in cars, that folded down to the size of a paperback book. Sumroy was looking for $40,000 to fund its development.
It took his campaign all of three hours to reach that amount in pledges, and topping the stretch goal of $500,000 wasn't much harder. Before it was all over, he had raised $2.6 million for his startup, which he called Mifold.
While crowdfunding is a great way for inventors like Sumroy to market-test ideas, it's also a useful tool for less ethical entrepreneurs to discover unsatisfied pockets of consumer demand. So it was unsurprising when Sumroy started seeing copycat products popping up on Amazon, eBay, Walmart.com, and AliExpress.
Unsurprising, but quite alarming. Mifold had spent a considerable sum on research and development to figure out how to get a small, lightweight piece of equipment to comply with the stringent demands of regulations that govern safety devices like infant car seats, such as U.S. Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 213. The answer involved expensive materials like aircraft-grade aluminum and plastic polymers developed for use in military equipment. "We found it was the only way to make these products strong enough to withstand the forces of a collision," he says.
Suspecting the me-too versions were cutting corners to achieve their considerably lower prices than the Mifold, which retails for $35, Sumroy has purchased several and paid for them to undergo crash testing.
"Every single one of them has failed," he says. "These things just break, or fall to pieces."
You can watch one of the ersatz seats failing a crash test in a video Sumroy made to highlight the issue. In it, he pulls copycats apart with his hands to show how the manufacturer of one product attempted to mimic the look of the Mifold's hardened-steel lap belt guides by slapping metallic stickers over flimsy plastic.
"It's definitely a safety problem," he says. "If people unwitting buy one of these, they're assuming it's going to protect their kids in an accident. But if they're ever relying on it, it definitely won't."
On Amazon.com, which accounts for about half of the e-commerce sales in the U.S., Mifold operates as a vendor, meaning it wholesales its products to Amazon, which then retails them to consumers. Like other wholesalers selling regulated children's products, Mifold is required to produce documentation to show it complies with regulations like FMVSS No. 213. Invariably, however, the wannabe Mifold makers reach Amazon's massive customer base through a different route: its third-party marketplace.
Because sellers on the Marketplace don't have to provide the same sorts of certifications Amazon and other retailers require, it's popular with counterfeiters and other shady manufacturers, often based in China, because it allows them to ignore laws meant to compel safety testing, product labeling, disclosure of restricted chemicals, and the like. An Inc. investigation recently turned up a number of dangerous children's and baby products, including pacifiers that broke apart in babies' mouths and pool floats that were listed for sale despite an official ban.
With car seats, there's no need for imagination to grasp the dangers. "You're buying a child safety device that is supposed to protect your child from one of the biggest killers of children," says Joseph Colella, director of child passenger safety at the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association. To prepare for a recent presentation before a group of safety technicians on the prevalence of dangerous vehicle restraint systems for children, Colella reviewed offerings on Amazon, eBay, and Walmart. "There were at least half a dozen I found within 10 minutes that were noncompliant devices being sold as car seats," he says. "I could tell some of them were noncompliant just from looking at the pictures" -- for instance, those that used plastic clips as fasteners, instead of metal buckles.
Engineering like that falls far short of the requirements of FVMSS No. 213, which dictates things like how much force materials must be able to withstand without breakage and how much parts can shift or reposition in a collision. Makers of car seats and booster seats must certify they meet these requirements and submit to periodic verification by the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration. Most states also mandate 213-compliant car seats for small children, which means unwitting owners of shoddy knockoffs could, in theory, be ticketed for them.
A related problem, says Colella, is products that aren't intended to be used as car seats in the first place but are marketed as alternatives. This "Convertible Car Baby Safety-Seat Cushion" claims to offer "the safety of traditional car seat [sic]," to be suitable for babies as young as one year, and to be "engineered & rigorously crash tested to meet or exceed US Standard FMVSS 213." The listing's product photos include a poorly photoshopped image of an infant strapped into one, with no other protection, in the back seat of a car. Yet the product itself is nothing but a fabric pad with straps. To use it as the only child restraint for a child of any age would go against all the guidelines established by the NHTSA. A crash-test video graphically illustrates the utter lack of protection such a device would afford in a collision.
In a statement, an Amazon spokesperson said the company requires sellers on its marketplace to agree to policies that include complying with relevant safety regulations. "When necessary, we take action against sellers who violate our policies and threaten our customer experience," reads the statement. "Policy violations can result in cancellation of listings, removal of selling privileges, withholding of funds, and legal action, depending on its severity."
But by policing dangerous products in its marketplace only on an ad hoc basis -- rather than demanding proof of safety up front, as it does with wholesalers -- Amazon makes it possible to sell children's safety devices that are lethal to children.
"We assume, 'OK, it's coming from Amazon, it's coming from Walmart, these are the brands I trust. I'm going to purchase it,'" Brittany Joplin, a car seat technician for St. Luke's in Boise, told the public radio show Idaho Matters after discovering counterfeit car seats being used to transport newborns home from the hospital. "But because it's coming from a third-party vendor, they don't regulate it. They don't watch for these products that are putting children in danger."
Sumroy says he has been mostly successful getting dangerous Mifold clones off Amazon -- but only because the makers are usually incautious enough to use his intellectual property in their product listings. "We don't have a way of talking to anybody at Amazon," he says. "Unless we have a legitimate claim based on breach of patent or trademark or design, they tend to reject them. I can't find a way of saying, 'Look at this crash test video, this car seat falls to pieces with this six-year-old crash test dummy.'"
Like other entrepreneurs who contend with the scammers and knockoff artists swarming on Amazon, Sumroy is happy to see the company getting more serious about the problem. But to treat fake, faulty car seats as just another product category that can be managed with a low-touch, automated approach -- to treat it as a matter of "customer experience" -- is courting disaster.
"If somebody's selling a fake hairbrush, it's not risking somebody's life," he says. "Maybe they could have a better system of prioritizing?"