What you need to know about counterfeit air bags

Linda Melone

During an accident, your car's air bag is the only thing between you and your car's unforgiving metal frame. An air bag is designed to inflate quickly, cushioning you and any passengers from hitting the steering wheel, windows or other objects.

If it fails to inflate properly, it's not much of a safety feature. Worse yet, if your air bag inflates and flings out shards of metal shrapnel, you could be injured by that alone.

The federal National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently alerted vehicle owners about the dangers of counterfeit airbags - products that are being sold on websites like Craigslist. The phony airbags came to the attention of the NHTSA after they were found in wrecked cars.

NHTSA officials think the issue affects less than 0.1 percent of all cars in the U.S. and involves air bags that have been replaced within the past three years.

No bargain at any price

So how do people end up purchasing counterfeit air bags? The answer: They're usually trying to save money. Legitimate air bags, along with sensors, springs and other parts necessary to replace the air bag in your vehicle, can cost several thousand dollars.

Auto insurance does typically cover new air bags for a wrecked car, says Frank Scafidi, a spokesman for the nonprofit National Insurance Crime Bureau. "Therefore," he says, "there's usually no legitimate reason for buying an air bag unless the person has picked up a salvage vehicle or one that had the air bags deployed and wants to replace the air bags and sell the vehicle."

It may be tempting to hunt on websites like Craigslist for cheap air bags, but it could end up putting your life in danger.

According to NHTSA, counterfeit air bags look nearly identical to the real things, down to the same brand symbol of major automakers. A legitimate new air bag should be packaged in a sealed container from the manufacturer. When you turn on your car's ignition, an indicator light (SRS, supplemental restraint system light) should light up in the instrument panel display, indicating activation of the air bag system. If it does not light up, it may indicate a problem.

Counterfeit air bags malfunction in a number of ways, such as catching fire or failing to inflate at all. To date, no injuries resulting from fake airbags have been reported, according to NHTSA.

Are you covered in an accident?

Fortunately, if you've purchased a phony air bag, your insurer still should cover it and any damage following an accident, insurance consultant Dan Weedin says. "You didn't do anything illegal," he says.

However, once your insurer finds out you bought a counterfeit air bag, it may track down the person who sold you the bogus bag or the person who installed it, Weedin says.

If either the seller or the air bag installer didn't take the proper precautions in ensuring the air bag was genuine, or knowingly installed a counterfeit air bag, your insurer may pursue those people for payment, Weedin says.

The biggest problem with buying an air bag is that unsuspecting consumers won't know for sure whether an air bag is safe and reliable, Scafidi says. A factory-installed air bag that has been removed from a vehicle during a theft can be used as a replacement item in a vehicle that's being repaired, he says.

"If the repair is done at some no-name shop at the end of an alley in a border town, you might want to have that work inspected at a dealership," Scafidi says. "Or it might work just fine — but that's the risk you take."

Are you at risk?

If you know you're buying a vehicle whose air bags were deployed in an accident and you're looking to replace the bags, it might be worthwhile to consult a trusted auto mechanic about buying new parts, Scafidi says.

Also, use caution when buying a used vehicle with a title that's been transferred from out of state. You might be buying a car that was totaled or salvaged, and then was spruced up to sell as a perfectly fine used car, Scafidi says. In such a case, the replacement air bags may have been incorrectly installed or never replaced at all, he says.

For more information about counterfeit air bags, visit www.safercar.gov.