Quiggle is quick to point out that fleets need to be conscious of the fact that their industry is rife for airbag fraud. "Definitely fleet owners and managers need to be very aware of the potential for crooked body shops to scam their vehicles by removing airbags that never deployed, and charging their insurance policies as if the bags had been deployed," he says. "This can lead to excessive charges against the fleet's policy."
One of the ways a fleet can get scammed and not know is by putting too much trust in their dashboard lights. "There should be a light on the dashboard that would come on and flash for a brief period of time, then turn off. That will indicate that the airbag module is installed and is functioning," he says. "Crooked body shops can go on the internet and buy little devices that override the airbag alert light. And even if the airbag system has been damaged and rendered non-functional by a body shop, they can install a little device that will still make the light come on as if the airbag was fully functioning and safe."
He adds, "The internet is a vast wasteland of parts that crooked body shops can buy to scam fleet owners and drivers into thinking that they have functioning airbags."
THE BLACK BOX
Luckily, there are some ways to protect your vehicles from this type of crime. "Make sure the body shop uses certified mechanics, first of all, because that tends to weed out many of the crooked operators," Quiggle says.
"When a fleet vehicle has been involved in a crash, check the black box that's installed in the car to see if, in fact, the airbag has been deployed, because it registers data up to and through the crash. In many cases, if the bag did not deploy, the black box will register that fact. If the repair invoice says it was replaced but the black box data shows there was no deployment, that's a serious sign of attempted fraud."
If you're still paranoid, "You can also have an outside mechanic do diagnostic tests on the airbag module, and this will reveal if the airbag has been deployed or replaced, or if the airbag module is even functioning," Quiggle says.
TAKING ON A SCAM
CAIF, in the meantime, is doing its best to serve as an avenue between the interests of insurance companies, consumer groups and public agencies. AORC attempts to address the issue through recommendations and consumer awareness.
"One of the big things is to inform the public of this because the public in general is not really aware of false airbags," AORC's Kirchoff says.
Quiggle concurs. "The fact that you have a vast marketplace on the internet for parts that can facilitate airbag fraud—that should tell you that the problem is out there in a significant way, but it hasn't been quantified to ring enough alarm bells in the private sector. People have died in these accidents," he says.
He adds, "Ford is so concerned about airbag fraud that they're creating a database of the serial numbers of all of the airbags that they put in their cars. The fact that Ford thinks this problem is serious enough that they're devoting major resources to this suggests that where there's smoke, there's fire."
To learn more about Ford's OE airbag database, visit www.fleetmag.com
Inflating their Efforts: Ford's Web Database Attempts to Decrease Fraud
Just over a year old, Ford's anti-fraud effort has already involved 26 insurance companies who are registered for access to the site, www.oeairbags.com. Despite the fact that this database is accessible to insurance companies and state investigators, not fleets, it does mean that if you're using Ford vehicles, your airbags are probably being tracked.
To Ensure an Insurance Company
According to Steve Nantau, collision repairs supervisor for Ford's Customer Service Division, "Fraud occurs in collision repairs sometimes when a vehicle is in an accident and an estimate would be written for a new airbag, which would cost $700. Then the repairer would use a salvaged airbag that they'd buy for a hundred dollars, and the difference, they pocket. They (insurance companies) have difficulty identifying when that occurred."
"Almost 100 percent of insurance companies require new airbags if an airbag is going to be replaced," he explains. "They don't publicly approve the use of non-OE airbags."
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.