Yes, you hear about the cars with faulty brakes, but not all product recalls get media coverage—and that can be a safety issue. A couple of preventive steps can guard you.

Illo: store recall

Contaminated fruit. Unsafe car seats. Mislabeled hot dogs. Virtually every day, the federal government announces that a product has been recalled. The media reports on bigger recalls, like the recent one involving General Motors, but most are under the radar, says Ed Mierzwinski, the consumer program director of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. And that’s troubling because “recalls can be a matter of life and death,” says Patty Davis, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. So what’s a concerned citizen to do?

First visit, which is run by the government agencies that regulate consumer goods, food, drugs, and transportation. You can sign up to receive e-mail alerts delivered as often as you want—whether that’s right after a recall is announced, daily, or weekly. Read the alerts to see if you own the product or have consumed the food or drug in question. If you are affected, follow the recall announcement’s instructions. You’ll usually be offered a refund, a replacement, or, when applicable, a repair kit.

Keep in mind that when new products are recalled, they’re locked out from sales (meaning that cash registers won’t allow you to buy them). But older faulty products may be sitting on shelves in secondhand stores. Before you purchase something for which safety is paramount, like a crib or a bike, search (for consumer products), (for auto-related products), or (for everything else) to see if there have been any complaints. Should you have problems with something that you already own, file an incident report with one of the aforementioned websites. You could keep another consumer from making a dangerous mistake.