When firefighters arrived at Austin Parra’s home on January 12, 2017, they could see smoke and the charred remnants of an office chair outside.
Parra, then 20, had been transported to the hospital. His mother explained to firefighters that her son’s chair caught on fire while he was sleeping, and he was burned as he carried the flaming chair outside.
Anthony Dignoti, the Wethersfield, Connecticut, fire marshal in charge of investigating the incident, could see that the door and door frame were damaged by the fire as well. He noticed bowls strewn about, which he wrote in his official report had been filled with water in an attempt to extinguish the fire.
But most interesting to Dignoti was a white USB cord. Part of the cord was hanging off the chair and still intact, but the other side was stuck to the seat and had melted into a bare wire, he said in his report and an interview with CNN.
Dignoti ultimately concluded that the fire originated with the cord Parra was using to charge his cellphone. His report stated the cord experienced a short circuit, and while it was unclear why this happened, “the heat produced by the cord ignited the upholstery for the office chair.”
The cord had been branded with the name of the world’s largest online retailer: Amazon.
It was sold by one of Amazon’s popular private label lines, AmazonBasics, which offers budget-friendly products including consumer electronics, household appliances, home goods and office accessories.
Launched in 2009, AmazonBasics has grown to offer more than 5,000 products, according to the retailer. Its mission: identifying everyday items that Amazon can create at a similar or higher quality and lower price point when compared to existing name brands – a strategy also employed by companies such as Costco and Target.
A growing number of AmazonBasics products, which the company promotes heavily on its site, have become bestsellers since the line’s inception, and many have ratings above four stars, according to Marketplace Pulse research. In recent months, the online retailer’s sales have been soaring as millions of Americans have been staying at home – and in many cases working remotely – during the ongoing pandemic.
But consumers have raised serious safety concerns about AmazonBasics items in complaints to government regulators and in reviews posted on Amazon’s own website. Since 2016, at least 1,500 reviews, covering more than 70 items, have described products exploding, catching on fire, smoking, melting, causing electrical malfunctions or otherwise posing risks, according to an analysis of AmazonBasics electronics and appliances listed on its website.
The reviews identified represent a small fraction of the overall purchases of the products, and fires caused by consumer electronics are not unique to Amazon branded items. User error can also be a factor, as can faulty or aging wiring within a home or a defective device being used in conjunction with the product.
But when well-made and used properly by consumers, electronics like those sold under the AmazonBasics name should rarely pose dangers, said electrical engineers interviewed by CNN.
Within the more than 1,500 reviews, many consumers explicitly called out items as potentially dangerous – using terms such as “hazard” or “fire” or saying the product should be recalled. Around 30 items with three or more reviews like this remain for sale on Amazon.com today. At least 11 other products that fit this criteria were no longer for sale at the time of publication. Some became unavailable after CNN began its reporting, and at least four product pages were removed from the retailer’s site entirely – leaving behind dead URLs known by employees as “dog pages.” Amazon confirmed that at least eight of these products had been under investigation, but said the company determined they all met its safety standards.
Customers have written in their reviews and said in interviews that they trusted that AmazonBasics purchases would be safe and well made since they were branded with Amazon’s name and frequently touted as “Amazon’s Choice.” But even as complaints have mounted, the company has provided little or no information to consumers or the public about how it is handling allegations that some of its merchandise is unsafe.
Amazon shoppers have recounted frightening malfunctions and close calls in vivid detail: A surge protector turned into a “blowtorch,” one father recalled – saying that flames shot out of the device, which was near his baby’s nursery. Phone chargers were said to have burned peoples’ hands and legs, and exploding batteries allegedly sprayed chemicals in someone’s face. A USB cord burst into flames in a parked car while a toddler was inside, according to one parent. A charger in another car was reported as starting an electrical fire on the freeway, allegedly burning the driver and a jacket. Paper shredders turned on by themselves, according to multiple consumers, and one reportedly blew up in a “fireball,” burning someone’s arm and singeing the hair off. And a microwave suddenly caught on fire when an 8-year-old went to heat up her macaroni and cheese cup as she had done “a zillion times,” a mother claimed, saying she had to take the appliance outside and spray it with a hose. Each of these purchases were “verified,” meaning Amazon confirmed that the customer who wrote the review actually purchased the product on the site and didn’t receive a “deep discount,” according to its website. Several were accompanied by photos of the burned items.
While the best way to determine why something malfunctioned is to physically test it and take it apart, many customers said they immediately threw out the defective devices or sent them back to Amazon at the company’s request.
CNN obtained two damaged AmazonBasics products from customers: a microwave that a customer said caught fire and a USB cord a user said overheated and melted. These were tested by researchers at the failure analysis lab at the University of Maryland’s Center for Advanced Life Cycle Engineering (CALCE) at CNN’s request.
The USB cord was too burned for researchers to determine what had gone wrong. The microwave testing found that the design of the panel covering the heating device inside the microwave could result in the machine catching on fire, and determined that the way the panel was secured could allow debris such as food or grease to collect behind it and possibly ignite. As soon as the researchers turned it on, the microwave began sparking and smoking, causing it to react as if its user put foil or other metal inside. The testing was cut short when the lab was closed due to Covid-19.
“There’s a risk in using this machine for sure, and it’s a safety risk because this clearly heated up to the extent a fire could occur,” said engineering professor Michael Pecht, who is the founder of CALCE and has previously assisted in government safety investigations. “This is more than a reliability problem, this is a potential safety problem.”
Amazon did not comment on whether any improvements had been made to the microwave, but said it is confident the microwave is safe to use and that it continues to “meet or exceed” all of the applicable certification requirements.
The retailer said “safety is a top priority” at the company and that it takes a number of steps to ensure all AmazonBasics products are safe and high quality, such as selecting experienced manufacturers, monitoring customer feedback and testing items to ensure they pass safety and compliance standards both before and after they are available. It also said AmazonBasics offers thousands of products which combined have more than 1 million reviews, and that concerns are thoroughly investigated and that the company acts accordingly.
“The outcome of the investigation varies on a case by case basis and may include removing the product from the store, adjusting the design of the product, notifying customers to stop using the product, or other appropriate action,” a company spokesperson said in a statement. “We want customers to shop with confidence and if ever a customer has a concern, they can contact customer service and we will investigate.”
Amazon said there are a number of reasons an item may no longer be available, but that customers will be notified if a critical safety issue is identified. When asked how frequently the company has done this, Amazon said it had notified customers about an AmazonBasics product less than five times. It did not specify whether it did this for any of the items reviewed by CNN.
‘It’s a red flag’
Amazon has already been under intense scrutiny for allowing third party sellers with allegedly dangerous offerings to do business on the site, and multiple court rulings have found that the retailer can be held liable for defective items sold in its third party marketplace.
CNN’s analysis focused on products sold with Amazon’s own name on them – a growing part of the retailer’s business.
The reviews come from people living all over the United States and span five years, but they often call attention to the very same problems:
The same panel within a microwave catching fire, USB cords melting or burning despite no visible wear and tear or overuse, and paint on outdoor patio heaters lighting on fire. Consumers alleged items malfunctioned the first time they plugged them in. Others said electronics were not in use when they began malfunctioning.
In general, one or two reports of problems could be more easily chalked up to user error or other external factors, multiple electrical engineers said. But as the number of reports about the same kinds of failures increases about the same item, so does the likelihood that there is a defect in the design or manufacturing.
“That would certainly lead to more suspicion that the product is at fault,” said Mark Horenstein, a professor at Boston University’s College of Engineering. “It’s a red flag.”
Amazon said customer reviews are only one indication of a potential issue, saying it looks at a number of other factors such as sales history, returns and customer service contacts when assessing potential problems. “Using customer reviews alone to conclude a product is unsafe or imply there’s a widespread issue is misleading,” the company said in a statement.
Former Amazon employees said that even a few reviews mentioning words like “fire” and “hazard” should automatically prompt the retailer to take action. Amazon said reviews are monitored and can trigger safety investigations, but it declined to provide details about the specific threshold needed for this to happen. The company said products may be temporarily removed during such inquiries and that in order to keep selling something, it must be confirmed to be safe. It also said that if an investigation uncovers a “potential, non-isolated safety issue,” it takes appropriate measures to notify the government and “safely recall the product.”
Businesses are required by law to immediately report “potentially hazardous” items to the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) so the agency can determine whether an official recall is necessary. Companies can also initiate voluntary recalls in cooperation with the CPSC.
Concerns similar to those detailed in Amazon reviews have been relayed to the CPSC in at least 10 reports that specifically mention an AmazonBasics product. The complaints cover at least eight different items and date back to 2012.
In the United States, Amazon publicly recalled two AmazonBasics items in 2018 and 2019, after the company received 53 reports in the US about power banks overheating and 25 about versions of a space heater overheating, burning or sparking. It said it proactively notified the CPSC of the results of the company’s own investigation and its intent to recall the items.
Beyond these two official recalls, the company has never publicly acknowledged that AmazonBasics products have any safety issues.
The CPSC said it was prohibited by law from discussing any item that had not been recalled and that in general, the agency determines if a recall is necessary based on a number of factors, including “the nature of the defect, the level of hazard associated with the issue, and the pattern of similar problems (seen).”
Customers reported being shocked or burned in at least 100 reviews on Amazon’s website. Parra from the Connecticut apartment fire said in a lawsuit that he suffered second-degree burns and injuries to his throat from smoke inhalation. Dignoti’s report shows Parra spent around a day in the hospital. Parra sued Amazon in 2019, and the case settled. He and his attorney did not respond to interview requests.
CNN used the information provided by the fire department to determine that the type of cord Parra purchased had been removed from Amazon’s website. While it is unclear when the cord was pulled, a version of the page captured by the Wayback Machine, an internet archive, shows the product had an average rating of 4.1 out of 5 stars. It shows the cord was still available for purchase until at least June 2017, and that there were warnings from other customers at least a year before Parra’s January 2017 fire.
“End of the cable melted and started smoking. Glad we caught it before a fire,” one verified purchaser wrote in June 2016.
“DO NOT BUY! FIRE HAZARD!” another customer with a verified purchase of the cord wrote in May 2016, attaching 10 photos of the melted and warped cord – saying it ruined an expensive iPhone and that he considered himself lucky that a fire hadn’t ignited. “These should be taken off the market immediately!!!”
While fires caused by USB cords are uncommon, they are possible, according to electrical engineers who said a range of factors could be at play in situations like this – from problems with whatever device the cord is plugged into to defects within the cord itself.