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Clamps, Locks, Lights Thwart Air-Bag Thieves

November 8, 1995

Do you know where your air bag is?

If you’re away from your car, don’t answer too quickly. Air bags are rapidly surpassing radios and hubcaps as the prime target of the automotive underground market. From California to Connecticut, thieves have been ripping the bags out of cars with relative ease.

To make air-bag thieves work harder, an estimated 50 antitheft products have recently gone on the market. Many of the devices are available at auto-supply stores, though some have to be purchased through mail-order catalogs. They range in price from $39.95 to $99.95.

``No one realized that air bags have a street value to crooks,″ says Greg Kolle, vice president of K.B.K. International Inc., which makes The Lock, a steel clamp that fits around the inside of the steering wheel, cutting off a thief’s access to the bolts that keep the bag locked in the steering column. ``Now the problem is big enough that it’s forcing all of us to develop something.″

Georgina Moreno of Rosemead, Calif., had no such device and didn’t know air-bag theft was a problem until it happened to her. In March, she returned from a lunch appointment to find a hole in the steering wheel of her 1994 Honda Civic. Someone had swiped her air bag from her locked car without even breaking a window.

``I could understand if they had taken my radio,″ Ms. Moreno says. ``But my air bag? What do you do with a stolen air bag?″

Here’s what: A thief pops an unprotected air bag out of a steering column by unscrewing a few bolts and snipping a couple of wires. It takes about 60 seconds. The thief then sells the air bag to a dishonest repair shop, which pays anywhere from $50 to $100, police say.

These repair shops then install the stolen air bags in collision-damaged cars _ after an insurance investigator pays out the $900 to $1,500 the shop charges for a replacement bag (not including installation). The shop owner then pockets the difference between the $100 a thief might receive and the hundreds paid out by the insurance company.

``If it wasn’t for corrupt repair shops, air-bag theft wouldn’t exist,″ says Jon Hoch of the National Insurance Crime Bureau, which tracks auto-related theft. ``They’re the people recruiting crooks, and they’re what’s driving demand.″

The insurance industry estimates that air-bag theft represented 5 percent of all auto-related theft claims filed in 1994. The insurance-crime bureau calculates it will jump to 20 percent of auto-related theft claims by the time car makers meet Congress’s 1998 mandate requiring both driver-side and passenger air bags in all vehicles. (None of the new devices protects passenger-side air bags.) Air bags were first installed in a few cars in the 1970s as an experimental safety product. Nearly 22 million vehicles now have driver-side air bags _ most of which are ripe for the taking.

Besides The Lock, new air-bag theft deterrents include Wolo Manufacturing Corp.‘s Security Pal and Shield, which comes with an electronic motion sensor that triggers a light and an alarm, and Etc’cessories Inc.’s The Cap, which looks like a Frisbee, covers the entire steering wheel and works in tandem with most security steering-wheel locks. Winner International, maker of The Club steering lock, now offers the Airbag and Steering Wheel Shield, two steel triangles that cover the steering wheel and are locked in place by The Club.

Even unprotected air bags can deter thieves, sometimes causing them physical harm. The devices are triggered by a small amount of gunpowder and can explode, depending on how they are removed. Los Angeles police learned that the hard way, when an air bag discharged and rocketed 50 feet into the air. Now the bomb squad detonates any air bag that is booked into evidence.

Putting air-bag thieves out of business, however, is a much more daunting task, investigators note. ``The problem law enforcement has is that the serial numbers on air bags are concealed inside the bag,″ observes Jerry Smith, who investigates car theft in the Washington, D.C., area for the insurance-crime bureau. ``I would have to literally disassemble the vehicle in order to tell if the bag was stolen.″

The insurance industry and police are pressing car makers to code the bags with the vehicle’s identification number. That would allow police to quickly check to see if the bag has been reported stolen.

As it now stands, ``if you discovered your air bag was stolen and you knew it was just down the street in a truck with dozens of other air bags, there isn’t much we could do because air bags can’t be traced,″ explains Detective Robert Graybill, head of the auto-theft task force in California’s San Fernando Valley.

Detective Graybill’s squad recently nabbed an air-bag thief who was brazen enough to advertise in a local paper. Reachable only by pager, the man was selling hundreds of the devices a week. Police zeroed in after they saw him going from house to house snatching air bags from cars left in driveways. ``We got lucky with him,″ he says. ``In a lot of cases, we end up giving the bags back to the crooks because we can’t prove they’re stolen.″

The new antitheft devices will undoubtedly deter thieves, but ``nothing is going to be 100 percent,″ observes Jerry Carrino, vice president of marketing for Winner International. ``The idea is to make the crooks think twice about going after your air bag.″

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