There are renewed warnings about counterfeit car parts coming into Australia – as a new study reveals more than half the parts bought online could be fake.
Counterfeit car parts and their packaging are so similar in appearance to the original items, experts are finding it more difficult to distinguish fake from genuine – and most mechanics and importers are pleading ignorance when they’re busted.
To date, no-one has been jailed in Australia for importing, distributing, or selling bogus car parts – even though it is against the law and in some cases could have deadly consequences.
Above: a counterfeit Mercedes wheel fails a pot hole test.
Most mechanics, distributors, or parts sellers busted with counterfeit car parts have so far settled out of court after numerous sting operations set up by automotive companies who hire private investigators to source dodgy goods on their behalf.
Legal experts warn the ramifications could be crippling to small businesses or mechanics who take a risk on – or turn a blind eye to – parts that look like the real deal but cost a fraction of the original item.
Meanwhile, car owners are at risk of experiencing catastrophic engine failures – or jeopardising the safety of themselves or other roads users if counterfeit parts such as fake wheels disintegrate, dodgy brakes don’t work properly, or bogus airbags don’t deploy in a serious crash.
In the past five years alone, corporate investigators have busted online sellers and independent mechanics distributing or fitting dodgy airbag components, brake pads containing asbestos, oil filters that could clog and destroy engines, and popular crash panels that don’t fit properly and could affect airbag deployment systems.
An investigation commissioned by Toyota Australia – one of the biggest targets of counterfeit car parts scams because of its market dominance – found 62 per cent of items purchased in its most recent sting were counterfeit.
Three years ago, private investigators in Australia estimated up to 15 per cent of routine servicing parts sold online were counterfeit.
In the most recent sting, the parts were purchased online on popular classified and social media sites – and all items appeared to be the genuine article in branded packaging. Some even had a hologram label. But more than half the items purchased were counterfeit.
Between 2016 and 2020, a total of 156 parts were ordered from six suppliers. Most of the counterfeit parts were purchased online, though a small number were sourced directly from distributors, small businesses, and independent mechanics.
Once Toyota Australia confronted sellers and distributors of counterfeit parts with evidence, the remaining stockpile of bogus items were seized or destroyed.
In some cases Toyota asked suppliers of counterfeit parts to contact customers it had sold bogus components to – and demanded they be sent genuine replacements.
Toyota declined to name the people or businesses it was taking action against as some cases are still before the courts.
A statement from the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries (FCAI) said it was difficult to prosecute counterfeit car parts cases because “it is yet to be determined if the importers are knowingly complicit”.
One of the above oil filters is genuine, the other is counterfeit.
The car industry says it will pursue every counterfeit car parts distributor it identifies, because bogus parts are likely to adversely affect vehicle safety or performance – and were an avoidable risk for owners.
Toyota Australia says it is currently seeking to “take down as many as 1200 listings per month to protect drivers from counterfeits”.
According to corporate investigator Craig Douglas, director of Nationwide Research Group – who also chases down sellers of fake handbags, watches and designer fashion labels – the challenge for Australian Border Protection and other authorities is that often local importers or distributors are duped by overseas crime syndicates.
Hyundai has also busted sellers of counterfeit oil filters. One of the above is genuine, one is fake.
“In some cases, the overseas distributor will send a genuine part to Australia as a sample,” said Mr Douglas. “Then the person here orders a container load and they happen to all be counterfeit.”
The chief executive of the FCAI, Tony Weber, said the above practice “indicates the level of deception these criminals are going to.”
“We’re talking about low quality, criminally manufactured and distributed parts designed to deceive,” Mr Weber said in a media statement.
When asked what percentage of importers, distributors, or mechanics busted with counterfeit parts claimed they did not know the items were bogus, Mr Douglas said: “About 90 per cent of them claim they had no idea and no suspicion they were handling counterfeit parts, even though they bought a container load at a fraction of the price of the original items.”
Adding further confusion among consumers is the increasing prevalence of non-genuine or “parallel” parts.
These are common items such as oil filters and brake pads sold with generic branding and not trying to imitate the genuine packaging.
Just as there is no law against generic branded breakfast cereal and other food items at supermarkets, there is no law against non-genuine or “generic” car parts – and the prices are generally lower than the original item.
However, non-genuine, “parallel” or generic branded car parts may not perform exactly the same as the genuine item.
“On the one hand a generic car part might do the job,” said Mr Douglas. “But has it been tested to the same high standards as the original item, will it do the same job and provide the same longevity?”
“The only way to guarantee the use of genuine parts is by staying within the car company dealer servicing network,” he said. “However once cars get to five to 10 years old, and once they’re out of warranty and outside the capped price servicing programs, people start to shop around and see if they can save money or cut corners on vehicle maintenance. That’s where the counterfeit parts start to become a real problem.”
Mr Douglas said suppliers of counterfeit car parts tend to target vehicles older than five years “because those are the customers who will take a gamble and try to buy parts themselves online or use an independent mechanic.”
Above: a mechanic fitting genuine parts to a vehicle.
Some owners of older cars have started buying parts online and supplying them to local mechanics for servicing, to save money.
However, independent repairers have started to push back because it can be difficult for them to determine if a part is genuine, counterfeit, or generic.
In 2017 the Motor Traders Association of NSW issued a warning to its large membership of independent mechanics and repairers.
“Counterfeit parts are becoming a major problem. We are now beginning to advise independent mechanics to be extremely careful when accepting parts provided by customers,” a spokesman said at the time.
“Many customers buy parts online thinking they’re getting a good deal but are unwittingly buying counterfeit parts. Motorists are clearly unaware of the risks. If someone is offering genuine parts at or below half price, alarm bells should be ringing.”
Adding to the frustration of the car industry, it is impossible for authorities to stop shipments of counterfeit car parts – or develop the knowledge to distinguish genuine and fake items – given the hundreds of thousands of shipping containers processed at docks around Australia each year.
A media statement issued by Australian border authorities in 2018 said: “Many counterfeit items are substandard in quality and have the potential to cause physical harm. Consumers buying counterfeit items are supporting an illegal trade that could result in injury. The sale of counterfeit goods is also often linked to serious criminal activity.”
However, because of Australia’s porous borders, the battle against counterfeit car parts appears to be a never ending task.
In 2018, large shipments of dodgy brake pads – bound for cars sold in Australia – were intercepted by authorities in Germany and the Middle East.
In 2017 importers of counterfeit oil filters were busted selling bogus parts for popular Toyota, Lexus, Kia and Hyundai cars. At the time experts warned a $20 oil filter could lead to more than $5000 in engine repair bills.
In late 2015 authorities in Australia issued a recall for counterfeit Toyota brake pads sourced from China and which contained asbestos. It was the first time a recall had been issued in Australia for a counterfeit automotive part.
In early 2015 Toyota Australia issued an urgent dealer bulletin (pictured above) warning its national network of service centres to be on the lookout for counterfeit airbag “spiral cables” that could either fail to deploy an airbag – or not activate it correctly. With airbags, a split second can mean the difference between life and death.
A statement from Toyota Australia issued amid ongoing investigations said the company “places a high value on its intellectual property and protecting the public from the dangers of counterfeit parts”.
Toyota Australia, one of a handful car companies with a dedicated division tasked with busting counterfeit car parts operations locally – said tracking down bogus items and their distributors remains “a high priority”.
In the meantime, the automotive industry has set up a website to enable consumers and mechanics to report sellers of suspected counterfeit car parts.