File: Hatem Ghani, head of enforcement at a law firm representing car and parts manufacturers holds up fake auto spares seized during a raid conducted against counterfeiters in the the UAE. For Illustrative purposes only Image Credit: Francois Nel, Gulf News

Dubai: Businessman Ahmad M. was a proud owner of a Dh300,000 Japanese 4x4.

In June 2009, the engine broke down two weeks after he unknowingly fitted it with a counterfeit engine oil filter at a neighbourhood garage.

Ahmad realised too late that the filter he had used was actually stuffed with an old cloth that made his engine seize up. The dealership refused to replace the damaged engine, forcing Ahmad to spend tens of thousands more on a replacement.

Filipino IT professional Boyet C. knowingly bought Dh40 fake front wheel brake pads for his Mitsubishi Lancer in May 2010 in Satwa. A few days later, the wheels began to shudder. It worsened in the following months, forcing him to pay for a costly repair to re-grind both brake discs, fix the front wheel assembly before switching back to Dh220 genuine brake pads.

A visit to any auto parts shop in Naif or Satwa in Dubai and Sharjah's auto-parts road usually ends up in a conversation on the price of a genuine and a "copy".

Out of 10 shops visited by XPRESS, at least seven said they had fake car parts at a fraction of the price of the real deal.

Omar Shteiwi, chairman of Brand Owners' Protection Group (BPG), a Dubai-based industry group, told XPRESS that sham car components have infiltrated the supply chain so much that they reckon one in every three cars (33 per cent) in the UAE is fitted with a counterfeit item.

A BPG study shows that knock-off car parts account for the lion's share - 69 per cent - of all fakes based on market value and volume, followed by tobacco, a distant second at 22 per cent and fake cosmetics at 5 per cent.

"The impact on public safety of fake car parts is not immediately clear due to lack of research. UAE officials have carried out numerous enforcement actions, but the problem remains uncontrollable.

"Counterfeiters pay no taxes, use fake labels, under-declare the value of their goods, conduct no product testing and make huge profits even if they sell their goods at one-third the price of [the] original."

According to him, only anecdotal evidence exists linking fake car parts and damage to vehicles or passengers in the UAE.

The counterfeit car parts industry is today a $16 billion (Dh59 billion) industry globally.

Hideki Tsukiori, General Manager of After -Sales Department of Nissan Middle East FZE, calls counterfeiting of car parts a social "cancer". He estimates that $2 billion (Dh7.34 billion) worth of knock-off car parts find their way into the Middle East and African region annually.

"Manufacturing fake parts is a criminal act," said Tsukiori. "It is an economic menace which robs the hapless consumers of their money and endangers lives and property for the counterfeit goods manufacturer's own economic gain. On the other hand, the government also suffers from huge amount of lost taxes."

Serious threat

Fakes are a serious threat to life. "The problem with counterfeits is that they are passed off as the real item, but they pose serious danger," said Hatem Ghani, head of enforcement at Al Shaali & Co, which represents more than 40 vehicle and parts manufacturers.

"If they do that with safety-related parts, or even copy engine heads and pistons - it could pose serious damage to your engine, the driver, passengers and other road users." Ghani said, "Three weekly raids had been conducted against counterfeits by our clients this year, of which four in 10 raids dealt with fake car parts."

While most of these counterfeit parts are imported from countries such as China, Taiwan, Thailand, India, the Philippines, Malaysia, Syria and Turkey, some fake parts also come from Canada, said Ghani and Tsukiori.

From 2008 to August 2010, Nissan Middle East conducted 41 raids on warehouses and retail outlets, confiscating nearly $10 million (Dh36.7 million) worth of counterfeit parts, Tsukiori said.

Studies conducted by KMPG on behalf of the Dubai-based BPG in 2008 and Gulf Marketing Research for Toyota dealership Al Futtaim in May 2010 show that commuters are alarmingly vulnerable to bogus parts.

One of the biggest hauls was on August 29, 2010 when authorities padlocked two big warehouses in Sharjah after 500,000 counterfeit auto parts were found. That raid also yielded thousands of fake labels for parts meant for Mercedes, GM, Toyota and Hyundai cars, among others.

The Chinese traders who rented the warehouses, later tried to break the lock authorities had put up after the raid, which led to several people being arrested.

Most people think using a fake car part is a "harmless" act justified by cost savings, but the growing deluge of billions worth of imitation parts is seen as the cause behind one out of every two road deaths in Saudi Arabia, according to Ahmad Al Dedy, an expert with Exova, a UK-based testing firm.

"Out of every 6,000 fatalities due to accidents on Saudi roads, half of these are the result of using fake spare automobile parts," he said, quoting Eisa Al Eisa, the Saudi Customs adviser. According to data from traffic authorities 90 people died on Dubai roads in the first half of 2010 - down from 120 in the same period last year.

Fast buck

Warren Hayday, GM's Manager of Investigations in Europe, India, Africa & Middle East, said that since counterfeiters are in it just to make a quick buck, it's the fast-moving parts that are often copied.

In 2009 alone, GM reported that raids they conducted with UAE authorities yielded $10 million (Dh36.7 million) worth of fake auto parts - equivalent to around 700,000 items, mainly oil filters, brakes and spark plugs.

Sajjad Pasha, National Sales and Marketing Manager for Toyota dealer Al-Futtaim Motors, said a major challenge for them is educating car owners as their study showed that 12 per cent of UAE customers knowingly purchase fake parts. "Research reveals that price remains the biggest motivator in purchasing fake parts," said Pasha.

Given the alarming situation, UAE authorities have ramped up vigilance. A Dubai Customs spokesperson confirmed to XPRESS that they have tackled 335 intellectual property rights infringements in Dubai ports, that included knock-off car parts, this year. In the face of unabated raids, however, counterfeiters have grown more sophisticated.

And because of the increasing vigilance of Chinese authorities in the mainland, Ghani said that the counterfeiters have exported generic car parts to the UAE and turned the country into a re-packing and re-export hub.

Ghani showed to XPRESS reams of fake bar codes meant for GM-labelled fake parts confiscated during the August 29 raid.

In all these, signs point to the fact that customers will continue to get fake parts from neighbourhood traders in Sharjah and Naif until something terribly wrong happens to them or someone they know, if they live to tell the story.

How to spot fakes

Here are a couple of tips to help you tell a phoney from the genuine article:

Packaging If it appears flimsy, lacks the name brand or logo, or has graphics or a name that is similar to but not quite the same as those you're used to seeing, it could be counterfeit.

Colours Counterfeiters use colours, artwork and fonts on packaging similar to the original. Look for faded colours.

Price There will always be variation in prices of parts, but extremely large differences in price should cause you to be suspicious.

Dealership Visual inspection may not be enough to distinguish a genuine from a fake. Insist on genuine parts from authorised dealers and retailers.