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AIR BAG THEFTS ARE TAKING OFF IN THE VALLEY.

Byline: Jesse Hiestand Daily News Staff Writer

The evacuation of a Van Nuys apartment complex Friday because of an unexploded, stolen air bag reveals what police say is a thriving, illegal trade in these car safety devices.

In the San Fernando Valley, investigators suspect there is at least one roving gang of thieves that specializes in taking orders from body shops and then going out to steal them.

Nationwide, an estimated $50 million worth of air bags are stolen every year, accounting for 10 percent of all auto theft claims in 1997, double that of just the year before, insurance industry officials said.

``It's basically a replacement for the car stereo theft of the '80s and early '90s,'' said Julie Rochman, spokeswoman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, based in Arlington, Va. ``The air bags the thieves are going after are worth more than any other item in the passenger compartment.''

Following a crash, a new air bag can cost $1,000, but police said unscrupulous body shops buy stolen ones for $150 apiece and then charge $1,500, including the installation.

And removing an explosively armed air bag, particularly if it is done in a hurry, can leave a car in bad shape.

``When air bags are stolen, they damage the steering wheel, the dash or cut the wiring harness,'' said Frank Tomota, a service consultant at West Valley Toyota in Northridge.

Insurance premiums are not expected to rise because officials said the growing cost of air bag thefts is offset by an overall decline in auto thefts.

The real losers are the motorists because with every theft, they must pay the deductible amount, arrange for the repairs and risk driving without an air bag.

The air bag that was found unexploded in Van Nuys on Friday is among the 12 or so that police said are stolen every month in the Valley. Detectives came upon it by happenstance while making an arrest at the Royal Garden Apartments at 14625 Rayen St. About 24 people were evacuated because the air bags contain an explosive charge that can launch its 25-pound metal casing some 80 feet, police said.

Details about the arrest were not immediately available, but police said they believe the air bag had been stolen, and that they were trying to track down the owner.

Often a group of thieves hits three or four cars on a street or parking lot and then steals from a neighbor a week or two later, said Detective Bob Graybill of the LAPD's auto-theft task force in Van Nuys.

The thieves almost always are filling an order from an auto body shop whose owner is trying to cut costs to maximize the payout from the insurance company, he said. This can include splicing, instead of replacing, the wiring harness attached to the air bag, or in some cases not installing an air bag at all.

``The car looks good and the customer is very happy - and until he gets involved in a crash again and finds out if the air bag works or not, nobody's going to know these are used air bags the guy jury-rigged in there,'' Graybill said.

Los Angeles police are attacking the problem through stepped-up inspections of auto shops to ensure owners are licensed and have receipts for uninstalled air bags.

By a conservative estimate, 50,000 air bags were stolen in the United States in 1996, roughly triple that of 1993, said Ed Sparkman, a senior manager of vehicle support at the National Insurance Crime Bureau in Palos Hills, Ill.

That equates to a $50 million loss to the insurance industry, assuming the average replacement cost for an air bag is $1,000, he said.

The actual rate of these thefts is believed to be much higher since these statistics did not account for the commercial auto market and because theft of air bags from rental cars, often by the person renting the car, is booming, he said.

The industry and law enforcement are now mulling over ways to combat air bag theft by using a national registry of serial numbers.

Auto parts stores sell anti-theft devices for drivers' air bags, which attach to the steering wheel or special bolts that make it more difficult for a thief to remove the safety device.

``It's definitely a growing problem,'' said Dave Unnewehr, a research manager with the American Insurance Association in Washington, D.C.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Date:Jun 13, 1998
Words:737
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