Avoid the worst products ever with these insider strategies. (Trust me, you’ll want to)

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By Christopher Elliott

If you ask me, the shoddiest products on earth are toys. I don’t mean that in a derogatory sense — as in, they advertised a computer, but instead they sold me a toy. I mean a literal toy.

I’ve never had any luck with playthings. My three kids have broken so many of them, often within minutes of receiving them, I’ve lost count. And I’ll never forget the model train set I received as a Christmas gift many years ago as a child. It never worked and if I remember correctly, my father never received a refund.

You probably have your own toy story, too. I’ll get to those in a second. American businesses have a new license to inflict these horrible products on us, and you know why. A pro-business administration has assumed power in Washington, promising to eliminate the regulations that kept businesses honest.

Beware of these products

  • Craftsman portable table saws, sold at Sears, were recalled after several owners reported the stand can collapse unexpectedly, posing laceration and impact injury hazards to the operator. Sears received reports of the table saw collapsing, including nine reports of injuries to fingers and hands, including broken bones, lacerations, a shoulder strain, and a partial fingernail amputation.
  • RDG Global, an apparel manufacturer carried by Nordstrom’s, recently removed its line of girls’ hooded sweatshirts from its shelves. Why? Seems the drawstrings can become entangled or caught on playground slides, hand rails, school bus doors or other moving objects, “posing a significant strangulation or an entanglement hazard to children,” according to the company.
  • Perhaps the most embarrassing shoddy product in recent memory was Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 recall. Remember that? That one had all the drama you could want from a bad product, and then some. We’re talking exploding phones, a tepid corporate response, consumer outrage — and oh yeah, a $7 billion price tag.

You don’t have to be a victim of these horrible products, even as they become more common. Know how to find the underperformers and how to spot a substandard product.

Find the bad products — and the bad companies

The Consumer Product Safety Commission site is a great resource for the careful shopper. Its product recall list is a must-read, especially if you’re buying something secondhand. If it shows up here, don’t buy it, obviously. But also, you get a pretty good idea of which companies to avoid. Some companies are frequent offenders. Not to pick on Sears, but a search by name reveals it recalls quite a few products.

Give it the sniff test. (Sometimes literally.)

Spotting a product that doesn’t meet standards is actually pretty easy. Sometimes all you have to do is glance at it to know that it won’t hold up. Or smell it. That’s what Tyler Dishman, who manages an online supply business in Greenwood, Ind., did when he received a shipment from China: He inhaled. Something smelled funny. “Upon further inspection, we discovered that black mold covered every filter in the batch,” he recalls. “Worst. Product. Ever.” Also, an important lesson. Kick the tires before you drive away.

Stuck? Here’s what to do

If you’re the proud owner of a recalled product, follow the instructions for returning or repairing it. But there’s a whole other category of bad products — unrecalled, but probably shoulda been recalled — out there in consumerland. What about them? If something really doesn’t live up to its billing, you should make every effort to return it. The executive contacts section on my consumer advocacy site can be a highly effective tool for persuading companies to take their awful products back.

There’s one final strategy when you’re on the receiving end of a shoddy product. You can do what Veronica Wittmann did when she lost the gift card she purchased: She filed a dispute with her credit card company. And she won. If you can convince your credit card company that the product wasn’t “as advertised” you can get a full refund. The Fair Credit Billing Act allows you to dispute charges for goods and services you didn’t accept or that weren’t delivered as agreed.

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Put differently, corporate America might try to rain substandard products on you, but you’re protected. And if none of these strategies does the trick, don’t play around. You know how to reach me.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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