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Thursday, February 07, 2008

Airbag Scams On the Rise

How to Avoid Being Ripped Off—And Possibly Save Your Life

Deadly airbag scams are on the rise. There are no reliable statistics on how often it occurs, but "it's bad and it’s getting worse," according to Aaron Cobb of the Special Investigations Unit for Farmers Insurance. Among the growing number of tragic cases include:

• A 2003 head-on collision, in which a driver was seriously wounded, and her mother, in the front passenger seat, died. The vehicle, a salvaged car, was rebuilt without the driver-side airbag. Just as bad, the passenger-side airbag was unusable—it had deployed in a previous accident and simply been stuffed back in the compartment.

• Detective Tom Burke of the NYPD Auto Crimes Division recalls a horrific 2005 investigation on the Throgs Neck Expressway in New York City. Five teenagers were riding in a used car when it veered off the road and hit a tree. There were two casualties. The owner was unaware that the vehicle had been in an accident that deployed the airbags. Burke says, "Whoever fixed the car bought the airbags off the Internet and didn’t install them correctly. If the job had been done right, these kids wouldn't have died. People believe replacing an airbag is like replacing any other part in a car."

But the truth is, it's not the same. Airbags are designed for a particular make, model, year and location of car. Once a bag deploys, it must be replaced with a new one, and connected to the onboard computer by an expert.

James Quiggle of the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud warns, "Getting the right airbag placed properly into a car is almost like neurosurgery." The Automotive Occupant Restraint Council (AORC) recommends using only the original car manufacturer's replacement parts…but you'll find several thousand airbags for sale on the Internet. There are starting bids as low as 99 cents on eBay.

Quiggle says, "Every alarm bell says airbag fraud is widespread, persistent and deadly." Whenever you buy a used vehicle or send a wrecked one for repairs, you become vulnerable to these swindles. The con artist makes the airbag switch, then pockets the insurance payment intended to buy new airbags. A single, brand-new bag can cost $1,000 or more. If the two main front airbags need to be replaced, it could net a crook several thousand dollars.

According to the AORC, it's not impossible for these used airbags to function, but there are significant concerns: An airbag’s electrical and safety systems could be compromised, due to exposure to exposure, such as excessive heat or floodwaters, that can result in unacceptable performance. At the moment, no test exists to verify that such exposure did not occur, and that the airbags will perform properly.

New vehicles must meet federal safety standards, but previously owned vehicles are not subject to similar scrutiny. Rosemary Shahan, founder of Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety (CARS), says "Except in a few states, there's no law requiring that deployed airbags be replaced, other than your garden-variety fraud statute."

At the moment, buyers have no way of knowing the full history of a used car. Services such as Carfax and AutoCheck report whether the vehicle was in an accident or flood or was stolen, or if the airbags ever deployed. But consumer advocates caution that those databases don't always receive the most up-to-date information, because insurance companies and some DMVs will not disclose damage claims data.

It is imperative that consumers be vigilant. Drivers ought to demand that their legislators pass tough laws that make knowingly installing fake or nonfunctioning airbags in vehicles a crime. "Airbag scams are literally life-and-death swindles that can kill people on a routine trip to the grocery store," Quiggle says. "Every driver should step into a car knowing they have one of the most important safety defenses in place, the airbag."

The risk is further compounded because there's no uniformity in how states define salvaged or junked vehicles. That creates an opportunity for dishonest dealers and rebuilders to move a vehicle from state to state to have their titles "washed" of their relevant history.

To put a stop to this illegal activity, the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS) was created in 1992. The NMVTIS lets states electronically verify titles instantly, so a car declared a total loss in one state cannot have its title washed of that label in another.

Presently, 34 states give data to NMVTIS, but only 13 have computer systems set up to access the data immediately. Every state needs to implement the system to eliminate title fraud effectively. If not, the 16 states (and the District of Columbia) that do not participate will continue to be the target of con artists. "It's unbelievable that it has taken 16 years to get this far, given the stakes for families," says Rosemary Shahan of CARS.

Jason King of the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators adds, "It's important for consumers to know that vehicle fraud crimes, whether they involve airbag fraud, title washing or something else, are high profit and very low risk for criminals. If consumers had a fully implemented title information system in every state, we could help save them between $4 billion and $11 billion. That's a huge benefit for a system that would cost no more than $11 million to fully implement."

Last year, legitimate auto dealers who want to be sure they're not putting families in unsafe used cars, urged legislators to introduce companion bills in the House and Senate. Totaled, flood-damaged and stolen cars would be permanently recorded in vehicle history databases and insurance companies would be required to consistently report cases of airbag deployment to the public. Congress plans to take up the issue in the spring. "What’s frustrating," says Quiggle, "is that innocent people will keep dying until fraud fighters can uncover enough hard data to make airbag schemes an urgent national safety issue."

An onboard computer controls a complex system, of which airbags are just a part. A collision force is detected by a sensor, which sends a signal to the inflation system, which ignites a propellant to burn rapidly enough to produce nitrogen gas. The thin, folded nylon bag inflates and bursts from its storage compartment, impeding an occupant’s forward motion in a fraction of a second.

Never open the airbag compartment yourself. You will damage the airbag system, and very possibly injure yourself.

If your vehicle has been involved in an accident, The National Insurance Crime Bureau advises you to:

1. Take your vehicle to an auto collision repair shop that employs mechanics certified by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE).

2. Read your invoice to be sure the repair shop purchased the airbag from your vehicle's manufacturer.

3. Before installation, inspect the airbag. The manufacturer will have packaged it in a sealed container from.

4. Call the National Insurance Crime Bureau’s hotline if you suspect fraud or theft: 800-835-6422.

Online courses are now available to educate drivers on the rules of the road and the latest defensive driving techniques. Try it today!

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The National Safety Commission, Inc.
PO Box 3359
Ponte Vedra Beach, FL 32004-3359

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