Used Car Dealer in Philly Smuggled and Installed Hundreds of Dangerous Counterfeit Airbags From China, Putting Hundreds At Risk

Between all the Takata airbags mess and now this, who knew we’d learn to fear our airbags so much? A Philly man faces felony charges due to smuggling counterfeit airbags from China and installing them in his used cars. The alleged fraudulent activity has landed this used car dealer in some hot water.

deployed airbag
Deployed airbag | Getty images

It turns out that there are a lot of rules around airbags

According to the Philly Voice, Emiliano Rodriguez is a trained mechanic from the Dominican Republic. He is charged with smuggling and installing counterfeit airbags into used cars and selling them. The prosecutors are accusing Rodriguez of tricking customers from at least as early as 2017 and up until 2019. 

Counterfeit airbags that are imported to the United States can slip past testing and regulations. Needless to say, these counterfeit airbags have not been proven safe to use. China is the world’s largest exporter of these dangerous counterfeit commodities, including airbags that people can use to increase profit margins on the sale of used vehicles. The same practice is done with other car parts, as well. 

How’d he get caught? 

reloading an airbag into a steering wheel
airbag | Jens Wolf/dpa

Customs agents discovered a poorly wrapped parcel with 12 airbag inflators coming from Hong Kong to Philadelphia. The package was so sketchy-looking that it was turned over to Homeland Security as possible counterfeits. 

Once Rodriguez was located and caught, authorities seized 450 airbags and other parts associated with the counterfeit operation. The smuggling of the parts is one thing; actually installing them in the cars brings the level of accusation up a few notches. He would replace blown-out airbags on salvage cars and resell them, saving thousands of dollars over time from the budget parts. 

“The hazards posed to unsuspecting motorists and the general public by the alleged actions of the defendant, in this case, are enormous and could have ramifications for years to come,” said U.S. Attorney Jennifer Arbittier Williams. “Safety equipment as important as vehicle airbags are subject to strict quality control standards to keep everyone safe, therefore when corners are cut by utilizing counterfeit goods, the consequences can be disastrous.”

Are airbags safe? 

Airbags are a double-edged sword. While they have saved many lives over the years, they can also be a bit explosive, if you’ll excuse the pun. We have seen this with the multi-year saga of the Takata airbags. 

Airbags use literal gas explosions to inflate the bag instantly. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration says these counterfeit airbags have proven to consistently malfunction in various dangerous ways, including non-deployment, unexpected deployment, and even expulsion of metal shrapnel during deployment, CBP officials said.

Due to this potential for harm, airbags are strictly regulated, making the use of counterfeit or fraudulent equipment highly illegal. 

According to the Philly Voice, Rodriguez is charged with one count of trafficking in counterfeit goods and two counts of causing the delivery of hazardous materials (tiny explosives) by the air carrier in connection with a scheme to utilize counterfeit airbags at his used cars.

If convicted, Rodriguez faces a maximum possible sentence of 20 years in prison, three years of supervised release, fines of $2,050,000, and a $200 special assessment.

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