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Air bag theft: A threat to your safety -- and your auto insurance rates

While most drivers know that car theft is a real risk, many aren’t aware of another vehicle-related crime that can affect their safety along with their auto insurance rates – the risk of having their air bags stolen or being victimized by air bag fraud.

“As more and more cars came equipped with air bags, we saw an increase in air bag theft,” says Kip Diggs, a spokesman for State Farm.

Although that increase has leveled off since the mid-1990s, Diggs says, it still costs insurance companies and their customers millions of dollars a year. While it's difficult to gauge the effect of a specific kind of theft on insurance premiums, air bag theft does put a dent in the optional comprehensive portion of your premium, which covers theft-related claims, Diggs says. Air bags are standard equipment on new vehicles.

Typically, a rash of air bag thefts will occur at one time, says Frank Scafidi, a spokesman for the National Insurance Crime Bureau. “If there’s a concentration of vehicles, thieves will hit a place and maybe break into eight, nine, 10 or 15 vehicles,” Scafidi says.

auto insurance air bags Theft yields big payoff

The payoff for crooks can be high. A new air bag can cost about $1,000 from a car dealer, so a disreputable repair shop could buy a stolen air bag on the black market for between $50 and $200, charge the customer the market rate and pocket the difference, the National Insurance Crime Bureau says.

An estimate of how many air bags are stolen each year isn't available.

State Farm and other auto insurers have been working with automakers and air bag suppliers to come up with solutions to the problem of air bag theft.

“We have found ways to make air bags more difficult to steal -- for example, making the car itself harder to break into, and designing the air bag module so that it can be removed only with a special tool,” Diggs says.

Another way the problem has been dealt with has been to lower the cost of some air bags, “lessening the incentive to steal them,” Diggs says.

States crack down

While the theft of any car part is undesirable, air bag theft is particularly detrimental because of the safety risks it can pose to drivers. If an air bag is stolen and reinstalled improperly or doesn’t function like it's supposed to, a driver can be seriously injured or killed if the air bag doesn’t deploy properly in an accident.

To confront the issue of air bag fraud, the National Conference of Insurance Legislators in 2009 drafted language that state insurance regulators could use to create legislation targeting air bag fraud. This language suggested criminal penalties for fraudulently installing or reinstalling an air bag. It also recommended severe penalties for those who committed air bag fraud that led to the death or serious injury of a driver or passenger.

Rhode Island, which adopted legislation targeting air bag fraud in 2010, requires anyone who sells or installs a salvaged air bag to disclose that information, as well as maintain records of the air bag’s purchase -- giving consumers a paper trail showing that an air bag was purchased legitimately.

Even in states where there are no laws governing air bags, consumers who think they’ve been ripped off by air bag fraud can contact their state’s attorney general to file a complaint.

An ounce of prevention

To prevent air bag thefts, consumers should take the same precautions they’d take to avoid the theft of anything in their vehicles, Scafidi says. Among the suggestions:

• Keep your car locked when it's parked.

• Park in well-lit areas.

• Consider installing security devices such as alarms to deter thieves.

• Keep packages and other valuables out of sight so thieves have less of an incentive to break into your car.

If you’re having an air bag installed or buying a used car, the National Insurance Crime Bureau also recommends the following tips to avoid air bag fraud.

When having an air bag installed:

• Check the invoice to make sure the air bag actually was purchased from a manufacturer or dealer.

• Ask whether you can inspect the air bag before installation. Look for sealed packaging from the manufacturer.

When buying a used car:

• Make sure the cover over the steering column is the same color as the interior. If the colors are different, this could indicate the original air bag was replaced, because “when thieves try to rip them out of the dashboard, they’ll cut through the plastic,” Scafidi says.

• Be sure the indicator for the air bag system lights up on the instrument panel when you turn on the vehicle’s ignition, the bureau says. If the light doesn’t come on, there could be a problem with the system, meaning the air bags might not be activated in an accident.

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