Cash-strapped shoppers looking for bargains this holiday season may turn to thrift stores and online sellers for deals on secondhand toys and other gifts.
But consumer safety advocates warn that buyers should be cautious when considering such items because they might have been recalled or banned for dangerous defects or toxic materials.
Nychelle Fleming, who concentrates on children's toys for the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, said that while the slumping economy and high unemployment may force some families to buy used, being frugal doesn't have to be risky.
"With the increased popularity of secondhand stores and online vendors, consumers have to be especially vigilant," she said.
"You want to arm yourself and be knowledgeable."
Fleming recommends combing the commission's product recall lists and registering online for automatic e-mail alerts about new recalls.
Still, making sure harmful toys don't wind up in the hands of children is a two-way street, Fleming said. "The sellers also have a responsibility to make sure they are not recirculating dangerous products back into the marketplace," she said.
Erin Burneyko of Goodwill Industries of Lower South Carolina said she expects budget-wise families around the Lowcountry to scout out holiday bargains at her organization's area stores.
"I am sure with the economy people will be looking for toy bargains at our retail stores," Burneyko said. "All of our merchandise is checked and we do not sell any items that have been recalled."
Brian Gunnells, owner of Once Upon a Child in West Ashley, said he is seeing the trend in reverse. People aren't so much coming in to buy used children's clothing and toys as much as they are stopping in to sell stuff.
"People are selling because they need money to buy new for Christmas," he said. "We've been called a baby pawn shop."
Gunnells said his store carefully checks all the merchandise it buys to ensure it is safe.
Maria Audus of the state Department of Consumer Affairs said the biggest concern with buying used toys is that they might not include the original packaging and manuals that advise consumers of special warnings and age restrictions.
"Go ahead and consider second-hand items. However, the major concern is there's often no packaging or labeling. You don't know what testing it underwent or what ages it's designed for," she said.
Audus said consumers browsing used toys on Web sites should e-mail sellers and ask if documentation comes with the item.
Matching children to toys designed for their age group is critical because many toy-related injuries and deaths result from children playing with toys intended for older kids, Audus said.
Last year, 18 children died and more than 170,000 were injured in toy-related accidents, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Among the leading causes of the deaths were airway obstructions caused by small toys and loose pieces such as balls.
Safety experts say small magnets from magnetic toys also can pose serious risks if swallowed because the pieces may reconnect in the body, causing fatal internal injuries. Several magnetic toys were among last year's flurry of toy recalls that involved products imported from China.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission said it has stepped up enforcement this year in an effort to keep toys tainted with lead out of the country. The commission's new port inspection program already has seized 238 shipments of toys that did not meet safety standards.
The presence of lead in toys and children's products prompted 112 recalls last year. The commission has issued 64 such recalls so far this year, a decline federal officials attribute in part to the inspection program.