Knockoff Airbags Are Here, and They’re Killing People

The fakes are cobbled together from junkyard parts and others of dubious origin.
Deployed air bag
Adobe

As if tens of millions of dangerous Takata airbags weren’t bad enough, there’s a new threat lurking behind some drivers’ dashboards. Their airbags may not say Takata, but they may be dangerous all the same. That’s because counterfeit airbags are a growing problem according to The Wall Street Journal, with multiple fatalities, arrests, and an unknowable number of hazardous fakes out on the roads.

In the past year, at least five Americans have reportedly been killed or seriously injured by fake car airbags. WSJ‘s feature found that the problem dates back at least as far as the Takata recall, when numerous vehicles were found to have knockoff airbag inflators. Some apparently even had empty “shells” where airbags should have been. It seems that forgeries can have the same markings as real, OEM-approved parts, making them hard to identify. Tracking them is even harder, owing to the decentralized, small-scale supply chain of the fake parts.

A car s steering wheel airbag is triggered on a street in Villeurbanne, France, on April 24, 2024.
A car’s steering wheel airbag is triggered on a street in Villeurbanne, France, on April 24, 2024. Matthieu Delaty/Hans Lucas via AFP MATTHIEU DELATY

According to WSJ, counterfeit airbags are often made from a combination of used and unapproved parts. They may reuse a factory front plate to look like an original part, but be backed by components from a junkyard, or potentially even knockoffs brought in from abroad. They’re then sometimes sold as “new” on sites like eBay at a lower cost than the OEM part, sometimes leading independent shops (well-meaning or not) to buy the cheaper, outwardly identical part.

The practice appears to be highly profitable, sometimes netting hundreds of dollars of profit per sale. Thousands may have been distributed by two unaffiliated individuals who were indicted in May—you do the math. Though tens of thousands of units have reportedly been seized in recent years, many more are suspected to have gone unreported after failing or being installed in cars without their owners’ knowledge.

It’s said that automakers are now pushing eBay to cease selling airbags and their parts on its platform, where many of the fakes are distributed. Many junkyards won’t sell used airbags either for liability reasons. For the time being, the only defense for consumers would seem to be getting airbags serviced where you know OEM parts will be used, like at a dealership. If your car has had its airbag replaced, it may be time to call up your shop and get them to show their receipts.

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