Car stereos and wheel covers are some of the items most commonly stolen from car owners. Now, airbags are becoming an increasingly hot commodity. According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB), roughly 50,000 airbags are stolen each year, costing car owners and their auto insurance companies more than $50 million annually.
At $1,000 retail, stolen airbags often are sold for as little as $200 on the black market. Sometimes, according to NICB, unscrupulous mechanics may remove airbags from the cars they are repairing and charge insurance companies for an airbag replacement, even though they never replace the bags.
While most mechanics are honest professionals, the ease of swapping out airbags (and the fact that missing bags often aren't discovered until it's too late) makes airbag fraud a relatively low-risk crime for the dishonest ones.
Consequences for consumers
State Farm estimates that once all vehicles have airbags, the cost of airbag fraud could reach $127 million to $253 million a year. Why such a high cost? Thieves steal airbags and sell them for a fraction of their worth. The crooked mechanic who buys and installs the stolen airbags is then able to charge a customer (or the customer's insurance company) for the airbag's full retail value and pocket the difference. Multiplied over thousands of thefts, this type of fraud adds up -- and insurers might make up for their losses through higher premiums.
Of course, motorists face more than just financial costs. Victims often are not aware that their airbags have been stolen. And sometimes, the black market airbag installed during a repair is not the correct product for their particular car model and may not work correctly.
NICB cites the story of a 50-year-old woman who was killed in a car accident when she slammed into the steering column. Her airbag had been removed without her knowledge during a previous auto repair, and the mechanic had charged the insurer for a replacement, even though new airbags never were installed. Instead, the mechanic had filled the airbag cavity with plastic.
How to fight back
Consumers need to do their homework when it comes to choosing an auto mechanic, according to NICB. Stick to mechanics who've been certified by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) for all work, even minor repairs -- your vehicle doesn't need to have to be in for serious repair work to be targeted for airbag theft.
If you need your airbags replaced and you're not confident that you can trust the mechanic, there are extra steps you can take. NICB suggests that consumers ask to see the invoice for the airbag to prove it was purchased from a legitimate manufacturer, dealer or recycler. Better yet, ask whether it's a new airbag and, if so, ask to see the airbag before it's installed to make sure it's in a manufacturer-sealed package.
Finally, make sure the trim for the steering column matches the rest of the interior trim and that the airbag light comes on when you turn on your car's ignition. If the light doesn't appear, that means there's a problem -- and your airbag might not deploy in an accident.
Solutions ramping up
Lawmakers and advocacy groups also are taking action against airbag fraud. In 2010, for example, Rhode Island state legislators passed a bill designed to make things harder for thieves and fraudulent mechanics alike. The law establishes certain record-keeping rules and steeper penalties for those who take part in airbag theft.