Vehicles in which air bags have been activated are sometimes refurbished with false or faulty replacements and resold to unsuspecting customers in the United States, the New York Times (NYT) reported, citing the Automotive Occupant Restraints Council.

The NYT said that used vehicles with collision or flood damage have been found with rags, towels, cans or other materials stuffed in their air bag units while some used cars have remanufactured air bags, which have been made from parts from different vehicles and are considered inferior to factory air bags.

The extent of the problem is unclear, the NYT said, adding that industry experts and law enforcement officials estimate that thousands of vehicles with false or remanufactured air bags are on the road in North America and some say the total number may be much higher.

The council told the NYT that, last year, two deaths were linked to defective or remanufactured air bags.

The NYT said that few states require air bags to be replaced in vehicles after they have been deployed but it is illegal in some states to sell used vehicles under the pretence that they are equipped with air bags and other safety features, when they are missing.

The NYT said that, in addition to laws regulating fraud, 14 states, including Connecticut, have legislation barring false or remanufactured air bags. Penalties for deceptive installation practices range from several hundred dollars in fines to a year in jail.

Vehicles that have been declared ‘total losses’ after a collision are especially vulnerable to air bag deception, the New York Times said.

When repair costs exceed the value of cars, insurance companies often put them up for auction and salvage companies that repair and resell vehicles sometimes seek cars and trucks in which the air bags have been deployed, then sell the repaired vehicles to buyers who are charged for safety features that were not installed, the newspaper added.

The council recommends that owners of used vehicles check to see whether their vehicles have a functioning air bag, the NYT said.