The auto industry cautioned that drivers who have had their factory-installed air bags replaced should contact the shop or dealer that did the installation to determine whether the new bags are bogus.
"Organized criminals are selling dangerous counterfeit and substandard air bags to consumers and suppliers with little to no regard to hazardous health and safety consequences," said John Morton, director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said the air bags are nearly identical to original equipment and bear the insignia and brand names of major automakers. But testing of the bogus bags revealed a range of malfunctions, including non-deployment and metal shrapnel scattering during deployment.
NHTSA said it was not aware of any resulting deaths or injuries and estimated that the problem could affect fewer than 0.1 percent of vehicles on the road. It said that only vehicles that have had an air bag replaced within the past three years by a repair shop that is not part of a new-car dealership may be at risk.
"We want consumers to be immediately aware of this problem and to review our safety information to see if their vehicle could be in need of inspection," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who added that a list of call centers and additional information is at www.safercar.gov.
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, an industry trade group, said that drivers who purchased an air bag online or through auction sites should promptly determine whether the equipment is counterfeit.
"Today's announcement by the government that some consumers may have counterfeit air bags installed in their vehicles highlights a growing problem," the group said.
"The proliferation of counterfeit auto replacement parts is a global concern because the lower quality of many copy-cat products poses potentially serious safety implications for drivers and occupants. Many independent repair shops may have thought they were buying quality original equipment manufacturer parts but instead received fake or rebuilt parts. ... Counterfeiting thrives when it is difficult to spot a fake."
NHTSA Administrator David Strickland said his agency has been working with a number of other government agencies -- including ICE, Customs and Border Protection, and the Justice Department's intellectual property rights division -- to prevent counterfeit air bags from being sold and installed.
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