Feds warn of counterfeit auto parts

Fake car parts from China are flooding US markets, putting drivers at risk

MIAMI – Counterfeit auto parts are a booming business that could put you and everyone on the road around you at risk.

"The whole car, every part of the car, can be counterfeited," explained Robert C. Hutchinson, acting special agent in charge at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations Miami field office. "Our customs fraud group leads the nation in these investigations."

When it comes to counterfeit car parts, little is known about how much time went into the engineering, assembly and materials to make sure it functions properly. Because it is a counterfeit, there is no inspection process to ensure it meets safety standards.

"It may not perform at all, or it will underperform, or maybe at the worst time it will fail," Hutchinson said. "You don't really know what you are getting."

Hutchinson walked the Call Christina team along a table displaying counterfeit auto parts from brake pads to fuel pumps. His customs fraud group works to seize the fake parts before they end up at a repair shop near you.

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"Law enforcement has identified a trend of counterfeited parts that is growing at an alarming rate," Bruce Foucart, acting director of the National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center, said. "At best, these parts will not perform as well as authentic parts. At worst, they can fail catastrophically with potentially fatal consequences."

Dramatic test video released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Immigration and Customs Enforcement of a counterfeit airbag failing to perform, even exploding, crystallizes the concern over counterfeit car parts.

RELATED: NHTSA test of counterfeit air bag | Side-by-side comparison of authentic original manufacture equipment airbag deployment compared to counterfeit airbag purchased by HSI

Some other counterfeit parts seized by law enforcement include seat belts, oil and air filters, brake pads, brake rotors, control arms, windshields, bearings, steering linkages, ignition coils, microchips, spark plugs, wheels, solenoids, clutch housing, crankshafts, diagnostic equipment, suspension parts and oil pumps.

Just two weeks ago, federal investigators seized two Florida-based websites for selling trademark-infringing auto parts.

RELATED: Florida-based websites seized for selling trademark-infringing auto parts

"Online sales of counterfeit parts are a growing problem for suppliers," Steve Handschuh, Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Association president and chief executive officer, said. "Historically, online sales have not been a significant means of counterfeit parts entering the domestic or global marketplace. This is changing as China and other countries experience a phenomenal growth in e-commerce, resulting in an increase in counterfeit parts in the international online environment."

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Private companies and manufacturers to include ACDelco and Honda are also sounding the alarm.

RELATED: Honda PSA | ACDelco's warning

Hyundai Motors America launched an awareness campaign earlier this year with a chilling "Don't Gamble with Counterfeit Parts" side-by-side comparison video showing there is no comparison between a genuine part and a counterfeit.

The slow-motion video shows the imitation airbag failing to protect the crash test dummy.

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"The goal of the campaign is to educate consumers on their rights," Hyundai representative Miles Johnson said. "In most cases, customers have the right to choose the collision repair center where their vehicle will be repaired."

Troy Thomas, the parts manager at Hyundai Doral, has been witness to horror stories of duped consumers. He recounted one driver who took her car to their shop concerned about the air bag check light being on, telling his team she had the car repaired at a body shop. They diagnosed it to discover not only was the air bag disconnected but "the inner part of where the air bag did not exist -- it had been hallowed out -- unbeknownst to the customer."

Thomas said the best thing you can do is ask for genuine parts.

"Safety is probably the biggest issue," he said. "No one wants to see anyone be injured or even be killed because they have improper parts in their car. Counterfeit parts are parts that are designed to look and imitate the original genuine Hyundai parts, but they are imitations. They are falsely branded. They don't have the structural integrity, they don't have the precise fit and they don't have the performance. All of that impacts safety, resale and warranty."

Here are the basics for avoiding fake parts:

  • Do business only with reputable repair shops or the manufacturer's dealership repair network.
  • Stay informed about the sources of parts you are purchasing or are installing.
  • Beware of "too good to be true" prices.
  • Use caution when purchasing auto parts on the Internet that are shipped from other countries or are sold at very low prices.

"Counterfeiters don't care if their product contains the correct materials," Foucart testified during last Wednesday's Senate Judiciary Committee meeting on counterfeits and their impact on consumer health and safety. "They do not care if their products physically hurt consumers. Rather, they care about their product looking good enough to be purchased. Investigations have uncovered counterfeit air bags, steering, breaking and seat belt components, bearings and diagnostic equipment."

RELATED: Counterfeits and their impact on consumer health and safety

Federal regulators and the automobile industry are concerned about sophisticated copycats who replicate a manufacturer's markings so well that consumers, even auto part suppliers, could be duped into thinking they are buying the real thing when they are not.

Then there are shady repair shop or collision centers who may be putting bogus parts in your car without you knowing it, and consumers buying cheap parts online as a way to save money.

"We just want to make sure you know what you are getting. When you are buying something at a great price, why is it a great price?" Hutchinson said. "I want to stress that after-market does not mean counterfeit, but when the after-market piece has the improper markings on it and is not from the manufacturer, then you are getting into the world of counterfeit."

They are focused on stopping the proliferation of counterfeits.

Hutchinson's advice is to do your research on the repair shop or collision center. Make sure you are choosing a reputable repair shop or a merchant from the manufacturer's dealership repair network.

"It is always helpful to go to a company that has a good reputation, because they will stand behind it, and many of these businesses will do their best to make sure nothing enters their supply chain that is counterfeit," Hutchinson said.

He also recommends asking for original manufacture parts.

"Ask for that. Are you going to pay for that?" Hutchinson said. "You pay the price, but you may pay a serious and more expensive price at the end if it does not function timely and properly."

These counterfeit parts usually bear the trademark of a legitimate and trusted brand, but they were produced by another party and are not made to the specifications of the original equipment manufacturer. According to ICE's website, counterfeit parts are often produced illegally and sold at a profit to fund other criminal activities.

Dealing in counterfeit parts is a crime. If think you may be a victim, report it online to ICE via the HSI Tip Line, or call the tip line toll-free at 866-347-2423. You can also submit an online complaint to the IPR center at www.iprcenter.gov.

"It is essential that all relevant agencies work together with industry partners to confront this challenge," Foucart testified last Wednesday. "Law enforcement, public education, demand reduction and global collaboration are all critical to successfully address these crimes." 

RELATED: Hearing on counterfeits and their impact on health and safety | Vehicles for which counterfeit air bags may be available

As of today, NHTSA is aware of counterfeit air bags available for the following vehicle makes and models: