Airbag Safety & Airbag Fraud

Protect yourself from dangerous cars with fake, inappropriate or non-existent airbags.

“I was ready to purchase a Mitsubishi 3000gt, when I purchased a CARFAX report, as a mere precaution. Upon reading the report, I realized that my car had been in a major accident that the seller had failed to mention to me. Further investigation revealed that the airbag had been deployed and not re-installed correctly, and the frame had suffered a major impact.

CARFAX really saved me from buying a car that would now be costing me thousands in repair.” - Paul Cox

Taking the time to investigate whether the used car you’re buying has signs of airbag safety fraud could save your life in the event of an accident.

After a car is in a crash, scammers either fail to replace the airbags entirely or fit airbags from another make and model, which can mean that the airbags will not deploy properly when needed.

“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," says Larry Gamache from CARFAX.

A Victim’s Story

Sulaine Noble felt that she made a great deal on a used Honda Accord, until she was in a minor fender bender.

Puzzled by why the airbag light wouldn’t turn off after the collision, she took her car to a mechanic, who discovered that her car didn’t even have working airbags installed. It was fortunate that she was not involved in a more serious accident.

"I would never buy another car without using CARFAX to check on the title and the history of the car – it reveals a lot”, says Noble.

A minor fender bender revealed that her car didn't have an airbag.

How Airbag Scams Work

More than 75,000 airbags are stolen from cars each year and are then often sold to dishonest mechanics who use them to replace airbags in totaled cars. Others use airbags from other makes and models, and from salvaged vehicles.

Sometimes the airbag units aren’t replaced at all, instead the airbag compartments are filled with everything from packing peanuts to old shoes.

Airbags are out of sight, but airbag safety should be top of mind.

The Extent of Airbag Fraud

In a recent survey, the California Highway Alliance found that 1 in 25 previously damaged vehicles had fake or dummy airbag systems installed.

More than 1 million totaled cars are rebuilt and put back on the road every year. These rebuilt salvage cars are the most likely to have problems with their airbag systems.

"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 Kim Hazelbaker from the Highway Loss Data Institute.

How to Protect Yourself Against Airbag Fraud

“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," says Gamache.

One of the best ways of avoiding cars with fake airbags is buying through a reputable dealer. All the cars listed on CARFAX used car listings have a full CARFAX report, which lets you know about salvage title and accident history.

A CARFAX vehicle history report can also include accident indicators like airbag deployment and frame damage.

  • Turn on the ignition and check that the airbag indicator light goes on briefly and then goes out
    • If it stays on or flashes it can indicate a problem
    • If it doesn’t come on at all the airbags are probably missing and the indicator bulb removed
    • If an airbag on-off switch is installed, ask to see copy of the NHTSA letter authorizing the switch and have the airbag turned back on
  • Check the airbag covers to see if they fit properly, are branded and for any signs of tampering
  • Test how quickly the seatbelts retract
    • If this happens slowly or not at all the airbags may have not been replaced properly after deployment
  • Use CARFAX’s free airbag deployment checker
  • Order or ask to see the full CARFAX report and look for salvage titles, reported accidents and airbag deployments
  • Get the car examined by a trustworthy, independent mechanic

“I was ready to purchase a Mitsubishi 3000gt, when on my wife’s advice I went ahead and purchased a CARFAX report, as a mere precaution. Upon reading the report, I realized that my car had been in a major accident that the seller had failed to mention to me. Further investigation revealed that the airbag had been deployed and not re-installed correctly, and the frame had suffered a major impact.

CARFAX really saved me from buying a car that would now be costing me thousands in repair, and helped me buy my current car with confidence in its history. I will never buy another car without first consulting the Fox!” - Paul Cox