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Recalls in the Era of Fake News

Fake product recalls – unlike other claims of so-called “fake news” – are exceedingly rare. But they are not without precedence. Just last year, a car dealership in Washington, D.C., was heavily fined by the Federal Trade Commission for sending fake recall warnings to car owners in the hopes of drumming up more business for the dealership’s repair shop.

The dealership sent out bright red mailers that mimicked official recall notices from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). As Consumer Reports reported:

The customer communications were sent to 7,000 Toyota owners in 2015 and 14,000 Nissan owners in 2017. The postcards were meant to resemble official federal recall notices about safety defects, with the phrase “Urgent Recall Notice” prominently displayed in red. They didn’t refer to specific models or safety defects, and consumers had to call to get additional information. The dealerships sent the mailers to increase business at their service departments, not to alert consumers about actual recalls, the FTC contended.

The dealership tried to argue that it was actually doing consumers a favor by enabling the company to reach many owners who unknowingly had unrepaired safety defects within their vehicles. They tried to pass it off as a case of “creative marketing.” But the FTC wasn’t having it, pointing out that many customers ended up paying for service unrelated to any recall.

Beyond tricking consumers into visiting the dealership and paying for expensive service, fraudulent marketing tricks like this are dangerous because they could confuse consumers and cause them to ignore legitimate safety recalls in the future. Recalls occur with such exhausting regularity that they are becoming lost on weary consumers, creating unacceptable safety and reputation risks to manufacturers.

In this age of social media, where a consumer’s anecdotal reporting of a bad experience with a product can spread to tens of thousands instantly, determining what products are potentially dangerous has become all the more confusing.

For consumers to determine if a product has been legitimately recalled, several federal agencies oversee recalls in the U.S. providing online recall tracking resources.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has jurisdiction over more than 15,000 kinds of consumer products used in and around the home, in sports, recreation and schools, such as appliances, electronics, clothing, furniture and children’s products. The agency released a product recall app earlier this year.

The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is responsible for all recalls pertaining to meat, poultry, and egg products. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issues recalls on other food as well as pet food and animal feed. It also has jurisdiction over medicines and medical devices. The FDA and USDA have worked together to create the Foodkeeper app to provide consumers with information on food safety recalls.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) enforces vehicle performance standards and partnerships with state and local governments throughout the United States. The organization has developed the SaferCar app enabling consumers to be notified about safety issues and submit complaints about their vehicles.

Each agencies’ recall information can be accessed in one place from the central government recall portal: All agencies also offer recall notification and safety alert emails for those who want to subscribe to daily digests of the latest recalls.

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