What do ice cream, peanut products, dog food, toys and heart defibrillators have in common?

All are products that recently have been recalled.

Chances are, you’ve purchased a product that’s been recalled for one reason or another, but with hundreds of recalls every year, you probably don’t know about it.

Some recalls, ones that affect lots of people or involve contaminated food or well-loved toys, will probably make the evening news. Most others won’t.

“The problem with recalls is that people don’t hear about them,” says Tod Marks, senior editor for Consumer Reports. “These things are going on all the time. It’s nothing new. But most media outlets fail to report on a recall unless it grabs public attention.”

Watch out for recalls
Have you purchased a product that’s been recalled? How would you know and what do you do?
  1. No one will tell you
  2. Don’t use it
  3. It’s up to you
  4. Recalled or not?
  5. Basic troubleshooting
No one will tell you

Depending on the product, the maker might not have the responsibility or ability to contact you.

Carmakers are required to attempt to contact affected owners, says Elly Martin, spokeswoman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which oversees recalls of autos and some related parts and equipment. But even with mandatory registration and computerized databases, that’s not going to be 100 percent effective, she says.

With smaller household items, the maker probably doesn’t have any idea who the owners are. So the onus is on consumers to find out about the recall and stop using the product.

“Basically, it’s caveat emptor, let the buyer beware,” says Marks. “If you want to protect yourself, you have to go that extra yard and do your homework.”

Don’t use it!

First things first: If something’s been recalled, stop using it.

“When we announce a recall, it’s announced for a reason,” says Patti Davis, spokeswoman for the Consumer Product Safety Commission. “There is a danger.”

Then hit the Internet. Check the Web site of the agency that issued the recall. That’s where you’ll find the nitty-gritty on getting a replacement, repair or refund. The agencies usually have a toll-free number where you can get the same information.

In the case of autos, a recall usually involves taking the car to the manufacturer’s local dealer, regardless of where you bought it. In the case of household items, you can sometimes return the product to the store for a refund. Or you may have to send it back to the manufacturer. Makers will either pay postage or reimburse you, says Davis.

In the case of food, the most important thing is to stop using the product. But you may or may not be offered a chance to recoup your money. If not, just throw it out. (One exception: If you’ve already gotten sick, your doctor may need the item for testing.)

Sometimes the recall will also include special instructions for consumers. In one extreme example from a recall for suspected botulism contamination, consumers were directed not only to get rid of the product, but also to wear gloves, bag the items and thoroughly wash their hands afterward to prevent spreading the toxin.

It’s up to you

Make a couple of Web sites part of your regular browsing, or, where possible, sign up for e-mail alerts. You’ll have a head start if something you use is recalled.

Agencies to check for recalls
  • For food, medicine and cosmetics: View Food and Drug Administration recalls, market withdrawals and safety alerts for foods, supplements, medications and medical devices.
  • For consumer and household products: The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission is the government agency that issues recalls on household products. Not only can you search the site by date or product, but you can also sign up for e-mail alerts in categories like infant and children’s products, sports and recreation products, etc.
  • For automobiles and related parts and accessories: the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has jurisdiction over auto-related recalls and safety concerns. You can view recalls, get information on pending or current safety investigations and read consumer complaints. You can also call: (888) 327-4236 from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. EST, Monday through Friday.

“The consumer needs to be proactive,” says Rachel Weintraub, director of product safety and senior counsel for the Consumer Federation of America.

Recalled or not?

Product recalls and safety concerns are not always black and white.

In some cases, a product can be recalled in one state, but still legally sold in others. (One example: Illinois issued a recall for some baby bibs containing lead, says Weintraub, but the bibs were not recalled in other states.)

In another case, toys containing lead were the subject of a voluntary national recall, but retailers still had the items on the shelves, according to information from the New York governor’s office. In this case, the state issued a mandate that the toys be immediately removed from store shelves.

Some states are very proactive when it comes to issuing local recalls, especially Illinois and New York, says Weintraub. And even though residents of other states can’t benefit from the decisions financially, keeping up with local recalls via state Web sites can give them a heads-up on potentially unsafe products.

State agencies to contact

With autos and related safety products (like some auto parts and car seats), the federal government posts consumer complaints, information on pending investigations into safety concerns, and safety warnings. The upshot is that consumers may know about product safety issues well in advance of an actual recall.

That information puts consumers in the driver’s seat when it comes to making decisions about cars, safety equipment and parts. The only downside is financial. Absent a recall, if consumers decide to replace a part or repair their cars to prevent potential problems, they may have to do it at their own expense.

Basic troubleshooting

Usually, manufacturers seeking to preserve good relations will try to make things easy for customers during a recall, says Martin. “There’s a lot of sensitivity to bad publicity,” she says. So most of the time you should have no problem getting repairs, replacements or refunds following a product recall.

But sometimes there are glitches.

In the case of similar items, “sometimes it can be hard to figure out whether a product you have is subject to a recall,” says Weintraub.

Often there is some sort of identification or lot number that is used, which can help.

Real-life complications

When some consumers tried to return a recalled crib, store personnel claimed they’d never stocked the item, says Weintraub.

If that happens, you might have to go back to the maker (online or by phone) and find out if you can return the item through another retailer or if you’ll have to send it back to the manufacturer.

Many times, when there is a recall, manufacturers will set up a consumer hot line to answer questions or handle problems. Staffed properly, hot lines are a great, quick way to get more information.

But if you get stuck in a stream of endless, automated voice mail instructions and never-ending hold music, try calling the company directly through its main switchboard instead. A business listings Web site, such as Hoovers.com, may provide the numbers and often a phone number for the U.S. division if the company is located overseas.

You can also complain to the government agency overseeing the recall (and likely get some additional advice on troubleshooting the problem, as well).

If the company issuing the recall is also going bankrupt or is already out of business, you can probably forget about getting a refund. Throw it out and cut your losses.

In every case, try to remember how you paid for the item. Recalls are another situation where your credit card may offer additional protection. Not only do you have a record of your purchase date, place and price, you may also have another avenue for recovering your money, says Joe Ridout, spokesman for Consumer Action.

“A credit card may include benefits that will extend the manufacturer’s warranty,” he says. “And it’s one of the things not everyone knows. It can be a money saver.”