Cheap USB charger explodes near boy's head

Daniel Sommerville, 14, with the burnt power outlet. Pictures: CHRISTOPHER CHAN

Daniel Sommerville, 14, with the burnt power outlet. Pictures: CHRISTOPHER CHAN

• Illegal phone charger on sale in Wollongong

• Woman dies from apparent electrocution

• Warning too late on USB chargers: Labor

A Kanahooka mum says a cheap knock-off USB charger saved her money, but almost cost her son his life.

Lorna Sommerville bought the charger for $10 from Paddy’s Markets as a gift for her son Daniel on his 14th birthday, Sunday. 

But by Monday evening the device was a blackened wreck.

It exploded within centimetres of the teen’s head after he plugged it into his iPod and sat on his bed, messaging friends on Snapchat.

His mother heard a loud bang - ‘‘like metal hitting metal’’ - and saw a flash of light coming from his room. ‘‘Daniel came out of his bedroom with a stunned look on his face. He said, ‘the charger’,’’ Ms Sommerville said. 

‘‘The whole house smelt like gun powder. I was shocked.’’ 

The explosion caused the electricity supply to short circuit in three bedrooms, and at one of the loungeroom power points. 

‘‘Who knows what would have happened if we didn’t have a circuit breaker,’’ Ms Sommerville.

‘‘After hearing about the other woman that got killed by it, we’re really thinking how seriously lucky Daniel is.’’ 

‘‘The whole house smelt like gun powder. I was shocked.’’

‘‘The whole house smelt like gun powder. I was shocked.’’

Non-compliant chargers - which do not carry a recognised safety approval more, or insulation on the pins of the plug - have come under scrutiny as police investigate the death of Gosford woman Sheryl Anne Aldeguer.

Friends discovered the mother-of-two dead on April 23, still wearing headphones, with her computer in her lap with burns to her chest and ears. 

Fair Trading is assisting with the case and has pinpointed a sub-standard mobile phone charger as the likely cause of Ms Aldeguer’s death.

On Saturday an investigator from the Department of Fair Trading carried out a series of unannounced inspections at several Wollongong computer parts supply stores, after Mercury inquiries revealed non-compliant chargers were being sold at a shop on Crown Street, Pcxite Computer Sales & Services Pty Ltd.

The devices had been removed from the store’s shelves by Saturday.

Fair Trading has warned the chargers can cause electrocution and fire, and is calling on consumers to bend their pins and discard them.

How to spot a fake charger

Charging our mobile phones is a daily ritual most of us don't think twice about - but it can kill you.

And consumers are advised not to use a device while it is plugged into a power socket. 

The death of a young Sydney woman who appears to have been electrocuted by a non-standard charger prompted a warning from authorities.

“These devices pose a serious risk of electrocution or fire,” Fair Trading Commissioner Rod Stowe said. He advised consumers to discard any unapproved chargers, travel adaptors or power boards - and make sure no one else can use them by bending the pins. 

The cheap substitute products are widely available from discount stores and markets, including eBay.

Voltage inside the charger changes between different parts, and it's that difference which creates the potential for an electric shock. Mains power in Australia is 230V, and the output of a typical charger is around 5-10V.

Inside, the device converts AC (alternating current) to DC (direct current) and uses a "flyback" switch to turn the DC power on and off around 40,000 times a second. This generates the exact amount of power needed, without losing excess as heat.

The big danger is a lack of insulation inside the fake chargers. Insulating tape or tubes should be wrapped around key parts and wires to minimise the risk of a spark. Genuine articles typically contain multiple layers of protection, but a fake one will have the bare minimum.

Parts should also be kept well apart. Experts recommend at least four millimetres of "creepage" - space between low-voltage and high-voltage circuits. This is to prevent, for example, a drop of water condensing across a narrow gap and causing a shock.

Real devices are also more likely to contain noise-filtering parts for a quieter charge. A non-standard charger may also mean your device takes longer to charge, and it could degrade the battery on the device.

So how can you spot a dodgy appliance from the outside?

An easy solution is to buy directly from the manufacturer of your device, for example an Apple iPhone charger. While fake devices will often copy the genuine article's design, they typically lack the same packaging and branding.

NSW Fair Trading has a list of acceptable "approval marks" on its website, which will appear on any authentic device. But they are small and can be confusing. Mr Stowe said an easy way to ensure you purchase a safe charger is to shop from genuine sellers.

"If you're buying goods from reputable retailers, they will be approved," he told ABC Radio.

Consumers are also advised against using any device while it is plugged into the wall, even if the charger is genuine.

"It's not a good idea to actually use it while it's charging," Mr Stowe said. "We're probably all guilty from time to time [but] our experts advise that it's not a thing we should be doing."

A 23-year-old flight attendant was killed in the Chinese region of Xinjiang last year after reportedly answering a call on her iPhone while it was charging. Apple at the time promised to "fully investigate" that incident.

- MICHAEL KOZIOL

Smartphone
Tablet - Narrow
Tablet - Wide
Desktop