BOISE, Idaho - For new parents or those with a car full of kids, buying and installing the correct car seat for a child can be challenging. The variety of seats, vehicles and belt systems out there can be overwhelming.
On top of that, experts say there are counterfeit car seats being sold online that could be dangerous for little ones.
Earlier this year, a hospital in Idaho said it found three different instances of families with “fake” car seats.
Unsafe, knock-off car seats
St. Luke's Hospital car seat technicians regularly make the rounds to delivery rooms, checking car seats that new parents are planning to use to protect their precious cargo. During such checks in February, knock-off car seats were discovered.
One of the fake car seats had been purchased from a third-party seller on Amazon, and another was bought on eBay, according to Josie Bryan, St. Luke's Hospital Pediatric Education & Prevention program coordinator.
The car seats were missing all of the government-required labeling on them, including expiration dates and installation procedures, Bryan said.
“If the seat shows up and it's able to bend easily, all the stickers are missing, it doesn't have a chest clip, those are kind of some red flags,” Bryan said.
The fake car seats that technicians discovered were all purchased as part of a travel system “for at or around $500.” Bryan said parents in search of a travel system, or a combination stroller and detachable car seat, can find a compliant one for as little as $150.
Another red flag of a knock-off, unsafe car seat is in the language and bad grammar on the safety labels.
“They looked really, really awesome in the photos. However, when you kept reading through there were tons of grammatical errors and misinformation,” Bryan said.
Experts advise parents or gift-givers in search of a new car seat to do their research before swiping their credit cards. Always look for proper labeling that states, “This child restraint system conforms to all applicable federal motor vehicle safety standards.”
Bryan also suggests physically going to a brick-and-mortar store to look at the seats and make sure you know the brand you're considering buying.
“You've maybe read all the different information online about what that seat comes with,” Bryan said. “Ask if your store will allow you to take it out to your car to look at the installation to make sure it's compatible with your vehicle.”
You can file a complaint with National Highway Traffic Safety Administration if you have purchased a non-compliant child safety seat.
Aftermarket car seat accessories
There is also the issue of aftermarket products, or accessories that are not included with the original purchase of the car seat, Bryan pointed out.
Accessories like infant head positioning pads, harness strap covers or clip-on playthings might be tempting to make the seat more comfortable and fun, but it can also compromise the performance and safety of the car seat.
Aftermarket products are sometimes called “non-regulated” because the federal government doesn't oversee how they are made or tested, according to Safe Kids Worldwide, a nonprofit dedicated to preventing childhood injuries.
Experts say only accessories that have been tested and approved by the car seat's manufacturer should be used.
Second-hand car seats
For those considering using a second-hand car seat, Bryan said hospital officials don't recommend buying anything used.
“The big reasons we don't recommend it is because you don't know the history of it, you don't know if it had been in a motor vehicle collision or sat outside for a long period of time and now the plastics are starting to degrade,” Bryan said, who added that they often see a second-hand car seat purchased for the price of a new seat.
And you don't have a break the bank to buy one.
“You can get a car seat for as cheap as $50. I think there's a misconception that it's this super expensive item,” Bryan said.
There are also many different assistance programs available through hospitals, state programs and nonprofits for those who might not be able to afford a safe car seat.
St. Luke's Right Seat 4 Kids 4 Care, which operates through a grant program with Kohl’s, provides seats for infants and kids up to the time they're ready for booster seats.
“You're going to use it probably 365 days of the year,” Bryan said. “Even if you spend upwards of that $300 for a really fancy seat, that comes out to change each day and it will keep your child safe.”
Car seat installation mistakes
In addition to the existence of knock-off seats, technicians at St. Luke's Hospital also find that a high number of parents aren't installing car seats correctly, despite their best intentions.
The Idaho hospital sees that an estimated nine out of 10 car seats are either installed or being used improperly, according to Bryan.
Issues can range from a car seat moving an inch side-to-side, the seat not being installed at the right angle, the harness straps being too loose, or even the family selecting the wrong car seat for the child's height and weight.
“Parents think they’re doing all the right things and can be making big mistakes,” St. Luke’s car seat technician Brittany Joplin said in a post on the hospital's website. “Just because your sister has kids, or you’ve had kids before doesn’t mean you know how to properly use a car seat.”
A 2015 study by the NHTSA found that an estimated 46 percent of car and booster seats were being misused in a way that could reduce their effectiveness.
Thanks to the internet, there are many tools available for parents with up-to-date recommendations based on the age, height, weight and maturity level of your child, including guides on the NHTSA's website and on AAA.
You can also search to find nationally certified child passenger safety technicians near you and get your car seat checked free of charge.
The technicians pass a certification course and hands-on training and will help teach you to install your car seat correctly.
“If it's your child's well being, then I think it's worth it for your child to be safe every time,” Bryan said.
This story was reported from Los Angeles.