Perhaps the only thing more like a cozy pillow in your car than the airbag is your sense of security in having one. It feels nice to think there is something there to serve as a barrier between your head and human error. But what if, instead of lining your dash, this airbag that you expect to deploy in the event of the unthinkable is lining the pockets of an unscrupulous mechanic?
Airbag fraud is a serious issue, possibly affecting your fleet if you contract out the body work on your light duty vehicles. The problem is you might not realize it until it is too late. And even if it doesn't affect you on the road, it will likely affect your finances by way of higher insurance premiums. If that doesn't make you angry, think about it this way: you could be paying for a product and installation that you don't receive—giving someone money to put your drivers' lives in danger.
Airbag fraud has received more and more media attention in recent years, but still not enough to create the kind of public outcry to force a federal legislative mandate. This means that airbag fraud laws are still in the hands of individual states. Unfortunately this issue is easily swept under the rug: how can organizations create widespread awareness when it is nearly impossible to obtain accurate statistics?
James Quiggle, director of communications for the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud (CAIF), says the estimates of yearly airbag theft range from 50-75,000. But without dismantling the airbag covers in the vehicles of every automobile in the country, we have no way of knowing.
"Reliable data does not exist," Quiggle says. "This is one of the reasons airbag fraud is not high enough on the radar screen with insurance companies—their priorities are data-driven. Without data to prove how serious and widespread the problem is, the insurance companies are not going to face pressure to make airbag safety and theft a high enough priority."
RECYCLING OR REMOVAL
There are several types of airbag fraud, according to George Kirchoff, president of the Automotive Occupant Restraint Council. "We deal with mostly false airbags—a genuine part that is replaced," Kirchoff says. "That person simply puts a false airbag cover on, but there's nothing underneath it; they can just stuff it with paper or cloth or anything that just fills the cavity." The idea then is that the crooked mechanic charges for the cost of an airbag—anywhere between $1,000 and $2,000—and sells it on the black market instead of installing it.
"Then we have what we call a salvaged airbag," Kirchoff says. Salvaged airbags are basically "recycled" airbags that have been deployed and then restored to work again. There are several problems with salvaged airbags. One is that you may be paying for a new airbag and receiving a recycled airbag, and the repair shop is pocketing the difference. Another, bigger problem is that there are very few ways of telling whether it is as fully functional as a new airbag or not.
"We don't know what may have occurred to it," Kirchoff says. "Probably a lot of them are good, but at the same time there may be some that are not good. For example, if a car has been under water—especially with the hurricanes this last year—then there would be a major concern whether this airbag would function properly."
SETTING THE STAGE
Another trick you might see from a crooked body shop, according to Quiggle, is the staging of an airbag deployment. "If a car is in an accident and an airbag does not deploy, a crooked body shop can take that car and open up the airbag module, pull the airbag out, and make it appear as if the airbag was deployed in the crash, even when it wasn't," Quiggle says.
"This can create a large insurance windfall for the body shop. They can buy a used airbag on the black market for one or two hundred dollars. Then they can charge the insurance company for the cost of a new airbag, which can easily run up to $2,000."
An undeployed airbag is like a loaded gun; make sure your technicians take proper precautions under the dash and under the hood.
Carfax advises consumers about free airbag checking.