NHTSA: Beware of counterfeit air bags

John Egan

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHSTA) is warning car owners and car repair professionals about the dangers of counterfeit air bags, which may fail to deploy in a crash or may explode into flames and spit out plastic or metal shrapnel when they inflate.

Counterfeit air bags sometimes are used to replace original air bags in cars that have been involved in crashes. NHTSA says the counterfeit bags look nearly identical to the certified original parts, yet they don’t always perform as well.

NHTSA says cars that are at risk have had air bags replaced within the past three years by repair shops that aren’t connected with car dealerships. Other consumers who should be concerned are those who have:

  • Purchased a used car whose air bag may have been deployed before it was bought.
  • Own a car with a title that bears the words “salvage,” “rebuilt” or “reconstructed.”
  • Purchased a replacement air bag from eBay or another non-certified source, particularly if the price was below $400.

The federal agency says it’s not aware of any deaths or injuries tied to counterfeit air bags.

“We expect all motor vehicle equipment to meet federal safety standards — and air bags in particular play a central role in keeping drivers and passengers safe in the event of a crash,” NHTSA Administrator David Strickland says in a news release. “That’s why it’s critical that vehicle owners work with their automotive dealers and repair professionals to ensure they use the appropriate, original equipment parts in the event they need to replace their air bag.”

If you suspect a counterfeit air bag has been installed in your car, visit www.safercar.gov to obtain contact information for your automaker.

John Morton, director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, says criminal gangs are selling counterfeit air bags to consumers and automotive suppliers “with little to no regard to hazardous health and safety consequences.”

The National Insurance Crime Bureau says thieves steal air bags and resell them on the black market or on websites. A new air bag costs $1,000 or more at a legitimate dealer or auto repair shop, the bureau says, but easily goes for $50 to $200 on the black market.

The Insurance Information Institute estimates more than 75,000 air bags are stolen each year. If you’re the victim of such a theft, your auto insurance policy will pay for a new air bag, but only if you have comprehensive coverage. Comprehensive coverage is optional, although most auto lenders require it.

The National Insurance Crime Bureau offers these tips for steering clear of air bag fraud and theft.

  • If your air bag has been stolen or has been deployed in a crash, contact your auto insurance company.
  • When replacing or repairing the air bag, use a reputable repair shop that employs ASE-certified mechanics.
  • Review the invoice to ensure the repair shop bought the air bag from an auto manufacturer, dealer or certified recycler.
  • If possible, inspect the air bag before it’s installed. If it’s new, it should be in a sealed container from the manufacturer.
  • The trim cover over the steering column should be the same color as the remaining trim interior. If not, this indicates that the original air bag has been replaced.
  • If you buy a used car, ask for a vehicle history report. Avoid buying a used car that has been in a crash if the owner can’t prove that it’s been properly fixed and that the air bags are working like they should.

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