Feds Recall 1M Samsung Phones

By Jing Cao and Alan Levin | September 16, 2016

U.S. safety regulators started an official recall of Samsung Electronics Co.’s Galaxy Note 7 smartphone, about two weeks after the company halted sales following reports of dozens of the devices catching fire or exploding.

Samsung is recalling about 1 million of the phones because a battery flaw can lead to overheating, posing a serious burn hazard to consumers, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission said Thursday in a statement. That represents about 97 percent of the Note 7 devices that hit the U.S. market, CPSC chairman Elliot Kaye said at a press conference. Samsung told regulators the phone’s battery was slightly too big for its compartment and the tight space pinched the battery, causing it to short circuit, Kaye said.

Recalled Samsung Galaxy Note7 phone. Photo: CPSC
Recalled Samsung Galaxy Note7 phone. Photo: CPSC

“Last week the public heard our message to power down the phone. This week’s message is go get a replacement or a refund,” Kaye said. “Because this product presents such a serious fire hazard, I am urging all consumers to take advantage of this recall right away.”

There have been about 92 reports of batteries overheating in the U.S., with 26 cases involving burns and 55 involving property damage, according to the commission.

A comprehensive report hasn’t yet been released on the battery issue. Samsung previously told a Korean government agency that there was an error in production that pressured the plates within the battery cells and brought opposing poles into contact, which triggered the excessive heat. The company sent a separate report to China’s inspection agency asserting that the problem came from separators sitting between the electrodes that could thin out and cause short-circuiting.

“The dimensions of the materials they put into the pouch were a little bigger than the pouch itself,” Kaye said. “By putting that all together and squeezing it into the compartment, it caused some pinching.”

That has, in turn, led to short circuits within the batteries. In some cases, it prompted a phenomenon known as “thermal runway,” in which the battery creates so much heat that it ultimately burns or explodes, he said.
Refund or Replacement

Customers who purchased the smartphone before Sept. 15 should immediately stop using and turn off their phones, according to the CPSC. The agency advised consumers to contact their wireless carrier or a Samsung retail outlet to receive a new, free phone with a different battery, a refund or a replacement device. New replacement phones will be available at most retail locations in the U.S. no later than Sept. 21, the Suwon, South Korea-based company said in a separate statement.

Samsung has been criticized for its lack of guidelines and for announcing its own replacement program on Sept. 2, rather than immediately working with the CPSC to issue a formal recall. While declining to directly take issue with Samsung’s actions, Kaye said government action may sometimes be delayed when a company decides to announce a recall without first consulting regulators.

“I will say as a general matter that it’s not a recipe of successful recall for a company to go out on its own,” he said.

Before the recall could be announced, the commission needed to wait for a special government approval required to ship the defective phones back to Samsung. The approval was granted on Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Transportation, Kaye said.

The CPSC also had to independently assess the recalled device to determine the problem and take steps to approve the new batteries for the replacement phones. A second company makes a battery for the replacement Galaxy Note 7s that the company and the government believe is safe, Kaye said.
Sales Oversight

Thursday’s announcement gives the U.S. government the option to formally ban the phones on airline flights and makes it illegal to continue to sell them. The CPSC has an internet surveillance unit that works with EBay Inc. and scans other marketplaces, including Craigslist, Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and Overstock.com Inc., to shut down any individual sales, said Scott Wolfson, CPSC’s communications director. The agency also keeps “a close eye on retailers” to enforce the sales ban, he said.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and the Federal Aviation Administration, which jointly regulate potential dangerous items on airlines, acted after the CPSC’s recall announcement to ensure the Samsung phones don’t endanger aircraft. Currently, most airlines aren’t allowing passengers to power up the phones or charge them on flights, based on guidance from the FAA. The agencies issued restrictions Thursday that permit owners of the recalled Note 7 to travel with it on a plane only if they turn off the device, protect the power switch from accidental activation and bring it in a carry-on bag or on their person.

The CPSC is responsible for ensuring the safety of consumer products and coordinates with companies to rectify problems and minimize injuries when things go wrong. For product recalls, the general procedure in the U.S. is for a company to reach out to the agency and jointly create a statement to be issued by government officials that covers the scope of affected units, the exact problem and the remedy.

Even though most recalls announced by the CPSC are voluntary, the agency takes several steps to ensure that the information released by the company is clear and that the recall is feasible.

“Once we were in discussions, things moved pretty rapidly,” Kaye said of the Samsung recall. “Everybody was on the same page.”

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