Howard, Montgomery police seeing a string of auto air bag thefts

More than 40 vehicles' safety devices stolen since Sept., they say

December 15, 2004|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,SUN STAFF

Driven by a lucrative black market trade, thieves have snatched more than three dozen air bags from vehicles in Howard and Montgomery counties since early September.

Howard police said yesterday that 27 vehicles have had at least one air bag stolen since early September. Montgomery police said that thieves stole air bags from 14 vehicles during a two-week spree early last month.

Air bag thefts, which have increased nationwide since the early 1990s by some estimates, have triggered concerns among consumer advocates, who blame faulty or fraudulent air bags for motorists' injuries.

Authorities believe that stolen air bags are sold on the black market and could eventually be reused by repair, body or auto parts shops.

Retail prices for air bags on late-model vehicles can run from $600 to more than $1,200 apiece. But a glimpse at online auction sites shows that air bags can be bought for about half those amounts, letting thieves turn a profit for a few minutes' effort.

"We think these can be taken out in under two minutes by an experienced person," said Pfc. David Proulx, a Howard police spokesman.

Typically, someone breaks a car window and pops open the car hood. The car battery is disconnected so that any alarm is deactivated and the power to the air bag is cut. Then the air bag is unbolted from the steering wheel, police said.

"We know there's quite an after-market outside of the legitimate market for sales of these air bags," said Officer Derek Baliles, a Montgomery County police spokesman.

In Howard, the break-ins have involved vehicles parked in apartment and townhome complexes and have occurred mainly overnight in North Laurel, Columbia and Elkridge. Proulx said the police have increased patrols in areas that they think are being targeted.

In Montgomery, police said that all of the air bag thefts occurred overnight in Bethesda neighborhoods early last month and that only Honda vehicles were targeted.

Authorities could not say whether it was an individual or a team of thieves at work.

Other items, such as money or electronic equipment, also were stolen in some incidents in both counties, police said.

The Insurance Information Institute estimates that more than 75,000 air bags are stolen yearly, at a cost of more than $50 million for owners and insurers.

Rosemary Shahan, president of Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety, based in Sacramento, Calif., said that a black market exists because the technology is so effective -- and that it likely will worsen because new vehicles are being made with more varieties of air bags, such as the side-curtain variety.

"You have unscrupulous chop shops that get rebuilt wrecks who will buy air bags, and they may not even fit in the cars," Shahan said.

Ed Kriston, an auto repair specialist with AAA Mid-Atlantic, said that consumers should seek out reputable repair or body shops, preferably ones that have attained national certifications.

"The people you find some having a problem with is the back alley fly-by-night shop," Kriston said.

"If [air bag installation] is being done under insurance, the insurance company is usually going to require either a new air bag or [a refurbished] air bag from an approved automotive recycler," he said

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