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CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) -
Thousands of drivers may be on the roads in vehicles with faulty counterfeit airbags.
The U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has issued a consumer safety advisory about the counterfeit bags.
Homeland Security tells WBTV a raid that took place in Indian Trail over the summer is related to this new warning. Officials say the raid is not the only reason, but is part of the investigation.
Replacement airbags will need to be replaced, at the owner's expense. That is because the airbags are not a manufacturing defect, and there hasn't been an actual recall.
"The bad actor here is the counterfeiters," said Bailey Wood, a spokesman for the National Automobile Dealers Association. "Because of that, the cost to have an airbag evaluated and possibly replaced is going to be borne by the consumer."
The NHTSA says drivers most at risk are those who have replaced their air bags in the last three years at a shop other than the car dealership.
Officials also said only 0.1 percent of the U.S. vehicle fleet are makes and models for which counterfeit air bags are known to be available. That's about 250,000 vehicles.
The government tested eleven counterfeit bags last month and found ten of them did not inflate, or failed to inflate properly.
In one test, a counterfeit bag shot flames and shards of metal shrapnel at a crash dummy – instead of inflating.
NHTSA Administrator David Strickland showed a video of that test at a news conference earlier Wednesday.
"It is an extreme safety risk," said Strickland.
No deaths or injuries have been tied to the counterfeit bags, but it's unclear if investigators would be able to identify a counterfeit bag from a genuine bag.
About 1.5 million airbags are deployed each year in police-reported crashes, according to the Center for Auto Safety.
Clarence Ditlow, the executive director of the Center for Auto Safety says, "Airbags save several thousands of live annually. But they can't save lives if they have not been repaired properly."
The counterfeit airbags were manufactured by purchasing genuine auto airbags that were torn down and used to make molds to produce the counterfeit bags.
Trademark emblems were purchased through Honda, Toyota, Audi, BMW and other dealerships located in China and affixed to the counterfeit airbags.
The airbags were advertised on a website for "Guangzhou Auto Parts". The bags sold for approximately $50 to $70 each, far below the value of an authentic airbag, according to an official statement.
About 2,500 counterfeit airbags have been seized by law enforcement authorities so far this year, John Morton, director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, told reporters. Investigations are under way in several locations around the country, and further arrests and seizures are expected, he said.
Counterfeiting of a wide variety of auto parts has long been a well-known problem, industry officials said. But recent incidents have escalated concern by government officials.
In August, federal agents confiscated nearly 1,600 counterfeit airbags and arrested a North Carolina auto mechanic. Igor Borodin is in federal custody facing several charges.
Court documents allege Borodin made $1.4 million from the airbags, and sold over 7,000. Borodin's attorney did not respond to WBTV's request for an interview.
The story expands to others. Dai Zhensong, a Chinese citizen, pleaded guilty and was sentenced in federal court in Chattanooga, Tenn., last February to 37 months in prison for trafficking in counterfeit airbags, according to a statement made at the time by the U.S. Attorney's Office.
Zhensong was a part owner and manager of the international department of Guangzhou Auto Parts, which made a variety of auto parts, many of which were counterfeit, the statement said. In 2010, he traveled from China to Chattanooga to sell additional counterfeit airbags and other auto parts.
Counterfeit bags are marketed to auto repair and body shops as the real deal, industry officials said. Auto dealerships that operate their own body shops are usually required by their franchise agreements to buy their parts, including airbags, directly from automakers and therefore are unlikely to have installed counterfeit bags.
But only 37 percent of auto dealers have their own body shops, according to the automobile dealers association. Many consumers whose vehicles have been damaged are referred by their insurance companies to auto body shops that aren't affiliated with an automaker.
NHTSA compiled a list of dozens of vehicle makes and models for which counterfeit airbags may be available. The agency cautions – the full scope of the problem is not yet clear, and officials expect the list to evolve.
The National Automobile Dealers Association says fees for checking out airbags - a complex and technical process - could run between $100 to $200.
The cost of replacing a driver's side center column airbag is $750 to $1,000, he said. Other airbags may be more.
Some types of cars have as many as eight airbags.
Brian Davies of Bodyworks Plus in Charlotte says when drivers have airbags installed in their vehicles, they should ask to see a copy of the airbag invoice that comes with the shipment. He says legitimate airbags come in special boxes, taped a certain way with the invoice.
Davies says the invoice shows a "legitimate part number that identifies that unit".