How to Protect Yourself from Airbag Fraud
The National Highway Safety Administration (NHTSA) has a PDF from the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) that notes that there are around 50,000 airbags stolen every year, resulting in an annual loss of more than $50 million to consumers and insurance companies alike, not to mention the human toll of these devices not working properly—or being missing completely—when they are needed most.
Why is airbag fraud so common?
The reason, the report notes, that airbags are so big on the black market is that they cost several thousand dollars when purchased new from a dealer, and only a few hundred dollars when purchased from less reputable sources. A shady repair shop can charge the insurance company full price, then install a stolen airbag and profit the difference. Or worse, there are reports of disreputable shops stuffing the airbag compartment with rags, packing materials, and even old shoes or beer cans, rather than installing the airbag they were hired to replace. So what can a consumer do to protect them? When buying a used vehicle, the first and most important step is to deal with a reputable source. Buying from a licensed dealer with a good reputation is not a 100 percent guarantee the airbag is in perfect working condition, but it will increase the odds. That doesn’t mean buying from private sellers is completely off the table, but it does mean that you will need to be more aware in those cases. If you have a mechanic you trust, have them look over the vehicle before you purchase to ensure everything looks correct. Another way to protect yourself is by obtaining a vehicle history report. Again, while those reports can be incorrect or not give the whole picture if a vehicle has been in a major accident at any point in its history that is a sign you will need to pay closer attention to the airbags.
What can you do prevent airbag fraud?
Even non-mechanics can learn a few things to check for when looking for a vehicle to see if there are warning signs for airbag fraud. Those include:
- Make sure the steering wheel looks uniform—the center portion where the airbag lives should be the same color, material, and texture as the rest of the wheel.
- Check for gaps between the center and the rest of the steering wheel. The airbag compartment should be an exact fit, as the manufacturer designed them that way.
- On the passenger side, check for gaps in the dashboard or discoloration or non-matching textures as well. Also, check for things like scuff marks or scratches around the airbag compartment.
- Check the upholstery around the door airbag compartments. Make sure the stitching is even and matches the quality and color throughout the rest of the car.
- Check to see if the seatbelts are mechanically noisy, or don’t match the color or material of the rest of the car.
- Check the airbag light on the dashboard. It should operate according to the owner’s manual; in most vehicles, it will come on briefly when the car is first turned on, and then turn off. If it stays on, blinks or behaves in any other way, get the airbags checked.
Unfortunately, many of these warning signs can be circumvented or hidden by a shady mechanic who wants to hide what they are doing. There are ways to hack the warning light system, for example, to give a false “okay” when the airbag is non-functioning or missing. At the end of the day, trust your instincts. If you are buying a used car, and the price seems too good to be true, it probably is. Be aware of the warning signs, and do your homework before purchasing any used car. And when in doubt, bring in a third-party mechanic you trust to give the vehicle a clean bill of health.