A deployed air bag.
A deployed air bag.
Your car's air bag compartment might be missing something important: an air bag.
A Weekend Edition investigation last week showed that some unscrupulous auto repair shops and dealers have victimized consumers by selling vehicles without working air bags or failing to replace air bags that had deployed in a crash.
Victims have found their air bag compartments stuffed with beer cans, packing peanuts and paper. Sometimes the old, used air bag is just jammed back in. And sometimes the compartment is empty.
The consequences can be deadly, so what's being done to protect consumers?
A Problem For States To Solve?
No one knows the number of people who have been victims of air bag fraud. No agency — not even the insurance industry — collects data to show how often it occurs. But in January, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a report that reviewed 1,446 fatal crashes and found that in nearly a fifth of the cases, the air bags had not been replaced after a previous accident. An agency official says they didn't look into why the bags were missing, but they believe that at least some of those cases involved air bag fraud.
So whose responsibility is it to track this deadly scam? "It's a big mish-mash," says Jim Quiggle, director of communications for the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud, a nonprofit alliance of insurance companies and consumer groups. "The feds have taken a hands-off position on this, and they're leaving it up to the states to decide what the standards should be ... about what legally you can and cannot do in terms of installing air bags."
The trouble is that each state has a different way to deal with air bag fraud. Auto insurance is regulated by states. So are auto repair shops and used car dealers.
Some states have made it a felony to sell phony air bags. In California, violators face up to a year in prison and a $5,000 fine. In other states, there are no laws at all.
"And even though the states are passing laws that are ... tightening the noose around crooked transactions," Quiggle says, "the fact is that this is still not as high a visibility issue."
Visibility, literally, may partly explain the lack of response from consumer protection agencies, Quiggle says. "The fraud is hidden inside an air bag compartment, away from prying eyes. It's not there in the open."
How To Spot Air Bag Fraud
Without broad protections in place, it's up to consumers to recognize and avoid air bag fraud. A good place to start that education is a reputable auto repair shop.
If your car's air bag light is on, that's a clear indication that something's not right, says Tiffany Duncan, general manager of Elite Auto Haus in Silver Spring, Md. And the seat belts should retract normally — if they're slow or don't retract at all, she says that's a big warning sign that the air bags have been deployed and not replaced.
Duncan also suggests examining the area around the air bag compartment for little tears in the dashboard that could signify the air bag has been deployed.
But the best way to know whether your air bag is safe is to take the car to a certified mechanic whom you know and trust. "It doesn't take very long for somebody that knows what they're looking at to ... see if the vehicle is in good condition," Duncan says.
Turn to a trusted professional for installing air bags, Duncan recommends. She warns that installing air bags properly requires recalibrating the system to react in the exact time frame the manufacturer originally intended. "If it wasn't done properly, [the air bags] may still deploy, but not in a tenth of a second," Duncan explains. "They may deploy in two-tenths of a second, and sometimes that's too late."
In addition, manufacturers require that other repairs be made when an air bag is installed — such as putting in sensors, control modules and new seat belts, Duncan adds. And there's no way to know whether this has been done correctly just by looking at a car.
Taking Action, Fighting Back
Car owners also can use some tools to research their vehicle's history.
Private companies such as CARFAX allow a consumer to check their database to see if a car has been in a previous accident or sustained other damage that might impair the air bag system.
Next year, consumers in every state will be able to access a U.S. Justice Department database designed to provide information about cars that have been totaled in crashes or damaged in floods. Insurance companies and junk and salvage yards will be required to submit data about those cars every month.
Even with these tools, Quiggle says car owners can still become victims. And if that happens, he says, they need to fight back.
"The first thing you do is you go to the attorney general's office," he says. "You go to the state's insurance department if this looks like a bogus insurance claim. You go to the local police. You go to every law enforcement agency in the book to try to out the provider of the scheme."
In the end, it's still buyer beware for consumers, who must educate themselves and be on guard.
That's a lesson Lynette Loretto learned all too well. The mother of three who lives in a pueblo near Albuquerque, N.M., was so angry when she found out her used Chevy Cavalier had no working air bags that she took action. She sued the dealer who sold her the car. The dealer settled the case for an undisclosed sum but did not admit fault. Loretto warns that if consumers don't do their homework, they can end up victims, too.
"Be very cautious of who you're buying the car from. Looks aren't everything," Loretto warns. "Take somebody [with you], ask them for their advice if they know more about cars than you, 'cause it'll help out in the long run."
Produced by Charla Bear