Feds take air out of dangerous airbag cons

By James Quiggle
January 29, 2013

airbags-roundDai Zhensong cared little about whether motorists arrived home safely from the supermarket or office. Or if they had families that depended on them.

The Chinese national just wanted money. He flooded the U.S. with shoddy airbags forged inside his factory back in China. His potentially deadly crime is “an extreme safety risk,” the federal government said in sending out an urgent national alert warning hundreds of thousands of drivers.

Airbags can make the difference between life and death in a crash. Drivers have died and been seriously injured when swindlers removed the airbags and left the motorists unprotected.

Crooked bodyshops that buy Zsensong’s airbags usually have a potentially deadly insurance crime in mind.

They install cheap or knockoff bags like Zsensong’s for a few dollars, then fraudulently charge insurers $1,000 or more for new replacement versions. Innocent motorists are unknowingly left with worthless airbags that won’t protect them in a crash.

The con can be easy money for swindlers. The danger is almost impossible for motorists to detect because the airbag is well-hidden inside its compartment. The con usually only surfaces in a crash, when airbags are needed the most.

But people’s lives weren’t Zhensong’s problem. So he bought airbag systems made by legitimate car companies, then copied them at his factory. They were made of cheap and substandard materials, and poorly put together.

Zhensong then bought trademark emblems from Honda, Toyota, BMW, Audi and other dealerships in China, and fastened the emblems to the bags. He sold them on the Internet and black market for only $50-$70 each. But to untrained consumer eyes, his knockoffs could’ve been the real thing.

He sold potentially thousands of deadly airbags from his U.S. base in Chattanooga, Tenn. Nobody knows exactly how many, who bought them, or how many have been installed in the vehicles of unwary drivers.

One of Zhensong’s cronies, bodyshop owner Igor Borodin, was a major threat to motorists. The Charlotte, N.C. man sold about 7,000 of Zhensong’s counterfeit airbags on eBay for at least $1.4 million, federal officials say.

Investigators found another 1,514 airbags at Borodin’s home, ready for sale. Other fakes were found at his bodyshop, waiting to be installed in customer vehicles. The feds intercepted yet hundreds more bags being shipped to him.

The feds tested some of Zhensong’s airbags on crash dummies. Some bags didn’t inflate or inflated only partially. They were useless.

Other bags sent out searing fireballs when inflated, or spewed sharp pieces of shrapnel at the crash dummies. A bolt lodged in one dummy’s forehead.

The fakes could involve as many as 250,000 vehicles, the feds say. That’s just 0.1 percent of the U.S. vehicle fleet, but tell that to grieving relatives if someone dies or is seriously hurt in a wreck with Zhensong’s worthless equipment.

Nursing assistant Damaris Gatihis died when she was rear-ended on a freeway outside of Seattle. Her car spun around and hit another vehicle head-on. Her airbag had been removed in a con separate from Zhensong’s.

Vehicles with airbags replaced in the past three years by a repair shop that isn’t part of a new car dealership may be at risk, the recent federal alert says. Drivers also may be in danger if they buy a used vehicle whose airbag had deployed before the purchase. Salvaged or rebuilt vehicles also could be risky.

The feds are urging consumers to contact call centers to see if they’re potentially affected.

Zhensong pleaded guilty and received 37 months in federal prison. Yorodin also pleaded guilty, and could spend the next 10 years in federal prison when sentenced.

There’s no known record of anyone crashing while toting Zhensong’s fraudulent airbags. But like so many danger-filled moments in life, you never know who’s next.

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