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US regulators are making Samsung recall millions of phones because they might explode

Samsung Unveils Its New Galaxy Note 7
The graphics might be pretty, but you should still turn it off.
Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Samsung is facing a major product safety crisis in the face of multiple reports of one of its most popular smartphone models exploding during charging or use. The company halted sales of the product last week, and now the US Consumer Product Safety Commission is urging customers who bought a Note 7 to immediately stop using it and power it down in an unusually blunt tweet:

Here’s what you need to know.

Are phones really exploding?

It’s hard to know the extent of the problem based on sporadic public reports, but, yes, Galaxy Note 7 phones really do seem to be spontaneously catching on fire. Reports have come from both the United States and Asia. As of September 1, at least 35 customers had reported exploding batteries to Samsung.

And some of the reported problems really were explosions. Fox’s Phoenix affiliate reported on a man who said his Jeep was set on fire by a Galaxy Note 7 phone. Another customer in South Carolina reported a fire in his garage that he believed was started by a phone he had charging there.

Vox’s sister site The Verge has a nice explanation of the physics of the situation. Batteries are designed to store as much energy as possible, so they’re inherently volatile. Modern batteries are designed with careful safeguards to ensure that all that energy is only released in the controlled amounts required to power your phone. But a manufacturing defect apparently meant that in rare cases, the battery could discharge its stored energy very quickly and start a fire.

The recall is specific to the Samsung Galaxy Note 7, the latest edition of Samsung’s popular Galaxy Note line. It was released just a few weeks ago, so you should only have one if you got a new phone recently. Other Samsung phone models — including Samsung’s flagship Galaxy S7 — do not appear to be affected.

Is it common for smartphones to explode?

The inherent volatility of smartphone batteries means there’s always a (very small) risk of phones melting down. Over the years, there have been sporadic reports of smartphone meltdowns with phones from Samsung and Apple. In one 2015 case, a man said he had an iPhone catch on fire while it was in his pocket, causing severe burns.

And this isn’t a new problem, either. The Consumer Product Safety Commission, the agency behind the latest recall of Samsung phones, has been working to improve cellphone safety for more than a decade.

"CPSC is receiving more and more reports of incidents involving cell phones, and we're very concerned of the potential for more serious injuries or more fires," the agency told CBS back in 2004.

Still, it should be emphasized that these incidents are very rare. Cellphone manufacturers sell tens of millions of cellphones every year, and only a tiny fraction ever have these kinds of safety problems. It’s a good idea to avoid putting your phone under a lot of pressure or subjecting it to a lot of heat. But in general your cellphone is very unlikely to burn your house down.

I bought a Galaxy Note 7. What should I do?

The first step is to power down the phone. (To do this, hold down the power button until a power down option comes on the screen.)

Then you’ll want to return the phone to wherever you obtained it. Most likely you bought it from a wireless carrier like AT&T or Verizon. In that case, take the phone to your wireless carrier to trade it in.

At the store, you’ll have a few options. One is to get a new, non-exploding Galaxy Note 7. However, those aren’t ready yet, so if you choose this, you’ll get a loaner phone until the replacement is ready.

The other option is to get one of Samsung’s other phones, like a Galaxy S7, and receive a credit for the difference in value between the phone you choose and the Galaxy Note 7. Samsung is also offering customers a $25 gift card or statement credit by way of apology.

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