If you think air bag theft is a bunch of hot air, think again. Insurance and auto industry reports indicate that vehicle air bags can fetch hefty sums on the black market and are becoming increasingly attractive to thieves. There’s even a growing Internet market for air bags. Insurance industry statistics show that approximately 50,000 air bags are stolen each year, resulting in an annual loss of more than $50 million to vehicle owners and their insurers.
Why air bags? They are relatively easy to remove, and are often bolted in place at the back of the steering wheel with fasteners that experienced thieves can quickly pop out. According to a State Farm official, experienced crooks can remove two air bags from a car in under two minutes. Air bags are even being stolen from vehicles parked in front of people’s homes. Police reports indicate that Hondas and Toyotas are especially popular targets (likely due to the sheer volume of their top-selling models on the road).
Reports also show that unscrupulous repair shops are buying stolen air bags for around $100-$200, charging customers $1,000 or more to install them as “new” and billing insurance companies full price for the replacement, thus committing insurance fraud. Worse yet, some crooked mechanics have placed Styrofoam packing peanuts and other materials inside the air bag cover, instead of the actual bag — a serious potential hazard should a crash occur and there is no air bag to deploy.
Frontal air bags saved 13,967 lives between 1997 and 2003, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Proper installation of these life-saving devices is, therefore, a primary concern.
Since few drivers ever check if a replacement bag is properly installed (or whether one is even installed after a collision, for that matter), the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) offers the following tips to help prevent your customers from becoming victims of air bag fraud and theft.
Inspect the invoice to ensure the repair shop purchased the air bag from a manufacturer, dealer or recycler.
Inspect the air bag prior to installation. If it’s new, it should be packaged 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, it’s an indication that the original air bag has been replaced.
When a vehicle’s ignition is turned on, a red Supplemental Restraint System (SRS) indicator should light up and flash in the instrument panel display, indicating the air bag system is activated. No SRS light indicates a problem with the air bag system that could result in no air bag activation.
If you or your customers suspect insurance fraud or theft, call the NICB hotline — 1.800.tel.nicb (1.800.835.6422). Your anonymous call could make you eligible for a reward.
Have you or your customers ever been a victim of air bag theft? If you’d like to comment on this issue, e-mail me at [email protected] and your comments may be published in an upcoming issue of ImportCar.