California passes new law to stop air bag repair scams

Consumer Reports News: October 04, 2011 01:53 PM

Over the weekend, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a new law supported by Consumers Union to protect consumers from dealerships and repair shops installing fraudulent air bags. This new crime in the state will carry a fine of $5,000 and/or one year in prison.

There have been a number of cases in California where air bags were either missing, never replaced after a previous crash, or filled with other material. In 2009, a San Diego couple was awarded $15 million dollars from an auto repair shop because their son was killed in a car accident due to a fraudulent air bag that was filled with paper instead of a new air bag.

Some repair shops have even stuffed air bags with aluminum cans, shoe leather, or packaging material.

It is not known how many cases have occurred from this practice, but the most common reason for a faulty air bag is that it was missing or not replaced after a crash. Fatalities are likely in crashes where air bags do not perform properly.

This scam is a profitable one for dealerships and independent repair shops and can work in a few ways. Shops can order cheap repair parts online and charge the customer the full price for the air bag or they could put other material in the air bag and never install the new air bag at all, but charge the customer for the parts and labor of a new air bag. Replacing air bags is costly; it can run you over $1,000 to install and set up properly.

Here are ways to ensure you don’t get scammed by air bag fraud, which can be more prevalent on used or salvaged cars, but is still a concern if you need to get an air bag fixed or replaced.

Check the air bag light. When you turn on the ignition the air bag indicator light should appear for a few seconds then shut off. If it stays on or flashes, there may be a problem with the air bag. If no light appears there may be no air bag installed.

Get a vehicle history report.
While not foolproof, history reports may indicate whether the vehicle has been in an accident. If so, take the car to a mechanic to see if new air bags were installed. Consider a free VINCheck from the National Insurance Crime Bureau or the federal government's National Motor Vehicle Title Information Systems database. (Read: "Don't rely on used-car-history reports.")

Use a reputable shop. Check with the Better Business Bureau to make sure the shop you plan to use doesn’t have any complaints.

Check your invoice.
Make sure the repair shop bought the correct air bag from a dealer or manufacturer.

Need repair work on your vehicle? This new subscriber feature can provide a no-obligation car repair or maintenance estimate based on prices in your area. Plus, this tool can provide information about the service and related parts to help communicate with your mechanic and make an informed decision.

Liza Barth

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