8 August 2019

Counterfeit Hunters

The counterfeit car part market is booming.

To protect drivers and their brand, car makers engage Brand Protection Officers, to identify and shut down counterfeit crooks.

The below originally appears on the Porsche Website, telling the story of one brand protection team, dedicated to hunting down part pirates and eradicating counterfeit car parts.

“Porsche owners should be able to enjoy their vehicles for as long as possible. That is why genuine, high-quality spare parts are so important. However, even if a product bears the Porsche name, it does not always mean that it is a real Porsche item. 

The counterfeit market is booming at the moment. Brand protection officers at Porsche are hunting down counterfeiters and tracking them right back to rural China.

Andreas Kirchgäßner works on the second floor of factory one in Zuffenhausen – Porsche’s nucleus, as it were. However, you would be hard pushed to find many real Porsche items in his office. There is a red seating area bearing the Porsche emblem, which would also look great in the bedroom of any young car fan.

Porsche thermometers and a Porsche pin-up girl adorn the walls, whilst the cabinets house boxes containing various small parts, such as a Porsche designer mobile phone cover or a USB stick in the shape of a Porsche key. The rear light of a Panamera rests next to his desk. “Everything is a counterfeit,” explains the lawyer.

Andreas is one of three brand protection officers working at Porsche. Together with lawyer Thomas Fischer and Michaela Stoiber, they make up the “Brand Protection” team in the Legal Sales department. The three-strong team track down Porsche fakes across the globe and take them out of circulation.

Last year, they confiscated more than 200,000 goods with a value of almost 60 million euros, including 33,000 (spare) car parts worth more than two million euros. A lot of these counterfeits are sold on online platforms such as Amazon, Ebay or Alibaba. Promotional items such as baseball caps, T-shirts and sunglasses are often also found at trade fairs – from the Retro Classics trade show in Stuttgart to the Hong Kong Toys & Games Fair. Retailers showcase their counterfeit products at such events, in some cases quite openly.

When Michaela Stoiber and her colleagues find these items, they confiscate them immediately: “Sometimes the counterfeits are quite obvious,” she explains. 

“The products are far cheaper than normal, or the Porsche emblem has been poorly copied. We sometimes also find that a different animal is shown in the centre of the logo. For example, instead of the Porsche horse, it could be a sheep standing on its hind legs.” Michaela, a native of Bavaria, smiles as she recounts these stories. One time, she impounded thousands of erectile dysfunction pills shaped like the Porsche emblem from Turkey. Such bizarre situations are not uncommon for the 36-year-old.

The exposure of plagiarism is not always as simple as in this case, in which not even the packaging label complies with the strict quality criteria of Porsche.

However, the market for counterfeit spare car parts is constantly growing. There is a particular demand for wearing parts, which need to be replaced more often and can be sold for a much higher price if they bear the Porsche emblem on the packaging. They include wheel centre caps, air filters and rims, as well as airbags and brake discs. In other words, safety-related parts are not immune either. “This is where things get dangerous,” highlights Thomas Fischer. “These spare parts are neither tested nor approved. It goes without saying that we want to prevent products like this ending up in our cars.”

An estimated 80 percent of the counterfeit goods come from China. There, they are sometimes manufactured in small workshops in a backyard or in the family’s living room. However, there are also many production sites working to the standards of a professional factory. As such there can be big variations in the quality of the counterfeits, meaning even experts can find it difficult to tell whether a product is a fake. 

“We are grateful for the assistance provided by our colleagues from Procurement, Aftersales, Logistics, PLH and Porsche Classic, particularly when it comes to car parts, watches and glasses. They help us to recognise the differences from the genuine articles,” explains Thomas Fischer. The packaging can sometimes also provide a clue. The packaging can sometimes also provide a clue. If the product promises to provide “Kontrolllerte Qualitat” instead of the right spelled german expression “Kontrollierte Qualität”, then it is clear that it certainly will not have undergone Porsche’s quality testing.

The city of Shenzhen, located an hour’s drive from Hong Kong, is one of the main locations for manufacturing counterfeits in China. Michaela Stoiber visits the area several times a year to take part in raids. These trips require months of research beforehand. Support is provided on site by several detective agencies and three investigator teams responsible for Porsche, who collate information, observe what is going on and go on mystery shopping runs.

Brand protection officers track down Porsche fakes across the globe and take them out of circulation.

Valuable information is also provided by the customs authorities, who are very active in this area, but can only check one to two percent of incoming goods. If they find counterfeit goods, they inform the Brand Protection team, which obtains information on the importer or shipper. However, these companies are often merely intermediaries or logistics service providers, rather than the manufacturers themselves. “Our goal is always to locate the source. Once we have found it, we inform the local authorities to take the necessary steps there. This collaboration generally works very well,” explains Michaela Stoiber.

Andreas Kirchgäßner sees it as a game of cat and mouse: “It’s like tracing cases of doping. Dopers are always searching for new ways to avoid getting caught – and investigators are hot on their tracks. As a team we need to be flexible, and constantly adapt to the new strategies adopted by the counterfeiters.” Michaela adds: “10 years ago, you could impound entire containers of counterfeit goods in the Port of Hamburg. Nowadays, however, a lot of products are sent via post in small packages, meaning you don’t often get to confiscate large quantities in one go this way.”

The steps taken to combat the sale of counterfeit goods on online platforms are working well. Ebay, Alibaba etc. are systematically scanned for suspect items. If the team’s suspicions are confirmed, the listings have to be deleted. 

Repeat offenders in particular may be sent cease-and-desist notices with the threat of prosecution. As a result, the number of listings requiring deletion has dropped by a third over the past year. Nevertheless, the three brand protection officers all agree that there is no sign of their workload easing up. “China is like a haystack,” sums up Michaela Stoiber. And the team is sure to find plenty more needles to pull out in future.”

The above originally appears on the Porsche Website

Spotted a counterfeit part? Report it here.

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