Natalie Aviña-Lopez was visiting Disneyland in July when she got an alarming text from her mother.
Someone had broken into Aviña-Lopez’s 2017 Honda Civic, which was parked in the driveway of her Los Angeles-area home in Montclair, California.
But unlike the past, when a perpetrator might have swiped the car radio, the thief stole something much more valuable: the driver-side airbag.
The repairs and replacement parts cost Aviña-Lopez $2,000, including her $500 insurance deductible.
“My first reaction was shock,” the Citrus College student says. “Like, what the hell? Why do they need an airbag?”
She’s not alone. Criminals throughout the country are stealing airbags out of relatively new Honda cars for apparent resale to questionable repair shops or unsuspecting online customers, according to police records and USA TODAY research.
Law enforcement authorities in several major markets, including Miami, New York City and the Washington, D.C. area, have noticed a flurry of recent thefts.
The pattern is difficult to quantify because the intensely local nature of component theft investigations means no national data is available. The FBI and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration say they don’t track airbag thefts.
The National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) estimates that about 50,000 airbags are stolen annually. But the group is not actually tracking the numbers to spot trends such as why recent-model Hondas might be at higher risk.
In general, though, airbags are a lucrative target for thieves. They’re expensive – with prices sometimes topping $1,000 – and easy to portray as legitimate.
Criminals typically gain entry to a vehicle parked in an open lot, cut open the steering wheel and extract the device. Other airbags in the vehicle are rarely targeted, possibly because they’re less likely to deploy and thus less likely to be in need of replacement.
“Because of their portability, airbags can be easily removed and installed as ‘new’ by unscrupulous collision repair shops,” the NICB says. “These dishonest operators will then charge the vehicle owner or their insurer the full price for the replacement, thus committing insurance fraud.”
Why a recent spike? And why Honda? Authorities aren’t sure.
But a spate of airbag recalls in recent years – including the largest in U.S. history that required auto suppliers to scramble to make the new parts – may have increased demand for replacements.
“They are in short supply because of all the recalls they have on them,” says Roger Morris, chief communications officer for the NICB.
Where it's happening
Florida is a hot spot for airbag theft. In Miami-Dade County alone, thieves stole 875 airbags in 2017, up from 38 in 2013, according to police records obtained by USA TODAY through the Freedom of Information Act.
Almost without fail, thieves are targeting recent-model Honda vehicles, primarily the Civic and Accord sedans:
• Northern Virginia: Several communities in the Washington, D.C. area have been hit with airbag theft in recent months, including Arlington, Alexandria and Herndon.
In early July, for example, the parking lots of three apartment complexes near one another in Arlington’s Pentagon City neighborhood were the targets of airbag theft on the same night.
The perpetrator or perpetrators worked methodically, breaking into 37 vehicles, according to police records obtained by USA TODAY through FOIA.
And all 37 vehicles were Hondas. Each vehicle whose model year was available in police reports was no older than the 2012 model year.
• New York City: Thieves have stolen more than 409 airbags from vehicles in New York since the start of 2017, according to figures provided by the New York Police Department. (Figures from the last four months of 2017 were not available.)
The targeted cars were “mostly late-model Honda Accords and Civics,” Detective Sophia Mason of the New York City Police Department tells USA TODAY in an email.
• Florida: It's not just Miami-Dade. Other areas of southern and central Florida have been targeted, as well, including Osceola County and Broward County.
In Kissimmee, Florida, more than three hours north of Miami, three hotel parking lots were targeted in one night in early February, according to police records.
The 14 vehicles that were targeted were all Hondas, and they were no older than the 2013 model year: five Civics, four Accords, four CR-Vs and one Pilot.
“The suspect had the same Modus Operandi,” Luis Fernandez of the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office, writes in his police report. “All vehicle(s) were Honda's, the driver side lock (was) popped off and the locks were punched, and the air bags from the steering wheel were the only part taken.”
It’s not clear why Hondas are being targeted.
Honda spokesman Chris Martin said the company doesn’t track component theft figures.
“There’s no way for us to really know because owners don’t report to us when parts have been stolen,” he says. “But we are certainly not unaware of the fact that Hondas have been a target of parts theft for many years simply based on the popularity of models in this market.”
He noted that Honda vehicles are among the best-sellers in their segments, making them easy to find.
But that doesn’t necessarily explain why thieves would target them specifically for airbag theft.
Which raises an obvious question for auto industry experts: Could there be a connection to the ongoing Takata airbag recall, which involves about 37 million U.S. vehicles, including most other automakers? Have criminals figured out how to capitalize financially on the Takata scandal?
Of all the automakers affected by the Takata airbags, Honda had the most.
Nearly 12 million Honda vehicles in the U.S., including some of the automaker’s luxury Acura models, were subject to recalls to replace the defective airbags. The defective parts were prone to exploding upon deployment, especially after years spent in hot, humid weather.
But of the individual episodes of airbag theft reviewed by USA TODAY, none of the Honda vehicles targeted were subject to the Takata recall. All were newer models.
Honda’s Martin said there “should be no linkage” between the Takata recall and airbag theft.
Andreas Bartelt, spokesperson for airbag maker Joyson Safety Systems, which owns the operation formerly known as Takata, says in an email that the company has observed airbag thefts over “many years, but I can’t say if there is an influence from the Takata airbag recall.”
John Wilkerson, a spokesman for another major airbag parts maker, ZF, said the company does not have data on airbag theft.
The Automotive Safety Council, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the Center for Auto Safety, the Insurance Information Institute, the Auto Care Association, the Automotive Service Association and the National Auto Body Council also said they didn’t have insight into the issue.
What’s certain is that the financial incentive for thieves is significant. The average airbag on a 2017 Honda Accord, for example, cost about $989, according to Honda.
Black market airbags are generally sold online for $200 to $300, says William Ross, deputy director of the federal government’s National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center, which investigates bogus parts.
Buyers often include people who are doing car repairs at home to save money or as a makeshift business, Ross says.
At a dealership or reputable repair shop, the price of getting your airbag replaced after deployment in a crash can escalate to between $2,000 and $3,000 when including labor costs, says William Hawkins, a repair shop manager in Annapolis, Maryland, and board member of the Washington Metropolitan Auto Body Association.
Insurance companies can be the victims of fraud when an illicit shop installs a black market airbag but files a claim for the full cost of a new one.
Multiple insurance companies declined to comment or did not respond to requests seeking comment for this story.
“The insurance told me that it wasn’t the first time they had seen it – that they had been getting it a lot,” says Aviña-Lopez, the Montclair, California, resident whose Civic airbag was stolen.
While the National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center does not have data on airbag theft, Ross says the center is “aware that’s happening.” He says the organization’s black market airbag efforts focus primarily on stemming the flow of counterfeit parts from China to the U.S.
Ross says black market airbags don’t typically “infiltrate the legitimate supply chain” of dealerships and upstanding repair shops. Instead, he says, they often end up for sale on dubious websites. He says the group has worked closely with eBay and Amazon to roll out policies banning illicit airbags, but that it's impossible to stop it altogether.
While authorities suspect that people have been killed as a result of black market airbags failing to perform properly, Ross says it’s difficult to say definitively because such tests aren’t typically conducted after the fact to ascertain whether an airbag was authentically obtained.
Contributing: Detroit Free Press reporter Ann Zaniewski