YORK, Pa. (WHTM) — Some things have clearly improved since the first “Trouble in Toyland” report back in 1986. As late as 1994, for example, the annual report named and shamed toys that could never exist today, because they became illegal when the Child Safety Protection Act (CSPA) took effect in 1995.

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On the other hand, in 1994, no one had to worry about accidentally buying a recalled toy on eBay. Plus, no one had to worry about a stranger commandeering a child’s karaoke machine — wirelessly, from outside the house — and replacing the child’s music with an explicit or dangerous message.

Indeed, those potential dangers were among others listed in the 36th annual “Trouble in Toyland” report, which an advocate from the Pennsylvania Public Interest Research Group, or PennPIRG, discussed Wednesday. Among the key areas of concern:

Counterfeit toys: The danger isn’t only economic — i.e., to the legitimate company losing a sale to the fraudster. Some knockoff toys are also dangerous to children. They can contain lead paint or other toxins. How to stay safe:

  1. Be skeptical of impossibly low prices. “Is this one significantly cheaper [than the ostensibly-identical item elsewhere] and you can’t really figure out why?” asked Emma Horst-Martz, an advocate with PennPIRG, characterizing what toy-buyers should ask themselves. “And that rule applies whether you’re shopping in person or you’re shopping online,” agreed Jennifer Swanner, owner of The Curious Little Playhouse, a toy store and indoor place space in York.
  2. Look for a “CE” certification on the box. “The CE stamp is what you’re going to find on name-brand toys that have met a certain safety standard,” Swanner said.
  3. If you’re buying online, check out the reputation of the seller. Horst-Martz said there’s nothing inherently wrong with buying online, but doing so requires particular vigilance.

“Smart toys:” Horst-Martz said PennPIRG staff tested on a popular karaoke machine, which they were able to access via Bluetooth, without a code, from 30 feet away. “So hypothetically, a bad actor could break into the device and play anything … from an explicit song to even a voice recording telling a child to come outside,” Horst-Martz said. She advised being leery of any toy that allows strangers to access your child so easily. Swanner’s advice? “If you are a parent, grandparent aunt, or uncle, if you’re not sure what this tech toy is, maybe it’s best to stay away from” and go low-tech.

Recommended age ranges: Pay close attention to these — but also to what you know about your own child. Swanner said some two-year-olds might be able to play safely with a toy meant for children three and older. On the other hand, Amy Bollinger, pediatric trauma and injury prevention program manager at Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital — who joined Horst-Martz on a call with media Thursday — said children with certain special needs might not be able to play safely with toys labeled for children their own age. Her advice: When in doubt, consult your child’s pediatrician. Horst-Martz said also that age filters on online shopping sites don’t always work properly, so after you select a toy, be sure to read that toy’s individual description carefully rather than assuming it matched your search parameters.

Keep in mind too that even if a toy is appropriate for a child of a certain age, the batteries for that same toy — particularly small, easy-to-swallow “button batteries” — could be harmful or even deadly to a child. When you change a toy’s batteries, “you should just be really careful that you keep track of where the old ones are,” Horst-Martz said.

Horst-Martz advised checking this government site for current safety information, including recalls. The full “Trouble in Toyland” report is available here.