Thieves targeting airbags in Montgomery County

Photo: Kevin Lewis

BETHESDA, Md. (WJLA) - For years, police have investigated thieves breaking into cars for smart phones, laptops, GPS devices and wallets, but what about airbags? A Bethesda man recently fell victim airbag burglars and the repair won't be cheap.

Around 6:15 a.m. Friday, Nick Irons walked to his 2011 Nissan Maxima parked along the 10100 block of Baldwin Court near the Davis Library in Bethesda. Irons, who'd celebrated the holidays by spending the night at his parents townhome, was stunned to see the rear passenger window of his car shattered.

More perplexing, the thieves didn't take his wallet or cash, but instead annihilated his steering wheel.

"My steering wheel didn't have the centerpiece on it anymore and the wires were hanging out. It was ugly. I thought, 'you have to be kidding me.'" Irons said.

The fitness buff, who runs a Bethesda personal training studio, filed a police report online, called his auto insurance provider and then dropped-off his neatly dissected four-door sedan at Chevy Chase Automotive. The total repair cost was $3,000.

"These cases come in spurts. I might see as many as 15 airbags stolen per year," auto collision estimator Stan Dovell said. "Usually thieves target a certain make and model, and go after only those."

In fact, while on the phone with USAA insurance, a call center representative told Irons another Bethesda customer had reported a strikingly similar claim only minutes before. That customer reportedly lived on Kingswood Road, less than a mile from Irons' parent's house.

"My first thought was, 'What the hell, why would someone want to take all of these airbags? Now I know why," Irons stated.

A simple eBay search lists Nissan Maxima airbags, similar to Irons', selling for $499 a pop. According to AAA, many Honda and Acura models are also hot targets.

The National Insurance Crime Bureau estimates 60,000 airbags are ripped out of cars annually in the United States, costing insurance companies about $50 million a year. Thieves often sell the stolen airbags to dishonest collision repair shops who then market the safety product as new.

"It's not something I'd buy online, but I guess there's a market for it. It's just so bizarre. Who knew there'd be a ring out there of people trying to get airbags," Irons said.

How can you prevent airbag thefts? Police recommend parking in well-lit locations, not leaving valuables in plain sight, and most importantly, purchasing a steering wheel locking device, like "the club", to keep your primary airbag secure.