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Feds warn of counterfeit airbags being installed as replacements

By Mike M. Ahlers, CNN
updated 10:20 PM EDT, Wed October 10, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Counterfeit airbags have been sold as replacements for U.S. cars
  • In tests, fake bags failed to work, and one even exploded, authorities say
  • Only a small fraction of cars have the bad bags, officials say

Washington (CNN) -- Car owners who have replaced a vehicle's airbag in the past three years, take note: That new airbag could be an unsafe fake.

Federal officials on Wednesday warned motorists and auto shops that counterfeit airbags pose a danger to consumers, saying the bags could fail to deploy or even hurt people in car wrecks.

Concerns over counterfeit airbags heightened last month when authorities tested 10 fake airbags seized as part of a criminal investigation. All 10 failed, authorities said. Some failed to inflate, others partially inflated and one exploded, showering the crash test dummy with metal shrapnel.

To date, there are no known injuries or deaths resulting from the counterfeits, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said. But officials said they fear the counterfeits could hurt motorists and passengers if they go undetected.

"These seemingly genuine airbags are in fact shoddy fakes," said John Morton, director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which seized 2,500 counterfeit airbags during fiscal 2012. "These airbags don't work. They're not going to save you in an accident. They are a fraud and a danger from start to finish, and you don't want them in your car, period."

Officials cautioned that only a small fraction of all cars -- estimated at 0.1% -- have the counterfeit airbags.

"They are good fakes. They look like the real thing," said David Strickland, administrator of National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "And frankly, a consumer is not going to be in a position to figure out whether they have a fake or a real airbag."

The agency said the following people may be most at risk:

-- Those who have had airbags replaced in the past three years at a repair shop that is not part of a new car dealership.

-- Those who have purchased a used car but are not familiar with its history.

-- Those who own a car with a title branded salvage, rebuilt or reconstructed.

-- Those who have purchased replacement airbags over the Internet, especially at unusually low prices, such as less than $400.

If motorists suspect they may have a counterfeit airbag, they should contact call centers established by car manufacturers to have their vehicles inspected. A list of call centers is available at www.SaferCar.gov.

Government and industry officials noted that consumers will bear the cost of inspections. "The bad actors here are the counterfeiters," said A. Bailey Wood Jr., a spokesman for the National Automobile Dealers Association.

Wood estimated the cost of inspecting airbags at between $100 and $200, and the cost of replacing a steering wheel airbag at between $750 and $1,000. "And some cars have eight airbags," he said.

Strickland said his agency is working with automakers to develop a system to verify authentic replacement parts and to raise awareness of the potential risks of counterfeit parts.

Morton said earlier this year that customs agents arrested a Chinese broker selling nine brands of counterfeit airbags in the United States. That broker has been convicted and is in prison, Morton said, and multiple investigations into other brokers are continuing.

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