At first sight, genuine and counterfeit replacement parts can appear virtually identical. But key differences may have serious consequences when it comes to safety. Mercedes-Benz has a dedicated team working to investigate worldwide product piracy and expose illegal imitations.
When a Mercedes-Benz sedan went up in flames in 2013, the resulting damage could hardly have been more dramatic. The vehicle had been parked outside the garage of an apartment block in the US, and the inferno destroyed most of the three-storey building. Investigators quickly established that the fire must have started under the car’s bonnet.
Closer inspection revealed the cause to be the cooling fan control unit: a short circuit had evidently resulted in a spontaneous blaze. With the car little more than a heap of molten plastic and twisted metal, X-ray analysis was used to uncover the truth: the faulty control unit was not a genuine Mercedes-Benz replacement part, but a forgery.
Thousands of kilometres from the scene of the accident, Peter Stiefel sits at a computer screen in his Stuttgart office, scrutinising the investigator’s photos. Stiefel is Daimler’s chief forgery hunter. There is a poster on the wall of his office identifying more than 360 different Mercedes-Benz wheel rims. Stiefel knows most of them by heart and can immediately spot a vehicle without the genuine articles.
But light-alloy wheels are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to product forgeries. Counterfeit articles include everything from Mercedes-Benz key fobs to an entire vintage 300 SLR – not to mention the full range of replacement parts. These are what give Stiefel and his team the greatest cause for concern. Forged parts not only damage a brand’s sales figures, they can also put the safety of the unsuspecting customers in serious danger.
In order to determine exactly how great that risk may be, Daimler has been testing forged products for a number of years. The company now knows that a forged brake pad can be 60 per cent less efficient than a genuine Mercedes-Benz part – and that can mean an increase in braking distance of up to 15 metres.
Given the combination of high profits and low risk, the market for forgeries has grown exponentially in recent years. It is a dangerous development, since the replacement parts copied are increasingly relevant to vehicle safety: filters, brake pads, windshields and steering columns are among the most frequently confiscated counterfeit products.
Forgeries by the truckload
Last year alone, there were 2000 successful investigations: customs seizures, cease-and-desist declarations or raids resulted in forged Mercedes-Benz products being confiscated. In addition to Stiefel’s 15-strong team, more than 100 external lawyers and investigators are employed to combat the fraudsters.
But brand piracy usually involves only medium-sized fish. Occasionally, though, they also catch a major player: when Arab authorities carried out a large-scale raid on a warehouse in Dubai in the presence of the Brand Protection team early last year, for example, they unearthed more than a million forged car parts, including 123,000 destined to be sold as Mercedes-Benz accessories. It took more than 10 trucks to remove the potentially dangerous goods.
In the case of a genuine oil filter, the product name, part number, logo and other wording are finely printed yet clearly identifiable. The plastic interior is precisely manufactured and, when mounted, the filter offers a perfect fit.
The wording is coarser, often indistinct or missing completely. The fake filter is shorter than the original and the gasket is of appreciably inferior quality. The interior uses cheap wire and poor-quality adhesive.
Adhesive residues on the centre spar and untidy foam seams reveal the filter on the right to be a deceptively realistic forgery. But the dimensions are also inaccurate, the counterfeit product (right) is shorter than the original (left) and it would not fit snugly in the air filter housing.
The risks are significantly higher when counterfeit parts are key to a vehicle’s safety. Closer inspection reveals the copied brake pad (left) to be poorly made in comparison to the original (right). As a result, it will not fit snugly in the brake caliper, and stopping distances will probably be longer.
This article was originally published by Mercedes-Benz.