Airbag scams

fake insurance policy

Imagine you and your family are driving along a rainy highway. Another car suddenly careens across the lane into yours. As the cars collide, you count on your airbags to open and protect everyone. But your airbags don't deploy. They were stolen.

Crooked body shops are stealing airbags from vehicles to make a quick dollar at your expense. Mechanics can easily remove your airbag without your knowing it.

Airbag fraud places the lives of you and your passengers in danger if you're in a crash. The swindles also cost you money.

Your next drive should be in a safe car, not an ambulance.

The scams

The price you pay

Fight back

The scams

The pullout. A dishonest body shop pulls out your airbag so it seems like the bag deployed during the accident. The mechanic then inserts a cheap knockoff bag after your insurer finishes the estimate for replacing the original airbag. Or worse, the mechanic stuffs old rags, cardboard or beer cans into your empty airbag space. The body shop bills your insurer full price for "replacing" the bag — up to $2,000 or more — even though your original is long gone.

The switch. The body shop removes your un-deployed airbag and installs another deployed one to make it seem the original bag inflated during the accident. The mechanic then puts back your original bag after the insurance company makes a repair estimate. Or, the mechanic may simply insert rags and other junk, then sell your original bag on the black market.

Used & salvaged vehicles. Maybe you're buying a used or salvaged vehicle (which was rebuilt after the insurer declared it totaled). Be careful.

You may have a hard time tracing exactly what's happened to the vehicle, who repaired it, and whether they tampered with your airbags. You may only have an unsafe used or cheap knockoff bag. Or just rags and beer cans.

Cars that were totaled in a flood may still have the original airbags, but they may not open properly if the module was soaked.

The price you pay

Lives & safety. Your life is in danger every time you step into a vehicle without good airbags. Your passengers' lives also are at stake if you crash and the airbags don't work right. Innocent drivers have died in crashes when crooked body shops stole their airbags. Are you and your friends or family members next?

Pay higher premiums. Airbag fraud also takes hard-earned money out of your pocket. The swindles raise auto premiums for every honest driver because insurance companies must pass the cost to all policyholders.

Your own auto premiums also might go up even faster, since an airbag scam against you unfairly inflates claims against your own auto policy.

Fight back

Unless you have X-ray vision, you can't easily tell if a dishonest body shop tampered with the airbag while your vehicle was being repaired. The airbag compartment is tightly sealed, and hard for you to reach.

Same with that used or salvaged car you're thinking of buying. If the vehicle's history is altered, missing or incomplete, you don't know if the airbag is safe — or if you even have one.

Get a mechanic. When in doubt, have an outside mechanic you trust check out your airbag. Make sure the mechanic is certified, or seek a reputable airbag technician.

Watch for these warning signs...

Dashboard light works? Newer cars have a dashboard light that comes on for a few seconds when you start the car. This signals that the airbag system is working properly. If the light stays on, starts flashing or doesn't flash on at all, your airbag system probably isn't working. But watch out: Crooked body shops can install devices that make the airbag light flash properly even when the airbag is gone.

Invoice in order? Check the body shop's invoice to make sure the shop bought the airbag from a car manufacturer, dealer or recycler.

Any complaints? See if the body shop has a history of consumer complaints — before you get repairs. Check the shop's complaint history with the Better Business Bureau.

Fake airbag cover? The body shop might place a real-looking cover over the airbag space to hide the theft. But fake airbag covers rarely have your vehicle's logo imprinted. The color also may be slightly off, even if it does fit well.

Vehicle history ok? Thinking about buying a used vehicle? Get its history report from commercial services. If the report shows the vehicle was in a major crash or flood, you should have a certified mechanic or airbag technician check it out before buying.

Avoid tampering. Don't try to open the airbag compartment yourself. You could be injured, and also damage an expensive airbag system.

Support airbag legislation. Urge your state legislators to support tough penalties for body shops that commit airbag scams.