Besides edgy styling and performance, the Nissan brand is known for something else--vulnerability to airbag theft. So much so, that the aftermarket is retailing Nissan airbag anti-theft bolts similar to those used on custom wheels.
AAA Mid-Atlantic called the theft of airbags the third most common accessory stolen from vehicles, right behind stereo systems and wheels. Their value on the black market is said to be around $250, while new airbags can cost between $700 and $1500.
Airbag replacements are needed when the bags are deployed in crashes. Those parts become an avenue for unscrupulous body shops to add profit when they purchase them from thieves. Some states, Florida and New York among them, have enacted laws requiring those selling and buying airbags to record the VIN numbers of both the donor and destination vehicles involved.
Airbag thieves operate in a manner similar to those stealing catalytic converters. They prey on cars and trucks in areas protected from view. The rapid-fire thefts from places where multiple vehicles are parked unattended are very profitable for the perpetrators and very difficult to solve unless, of course, there is some traceable physical evidence left behind.
Enter David Alexander Portillo-Henriquez. Police in Gaithersburg, Maryland allege that he broke into a 2008 Nissan Altima and stole the airbag while the car was parked on an upper level of a parking garage. Some accounts say the procedure can be performed in minutes.
This was the only airbag theft for which he was charged although the Montgomery County (Md.) Police say 30 (15 involving Nissans) were stolen last fall. At the time some drops of blood were found in the vehicle. The police sent the blood samples off for DNA testing. In February a warrant for Portillo-Henriquez was issued when the evidence was matched to a national database.
State Farm estimated on an undated web page that "when all cars have air bags (sic), theft of the devices could cost insurance companies and their customers between $127 million and $253 million a year."
Dual front airbags became mandatory standard equipment on cars sold in the U.S. in 1998.[State Farm, Montgomery County Police & Gazette]