Counterfeit Car Airbags Shipped To Midstate

Counterfeit Car Airbags Shipped To Midstate

By Jennifer Kraus. CREATED Jul 8, 2013

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - If you were in a head-on collision, you'd hope your airbag would help save your life.

That's what they're supposed to do.

But, if your car's airbags aren't the real thing, meaning they weren't made by the company that made your car, you could be in serious trouble.  NewsChannel 5 Investigates found counterfeit airbags have become a real problem in the United States.

Video shot during the federal government's testing of counterfeit airbags shows what can happen in a crash. The airbag can explode, sending smoke and flying shrapnel straight into the driver's face.

"They're very dangerous. No consumer should have a counterfeit airbag in their car," said Clarence Ditlow, the head of the Center for Auto Safety in Washington, D.C.

Yet, federal safety experts fear that tens of thousands of these counterfeit airbags have made their way into the U.S. -- most of them from China.

Last fall, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) tested nearly a dozen counterfeit airbags. Ten of them barely deployed -- and clearly not enough to protect someone in an accident while one exploded.

It was not at all what you'd want either if you and your car were ever in a wreck.

Unfortunately, Ditlow said, most drivers probably will never know they've got one of these knock-off airbags until they're in a crash.

"And, at that point, it's too late -- either it works or it doesn't," he added. "And if it sends shrapnel, you're very likely to be killed or injured.

These counterfeit airbags are being put into cars and trucks to replace the original airbags after they've been in an accident. They're usually installed at smaller or independent repair and body shops -- rather than dealerships, which tend to use only manufacturer's parts.

In 2010, federal agents seized more than 300 counterfeit airbags in Chattanooga. while more than 1,600 were confiscated last summer in North Carolina.

And, earlier this year, federal agents intercepted two shipments of fake airbags on their way to U.S. Auto here in Nashville.

When NewsChannel 5 Investigates went to U.S. Auto of Nashville, we met a man who identified himself only as "Max." He said not only does he run U.S. Auto along Murfreesboro Road, but he admitted that he had ordered the airbags.

According to a federal search warrant, the airbags were from China. The invoice said only that they were steering wheel parts worth $20. They each had the familiar Honda logo on them, but Honda representatives told federal agents they were not authentic Honda products.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Max, "You all had ordered two shipments of airbags, counterfeit airbags from China. Do you know how dangerous these are?"

"If I know, I not order them," Max replied.

We asked, "You didn't know how dangerous they were or you didn't know they were counterfeit?"

"I don't know," he answered. "I don't know it's not fit to this system. It is not fit safety to the United States."

He claimed that he didn't know the airbags weren't up to U.S. safety standards.

Yet, U.S. Auto of Nashville is in the business of buying wrecked cars, fixing them up, and reselling them.

When NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Max about this, he responded, "I don't want to talk to you about this stuff."

State and federal agents are now going after those who are bringing these airbags into the U.S., although no charges have been filed against anyone with U.S. Auto.

But it's not hard to find these airbags for sale online.

On one website, we found quite a few suppliers from China selling airbags with the logos of familiar car makers. But when we contacted one of them and asked specifically if they were in fact selling Toyota airbags, the response we got said, "All our car parts are high copy quality products. It isn't made by Toyota company."

And the price for one of these airbags, in this case $78, consumer watchdog groups said will usually give you a good indication of whether an airbag has been made by the auto manufacturer or not.

"A genuine OE (original equipment) airbag, even if you can get it at discount, is going to cost you at least $200 or $300 -- and more than likely it's going to cost you upwards of $600," Ditlow said.

But as with so many things, you get what you pay for. And, with counterfeit airbags, some say, the price is just too high.

Ditlow added, "We need to do everything we can to stop these counterfeit airbags because they won't save lives. They'll take lives."

The federal government says if you've bought a used car that was in a crash within the last three years -- or had an airbag replaced in the last three years at a repair shop that is not part of a new car dealership -- you could have one of these counterfeit airbags.

NHTSA has identified dozens of makes and models for which there are counterfeit airbags out there.

To find out if your car, truck or SUV is one of those vehicles, NHTSA has put together a list of makes and models for which they've found counterfeit airbags are available. To see the list, click here.

If you think your car might have one, NHTSA recommends that you have your car inspected. All of the automakers have numbers you can call to find out where to take your car to have it done. To see the list of automakers' numbers for questions about counterfeit airbags, click here.

Keep in mind, you will have to pay for the inspection. If you do have a counterfeit airbag, you'll have to pay to replace it. But, when you consider what's at stake, it's worth the price.

For more information on counterfeit airbags, click here.

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Jennifer Kraus

Jennifer Kraus

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Jennifer Kraus is NewsChannel 5's Weekend Morning Anchor and a member of NewsChannel 5's award-winning Investigative Team.