It's an ongoing problem that goes back decades to the 1980s. Counterfeit auto parts that are copies of name brand products are being sold to unsuspecting motorists primarily online by shady vendors and distributors. They have even found their way into retail auto parts stores, independent repair shops and new car dealerships.
According to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement division of the Homeland Security Administration, fake parts from China have been flooding the U.S. In 2016, U.S. customs officials seized 31,560 shipments of counterfeit goods worth $1.4 billion -- which unfortunately was only the tip of the iceberg. One shipping container held over 10,000 fake Nissan replacement parts. Yet in spite of the enforcement efforts, most of the fake parts that are shipped to the U.S. slip through customs undetected.
The Counterfeit Report reports that 85 percent of the fake parts that enter the U.S. come from China.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) did an undercover investigation of online ecommerce sites and found that 50 percent of the goods it purchased online were counterfeits (including parts purchased from Amazon, ebay and even Walmart!).
Some sources estimate that counterfeit auto parts are costing the legitimate automotive parts industry over $20 billion dollars in lost revenue every year!
One auto manufacturer said the average consumer has a one-in-three chance of getting a counterfeit part when they buy online.
Amazon and ebay say they try to police vendors selling products on their sites, but it's a game of whack-a-mole and enforcement has been lax. Even when they receive complaints from consumers, they may fail to take action against a seller. And if they do take down a seller's account, the seller just reappears again under a different name. On and on it goes....
Counterfeit parts are often sold in packaging that is very similar to or nearly identical to the genuine product they are copying. The parts may appear to be from an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) such as GM, Ford, Chrysler, Honda, Toyota, Nissan, etc., and the packaging may even say "Genuine" on the box. Many fake parts are also packaged to look like well-known aftermarket brand names such as ACDelco, Bosch, Denso, Fram, Motorcraft, etc.
Counterfeit parts (and low quality knock-offs) may also be sold as "OEM-equivalent" replacement parts. The parts are packaged in plain "no-name" boxes or are marketed under a brand name you never heard of. Good luck with customer support if you get ripped off and try to collect on a warranty claim! These parts are certainly NOT OEM-equivalent parts!
Let the buyer beware. A telltale sign that an auto part may be counterfeit is an unusually low price. If the price is too good to be true (much less than the OEM or brand name part), chances are it is a poor quality fake that lacks the quality, durability and performance of the genuine product.
Counterfeit parts cost less because they just copy the original part. The manufacturer invests nothing in research, development or testing. They just copy an OEM or brand name aftermarket part so their part "looks" the same. They could care less if it fits, functions and lasts the same as the genuine part. It's all about making a fast buck.
They use the cheapest materials and cut every corner they can to maximize their profit margin. Most of these parts are made in China and other Third World countries because labor is cheap and they ignore U.S. patent, trademark and copyright laws. There is little if any quality control over the parts before they are loaded into shipping containers and sent to the U.S.
With auto parts, the fit, function and durability of a replacement part is critical. What do you gain if you buy a cheap alternator, water pump, oil filter, control module, ignition coil, fuel pump, or set of brake pads and the part doesn't fit correctly, work properly or fails not long after you installed it?
Metallurgy, materials science, finishing and assembly all affect the fit, function and durability of auto parts. Knock-off parts made in China and other Third World countries are usually lacking in all of these categories.
For example, a cheap knock-off brake rotor made from scrap cast iron is not going to have the proper metallurgical properties to provide good wear, braking performance and noise control. Quality brake rotors require a specific grade of cast iron, and the casting process must be carefully controlled to assure the best results.
The heat treatment of metal alloys also plays a critical role in the strength and durability of metal parts such as steering and suspension components, engine parts (crankshafts, connecting rods and pistons) and drivetrain parts (springs, tie rod ends, ball joints and control arms). If not manufactured to certain specifications, such parts won't hold up and will likely fail prematurely.
Regardless of the part or application, counterfeit parts are almost always made with cheaper (inferior) materials and workmanship. They may look similar or even identical to the original genuine parts, but upon closer examination they often fail to meet the same performance, durability and longevity attributes of the original parts.
In recent years, counterfeit airbags have been smuggled into the U.S as a less expensive alternative for replacing original equipment airbags following an accident. There has been a shortage of many OEM airbags because of the massive recall of millions of vehicles to replace defective Takata airbags. With a short supply and high demand, it is a perfect opportunity for shady distributors and vendors to cash in. Unfortunately, the fake airbags may not function like the original airbags, and may not deploy properly in an accident, or worse yet, actually result in injury to the vehicle occupants.
To protect consumers against such fraud, many states have passed laws making it illegal to import, sell, distribute or install non-genuine airbags in a vehicle.