Children's toys and electronic games are among the top fake products available this Christmas, and toy retailers and electrical safety experts explain how to make sure what you buy your kids this year is safe, and won't give them a shock of the wrong kind.
By Lisa Salmon
With British families still feeling the economic pinch, bargain hunting for gifts will be crucial this Christmas.
But both toy safety and electrical experts are reminding parents that if a bargain seems too good to be true, it probably is - and what's more, it could be dangerous.
People buying gifts for children need to bear in mind that safety is far more important than saving money, says the British Toy and Hobby Association and the Electrical Safety Council (ESC), which points out that this year there has been a high level of counterfeit goods entering the UK, particularly children's toys and electronic games.
Such dodgy goods can contain incorrect or faulty parts that overheat or break soon after purchase, causing thousands of serious electric shocks and house fires each year, says the ESC.
It points out that faulty electrical products cause around 7,000 UK house fires a year, and more than half of the deaths in electrical fires are in those started by fake goods.
The ESC says mobile phone accessories and children's electronic games are among the top electrical fakes, and UK Customs have found fake Nintendo Wiis which could electrocute a child, and fake iPhones and Nintendo DSi handhelds that were at risk of overheating.
ESC spokesperson Emma Apter says: "Many people see cheap electrical goods as a bargain but if the product turns out to be fake or faulty, these goods are, at best, a waste of money.
"At worst, they could result in a house fire, severe injury or even the death of a loved one."
Safety concerns are heightened because many electrical items will be bought online, where it's even easier for fake goods to slip through the net due to less regulation, and overseas goods not needing to comply with UK standards.
In addition, sophisticated packaging and labels mean fakes are becoming increasingly hard to spot, says the ESC.
In a bid to improve safety this Christmas, and help prevent parents and children getting the wrong sort of festive shock, the ESC has produced a safe shopping guide (www.esc.org.uk/safeshopping) containing tips on how to spot dodgy traders and avoid fakes.
"We are urging people to read our Safe Shoppers guide before hitting the shops," says Apter.
"If a deal looks too good to be true, then it probably is."
Safety tips include:
:: Check the voltage of products is 230V, 50Hz - the UK's usual domestic voltage - and fitted with a three-pin UK plug or charger.
:: If buying from a website, look for the seller's contact details and make sure there's a full, real address, not just a PO Box number. Not all websites with a .co.uk address are based in the UK.
:: Avoid buying second-hand products, especially ones where the guarantee or warranty has run out. You won't know what condition it's in.
Apter warns that fires and/or electric shocks are very possible if people buy dodgy goods, and she adds: "People think it won't happen to them, but it could.
"We don't want to see people snapping up a bargain and putting a potential death trap under the Christmas tree."
It's not just electrical items which could be unsafe, warns the British Toy and Hobby Association (BTHA), which has also issued safety tips on buying toys (available from www.btha.co.uk/consumers/template.php?id=177).
Jerry Burnie, the BTHA's safety adviser, says there are many counterfeit toys around this year, some made to look as if they're genuine branded toys, and others that don't pretend to be the real thing but have many similarities.
The BTHA suggests people who see very cheap toys ask where they've come from, as they may be counterfeit products that haven't been safety tested.
"There are toys on the market that may not comply with safety standards, and they're often the counterfeit ones," warns Burnie.
The BTHA advises people buying toys to always look for the Lion Mark, which is a sign that the company is a member of the BTHA and is signed up to a strict code of conduct which ensures toys meet current safety legislation.
It also recommends that people use reputable retailers, as apart from anything else if a toy isn't working as it should, returning it should be easy.
And as with electrical goods, ensure that as well as safety symbols on the packaging, the name and address of the manufacturer or importer is on the box, along with the serial number, so the company can be contacted if there are problems with the toy.
Burnie warns that this year there's particular concern about high-powered magnets in executive desktop toys for adults being purchased for children.
"They're not children's toys - high-powered magnets are strictly regulated so children can't swallow them, and there's some concern about making sure children don't get these executive toys, as they're not intended for children and aren't tested in the same way," says Burnie.
He adds: "In the current financial climate, it's a risk to cut corners - things that look too good to be true probably are.
"Be careful, particularly when it concerns safety."
Ask the expert
Q: "I have two preschool children, a boy and a girl, and have suffered bouts of anxiety and depression since they were born. Is this likely to affect them as they get older?"
A: Dr Cory Burghy of the University of Wisconsin in the USA, who has just led a study into how early life stress may sensitise girls' brains for later anxiety, says: "We do know from many studies that children can be negatively affected by the stresses their parents experience.
"Many studies have also shown that stresses experienced by mothers during their children's infancy have especially potent effects on a wide variety of children's emotion and behaviour problems extending into adolescence. However, only recently have we begun to understand how this happens, and what the differences might be for girls and boys.
"For example, our research has recently shown that, for girls only, those who were exposed as infants to higher levels of mother's stress subsequently were more likely than other girls to have higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol when they were preschoolers.
"By the age of 18 years, these young girls with higher cortisol levels were much more likely to show less communication between brain areas associated with emotion regulation and to suffer from anxiety problems. In boys, this pathway is not yet clear.
"That said, children can be quite resilient, and those stressed and/or exposed to anxiety and depression will not necessarily go on to experience issues of their own."
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