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Safety regulators warn about counterfeit air bags

(Reuters) - U.S. safety regulators warned consumers Wednesday that their repaired vehicles may contain air bags that fail to inflate during an accident.

Only vehicles that had an air bag replaced over the past three years - by repair shops that are not part of new-car dealerships - may be at risk, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said.

The safety agency said testing revealed that counterfeit air bags were being used to replace bags in vehicles involved in crashes over the past three years.

The agency wasn't aware of any deaths or injuries linked to the counterfeit air bags, which carry an additional risk of expelling metal shrapnel during deployment.

The full scope of the problem wasn't certain, but the agency believed the issue affects less than 0.1 percent of the U.S. vehicle fleet. Consumers who bought their cars new, have not had their air bags replaced, or had the bags replaced at a new-car dealer, were not affected.

"Any time equipment that is critical to protecting drivers and passengers fails to operate properly, it is a serious safety concern," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement. "We want consumers to be immediately aware of this problem and to review our safety information to see if their vehicle could be in need of inspection."

The counterfeit air bags look nearly identical to certified parts, and bear the insignia and branding of major automakers, NHTSA said.

The agency said consumers who may have affected cars and trucks should contact call centers established by automakers to have their vehicle inspected and air bags replaced if necessary, at their own expense. The list of call centers and additional information is available at www.safercar.gov.

NHTSA said it was working with several other federal agencies, including U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the U.S. Department of Justice, to better understand the issue and how to prevent counterfeit air bags from being purchased and installed.

"Organized criminals are selling dangerous counterfeit and substandard airbags to consumers and suppliers with little to no regard to hazardous health and safety consequences," ICE Director John Morton said. "We will continue to aggressively investigate criminal supply chains ... and bring these criminals to justice."

(Reporting by Ben Klayman in Detroit; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

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