A Wave of Airbag Thefts Hitting the Streets

Airbags:  The New Car Stereos?

In the old days, it seemed vehicle break-ins, if criminal and frustrating, were at least understandable.  The thieves were breaking into your vehicle to steal it, or perhaps the stereo or anything of value you left on the seat or in the glove box. But a new wave of thefts has been hitting the streets in Arlington, as reported by WJILA, as well as other parts of Virginia, Maryland, and DC:  airbag thefts.  Certain counties are now averaging nearly one theft a day, and law enforcement spokespeople have started calling airbags the new car stereos.

An airbag might sound like the last thing a thief would steal, but the NICB (National Insurance Crime Bureau) explains that unscrupulous collision repair centers can make a handsome profit by installing black-market airbags in customer vehicles. The shop can charge the vehicle owner $1000 for a new airbag, then install one bought for just $50 to $200 on the black market. That’s an additional profit of $800 to $950 for the shop owner. Not only is this insurance fraud, it’s a danger to the vehicle owner, as an accidental discharge could have disastrous–and fatal–results. Unfortunately, that hasn’t deterred thieves, who stole an estimated 50,000 airbags last year, equating to a loss of around $50 million for insurance companies and policy holders. 

How to Avoid Airbag Theft

If you have a relatively common car, such as a Honda Civic or Ford truck, you may be at a greater risk of theft.

  • If you don’t have a garage, park in a well-lit area, under a streetlight if possible. If you have a carport, consider keeping the light on at night.
  • Don’t leave valuables in plain sight, of course. Since thieves are already breaking into your vehicle, they are likely to take anything else of value they see.
  • Install a device like “The Club.” Although an inconvenience to install each night, it prevents access to your airbag.

How to Avoid Airbag Fraud

The NICB has offered some tips to help avoid airbag fraud and theft. These include the following:

  • Only going to a repair shop that employs ASE-certified technicians.
  • Ask to see the airbag in its original packaging prior to installation.
  • Make sure the steering column’s new trim cover matches the rest of the interior. Look for scratches or nicks that would indicate it’s not new.

For more of such tips, check out this NICB PDF that addresses the issue.