There are new warnings about counterfeit car parts, as authorities identify a rise in the sale and importation of bogus copycat components during the pandemic.
Sales of counterfeit car parts have surged during the coronavirus crisis as unwitting motorists attempt to save money – and, experts say, criminal groups explore new avenues to expand their enterprises.
The number of counterfeit car parts identified by vehicle manufacturers and government agencies was expected to slow amid the global pandemic.
However, 18 months into COVID-19, experts have learned the opposite is true and the illegal trade in copycat car parts has thrived.
Counterfeit car parts – as opposed to generic non-genuine parts made by reputable companies – are designed to look like the original item and copy the original branding and packaging, but are not tested to the same standards and can have safety consequences.
Australian Border Force said there is evidence to suggest the sale of counterfeit goods is “often linked to serious criminal activity.”
Previously seized counterfeit car parts include bogus airbag components that fail to deploy in a crash, dodgy spark plugs and sub-standard oil filters that have destroyed engines, brake pads that contain asbestos and create longer braking distances, and alloy wheels that are more prone to crack.
“The packaging and branding for counterfeit car parts is becoming so sophisticated it’s almost impossible to distinguish them from the genuine item,” an independent mechanic told Drive on condition of anonymity.
A representative for the Motor Traders Association – the body which represents independent mechanics and repairers – has previously told media it advises members to be cautious about using parts provided by customers, because the workshop could unwittingly be fitting counterfeit components.
The photos below show examples of counterfeit oil filters – which can cause major engine damage – alongside the genuine item.
Drive has been told about an increase in the number of motorists sourcing common service parts via social media marketplaces and other online classifieds – in an attempt to save money – and then providing those parts to their local mechanic.
“The customer is trying to save a few bucks but they end up risking their car’s engine or their personal safety because the parts they’ve bought are junk,” said an independent mechanic who has owned a workshop for more than 30 years. “I know a lot of (other workshops) who won’t accept parts from customers any more. I know I don’t.”
With the assistance of the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries, authorities such as Australian Border Force are getting better at identifying shipments of counterfeit car parts at import terminals.
“As a direct result of this training, a noticeable increase in seizures of counterfeit vehicle parts was achieved as compared to the same period the previous year,” an Australian Border Force representative said in a media statement.
“There is a tendency in the community to view counterfeit goods as harmless, or victimless crimes but this is misleading. Counterfeit vehicle parts, particularly those designed for emergency response, for example brake pads or airbags, pose significant safety risks and these consumer and broader community impacts can be significant, and sometimes fatal.”
While exact figures are yet to be revealed, representatives for Australian Border Force and the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries say there has been a surge in the number of counterfeit parts offered for sale through online classifieds and social media marketplaces since the start of the pandemic.
The rise in counterfeit car parts offered for sale in Australia – such as the recent seizure of bogus parts intended for the Toyota HiLux, Australia’s top-selling vehicle – mirrors a similar surge overseas.
German car giant Mercedes-Benz says it has confiscated more than 1.7 million counterfeit car parts from more than 500 raids globally over the past 18 months.
“This is a slight increase compared to the previous year – despite the challenges posed by the pandemic,” Florian Adt, the head of intellectual property at Mercedes-Benz, said in a media statement.
So far this year, Mercedes says it has had 138,000 counterfeit car parts removed from social media marketplaces and popular online classified platforms.
Mercedes says the number of counterfeit parts identified for sale is “around three times as many as during the same period before the pandemic.”
“In 2020, the online trade increased significantly owing to (the coronavirus). This made this distribution channel even more interesting also for counterfeiters,” said the global Mercedes representative.
While Australian Border Force would not disclose its latest seizure numbers, the authority has previously warned: “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.”
The independent mechanic interviewed by Drive said the counterfeit car parts trade would be diminished if the prices of genuine parts were more affordable.
“The car companies could make this problem go away overnight by being more reasonable on price (for genuine parts),” said the veteran mechanic.
Motorists who suspect they have been sold a counterfeit part are urged to report the incident via this link.
Joshua Dowling has been a motoring journalist for more than 20 years, spending most of that time working for The Sydney Morning Herald (as motoring editor and one of the early members of the Drive team) and News Corp Australia. He joined CarAdvice / Drive in late 2018, and has been a World Car of the Year judge for 10 years.