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Fake Chinese airbags that 'just may work' send Buffalo parts dealer to prison

In the world of counterfeit goods, Raymond Whelan had a niche – automobile airbags.

Whelan, a Buffalo car parts dealer, recently admitted selling 360 counterfeit airbags on eBay, each one with a phony trademark from Toyota, Nissan, Subaru or another major carmaker.

On Thursday, he was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara to two years in prison.

"Not a day will go by that I will not think of my customers and pray that none of them is hurt by the parts they got from me," Whelan said in his sentencing memo to Arcara.

As part of a plea deal, Whelan, 49, admitted ordering the fake airbags from co-defendant David Nichols, an American living in China.

Nichols would get the bags from manufacturers in China and, in order to avoid detection during importation to the U.S., mislabel the boxes that carried them.

According to court records, Whelan and Nichols were caught on tape talking about the counterfeit bags and their role as "life-saving devices."

"I have assembled one with their instructions and it just may work," Whelan is alleged to have told Nichols at one point. "I can't see why it wouldn't but ... I'm not an airbag expert."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael DiGiacomo said investigators made multiple undercover buys from Rayscarparts71.com, the car parts website operated by Whelan, and seized other airbags when they searched his business.

DiGiacomo said the fake airbags were tested and failed "miserably," usually overinflating or underinflating. He also noted that individuals may still be driving cars with bags sold by Whelan.

"That's troubling, that's problematic," he said Thursday. "These are dangerous bags."

He said the government was able to identify mechanics who bought the airbags, but was unsure if the mechanics then notified customers. The scam ran for about a year, until mid-2016.

Whelan's defense lawyer said her client regrets his decision to sell counterfeit airbags and is looking forward to putting this life back together.

"We appreciate that the court gave consideration to his genuine remorse and his concern about the risks facing his customers," said MaryBeth Covert, an assistant federal public defender.

In the end, Whelan and Nichols pleaded guilty to conspiracy to traffic in counterfeit goods. Nichols, who is back in the U.S. and out on bail, is awaiting sentencing.

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