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Safety of Airbags: Avoiding Airbag System Fraud

One Victim's Story
Sulaine Noble thought she'd found a perfect deal on a used Honda Accord. When she recently got in a minor fender-bender, she noticed that the car's airbag light came on and stayed on. When she had it checked out, she was stunned to learn that her car didn't even have working airbags installed.
What's in Your Airbag?
Larry Gamache of CARFAX explains how this scam is pulled off. "Without some investigation it's virtually impossible for the average consumer to tell just by looking at a used car if it has phony airbags," he explains. "So after a car is in an accident, some unscrupulous repairers replace only the airbag cover and not the actual airbag deployment system beneath it."

"Crooked mechanics are stuffing steering wheels and dashboards with everything from packing peanuts to empty beer cans," Gamache continued.
Experts like Kim Hazelbaker from the Highway Loss Data Institute recommend consumers like Noble, who are considering pre-owned vehicles, use all the available resources to check out a vehicle before buying. "We would advise purchasers of used cars to find out from Internet sites the vehicle history, to look at the safety equipment on the vehicle, and to have it inspected by a mechanic of their choice, not the seller's," says Hazelbaker.

Noble is now trying to find out who installed the dummy airbags in her car, but says now that she would "never buy another car without using CARFAX to check on the title and the history of the car–it reveals a lot."

Airbag Facts and Statistics

Airbag systems, considered supplemental restraint systems, are meant to be used in conjunction with seat belts. The California Highway Alliance recently found that 1 of out every 25 previously damaged vehicles inspected had phony or dummy airbags systems for the side airbags and passenger airbag, including:
  • Non-functioning, outdated, or inappropriate airbags for the make, model and year of the vehicle.

  • No airbags at all. In these cases, replacement airbag system covers are used to cosmetically repair the airbag compartments.

  • Inappropriate materials instead of airbags. Victims of airbag fraud have found everything from packing peanuts to paper towels, old shoes to aluminum cans stuffed into steering wheel and dash-board airbag compartments to fill the space that should be taken up by the airbag.

  • Airbags—taken from salvaged or junked cars—that have not been thoroughly tested to ensure function and safety.
According to the National Association of Consumers Advocates and the Consumer Federation of America, each year approximately 2.5 million vehicles are totaled by insurance companies and issued salvage titles. More than 1 million of those—or 2 out of every 5—are rebuilt and put back on the road.

Airbag system covers can be purchased without airbags. These covers are legally available to replace covers damaged during deployment; they can make the vehicle appear cosmetically the same whether or not an airbag is included beneath it. Airbag warning lights can even be reconnected and simulate normal airbag systems when one is not present. Unfortunately, only a handful of states have laws regulating airbag system replacement.

"Replacement airbag systems may range from $1,000 to $3,000, maybe more if the dashboard shell or other dash components are damaged by the force of a passenger side deployment. Dishonest mechanics can generate a lot of money taking advantage of the unsuspecting consumer," according to Gamache.

The airbag has been stolen from this car
This car's airbag system has been stolen.

Airbag Theft

A little known fact is that air bags are now the second-most stolen item from vehicles today. Estimates are that more than 75,000 air bags are stolen every year. Many of these stolen units are then resold to crooked mechanics or over the Internet for pennies on the dollar and used as replacement systems for deployed air bags.

Air bag systems are make/model specific. If a deployed air bag is replaced with a stolen or salvaged air bag from a vehicle that does not match the year/make/model of the repaired car, the air bag may not function properly.

How to Detect and Avoid Airbag Fraud

After airbag deployment, this airbag unit was stuffed with red and grey rags instead of being repaired properly
This airbag unit was filled with red and grey rags instead of an airbag. In an accident, this dummy system would provide no protection and could even cause injury.
Order the CARFAX Vehicle History Report. The CARFAX Report will include salvage or junk titles and may include accident indicators such as frame damage or airbag deployments. If the vehicle has a salvage title or has been involved in an accident, the airbag may have deployed. Even if the airbag remained undeployed, the airbag system may still have been affected by the crash.

Turn on the ignition. The airbag indicator light should appear momentarily and then go out. If the indicator light remains on or flashes, this may indicate a problem with the airbag system.

If the airbag indicator light never comes on, then the airbag is probably missing and the bulb has been removed. Note that airbag indicator lights may not come on if the previous owner has had an on-off switch installed. If you face this situation, ask the seller or dealer to provide a copy of the NHTSA letter authorizing the switch, and have the airbag turned back on.

We recommend that you take the vehicle to a certified airbag mechanic for inspection prior to purchase to ensure a properly working airbag system.

Visit to check for airbag deployments that have been reported to CARFAX.