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Surge protector sparks fires instead of preventing them, homeowners say

Reviews warn of device melting, being fire hazard

HOUSTON – Your big-screen TV, computer and other pricey electronics: they're all probably plugged into a surge protector. The devices are supposed to protect electronic devices from electrical spikes, but consumer expert Amy Davis has a warning about one type of surge protector homeowners said is actually starting fires instead of preventing them.

Lizzie Steinmetz, 5, was getting ready for bed with her little brother when she heard a strange noise.

"It was like a buzzing noise sound," Lizzie said.

She said she saw flames shooting up from a surge protector sitting on top of her dresser.

"I had just set a little TV right here on their dresser," Lizzie's mom, Rebecca Steinmetz, pointed to the top of the chest of drawers.

The burn marks resulting from the fire only stopped when Lizzie's dad unplugged the Belkin surge protector from the outlet. Steinmetz said it could have been much worse.

"My immediate thought was, 'What if they had been asleep?'" she said. "What if this was someone else's house? What if it was under their bed? What if it's behind their dresser?"

A call to Belkin, one of the biggest names in consumer electronics, did little to reassure her the company would look into the cause of the fire. So she searched online using the model number. She said she couldn't believe what she found.

"Do not buy! Fire hazard," reads one Amazon review posted in 2010, along with pictures of a charred, black, melted plug of the same model Belkin surge protector.

Other reviews from 2012, 2013 and 2014 warn of the device melting and being a fire hazard. Earlier this year, Amazon stopped selling the six-outlet commercial surge protector with a rotating plug.

A message on the site read, "Customers have told us there may be something wrong with our inventory of the item." But months later, Amazon is now selling the product again.

When Steinmetz filed a claim for the damage to her furniture, Belkin asked for the device so they could analyze it to find out what went wrong. But before she turned it over to them she agreed to let KPRC 2 take it to independent forensic engineer Dave Reiter, of Verite Forensic Engineering.

After careful examination and X-rays, Reiter concluded that the device failed.

"If I were a manufacturer, I certainly would want to know what's going on," Reiter told Davis.

Since Reiter knew Belkin had requested the device, he didn't continue with more invasive tests that would have made it difficult for the company's analysis.

"I'd like to understand the failure mechanism so I could guard against it in the future," Reiter said, imagining he were in Belkin's position.

Reiter packed up the surge protector and KPRC 2 mailed it to Belkin. Two months later, Belkin spokesperson Leah Polk emailed back, saying, "We did confirm that our overall design of the product is safe, which means that this model of surge protector is indeed safe to use as directed."

Polk said, "We cannot send the device back," so Reiter lost the opportunity to continue his own tests.

"There's no way people should have these in their home," Steinmetz said.

Belkin also refused to tell Channel 2 Investigates how many complaints it has received of fires started from the devices since 2011. On the Consumer Product Safety Commission's website, KPRC 2 found five reports since 2012, not counting Steinmetz's fire.

You can read the complaints at these links:

1) July 26, 2015 -- http://www.saferproducts.gov/ViewIncident/1501115

2) March 16, 2015 -- http://www.saferproducts.gov/ViewIncident/1469609

3) July 28, 2014 -- http://www.saferproducts.gov/ViewIncident/1419977

4) Aug. 3, 2012 -- http://www.saferproducts.gov/ViewIncident/1259858

5) Feb. 16, 2012 -- http://www.saferproducts.gov/ViewIncident/1231864

When buying a surge protector, experts said buyers should always look to make sure it's UL-certified and has at least 600 joules, the minimum amount needed to protect most electronics in a home. The Belkin surge protectors that have caught fire do have those standard features, however.

While they wouldn't tell KPRC 2 why, we know that Home Depot, where Steinmetz purchased her surge protector, has since stopped selling it. Multiple other retailers do sell it.

Anyone who has had a problem with the product should file a complaint with the CPSC here.