Sources say imitations of other brands’ parts also possible
Counterfeit parts are shaping as the next big issue to confront the car industry.
Customs officers say the counterfeiters are becoming so sophisticated that even car manufacturers are finding it hard to tell fake parts from real ones.
The issue became news last month when Toyota took two parts distributors to court for selling fake oil filters and airbag parts.
Customs and Border Protection said its officers were finding it near impossible to spot fakes.
“Counterfeiting operations are becoming increasingly sophisticated and nearly any type of commodity is now at risk of being copied. As counterfeiting becomes more sophisticated, identifying fake products has also become more difficult,” the organisation said.
“There have been instances where even the rights holder themselves have had difficulty determining whether goods are counterfeit or genuine without detailed testing.
“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.”
While only fake Toyota parts have been identified so far, industry sources say it is possible that imitations of other brands’ genuine parts could be in circulation.
The counterfeit Toyota airbag part could fail to deploy the airbag in a crash.
Toyota has embarked on a nationwide search for the part, which can fit up to 2 million Toyotas sold locally over the past 10 years.
Toyota has issued a bulletin to its network of more than 200 Dealers nationally requesting cars be inspected during routine servicing.
At the time of lodging its court action, Toyota said: “Following a six-month investigation, Toyota Australia has today lodged Federal Court proceedings against two independent retailers that have been selling counterfeit airbag spiral cables and advertising them as genuine Toyota parts.”
“The legal action relates to ‘trademark infringement’ and ‘misleading and deceptive conduct’.”
It is the first time the Japanese giant has taken legal action in Australia against sellers of bogus parts.
Toyota is trying to obtain a list of who the fake parts were sold to so it can trace the vehicles they may have been fitted to.
“It is our expectation that the independent retailers will contact the impacted customers to advise them that they have purchased counterfeit parts and replace the airbag spiral cable with a genuine Toyota part at no cost to the customer,” says the Toyota statement.
Toyota says it is taking action because the two independent retailers have been “unwilling to cooperate”.
“In particular, the independent retailers have denied any wrongdoing despite selling counterfeit parts in Toyota packaging to consumers,” says the Toyota statement.
Toyota was forced to act after the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission failed to intervene despite being alerted to the potentially deadly fakes.
A confidential Dealer bulletin obtained by News Corp Australia says there is a “high likelihood of insufficient conductivity to support airbag deployment electrical current” and “significant risk of airbag non-deployment in an accident”.
The technical bulletin says the counterfeit part does not have gold plated connectors, the crimping of the cable is not strong enough and it does not use copper wire as per the genuine article. The plastic locking tabs are also “poorly formed” or misaligned.
A Dealer bulletin says internal testing by Toyota in Japan found there were four ways they could fail to deploy an airbag in a crash.
As is the case with most new cars, the airbag connector — the link between the car’s power source and the airbag in the steering wheel — must be replaced every time an airbag is deployed in a crash.
The genuine part costs about $300 wholesale, while the fake part is estimated to cost as little as $50.
Owners of Toyota cars that have never been involved in an accident are not at risk of being affected by the bogus parts.
But Toyota vehicles that have been repaired after an airbag deployed in a crash may have been fitted with the counterfeit parts, either knowingly or unwittingly by smash repairers.
According to insurance industry figures, about 15 per cent of crashes are serious enough to deploy airbags, which on conservative estimates equates to about 150,000 cars needing replacement airbags each year nationally.
One Dealer speaking on condition of anonymity said: “The problem is, we truly have no way of knowing how many of these fake parts are out there. But we suspect there are thousands, because they are quite a commonly used part.”
And the fake parts scandal doesn’t only apply to airbags.
Bogus oil filters could cause engine failures and leave customers with repair bills in the thousands of dollars.
According to the Dealer alert obtained by News Corp, Toyota is trying to identify oil filters for the Corolla, Camry, RAV4, and Kluger, which may have been used by independent repairers.
The parts, which had Toyota labels and packaging but were not made by Toyota, were intercepted by Customs and Border Protection during their importation.
Toyota is concerned earlier shipments have arrived undetected.
It is suspected the importers intended to sell the parts to independent workshops which were unaware they were non-genuine items.
The shipment of more than 350 oil filters was seized on the docks in Sydney in February this year and was supposed to be forwarded to a residential address.
Customs is yet to confirm if any charges have yet been made against the importer of the bogus parts.
Mechanics say faulty oil filters, a part which typically costs $15 to $20, can cause thousands of dollars in engine repairs.
“If oil can’t go through the filter it can starve the engine,” said Ian Rolf, a senior manager with the Motor Traders Association of NSW.
“If the failure is severe enough there would generally be a catastrophic engine failure.”
Toyota spokeswoman Beck Angel said the car maker was concerned because customers could unwittingly get caught out by counterfeit parts which can “cause engine damage through no fault of their own”.