On November 2 at the SEMA Show in Las Vegas, NV, U.S. Marshals seized alleged counterfeit aftermarket automotive parts being displayed and sold by six Chinese vendors. The parts infringed on patents and trademarks on products sold by Jeep accessory manufacturer Omix-ADA, which worked directly with SEMA to shut down the alleged counterfeiters.
The raids brought fresh attention to a growing problem in the automotive aftermarket industry: counterfeit and knock-off products.
Although it was big news during the show, industry insiders say the issue of counterfeit parts is hardly breaking news. Following the raids at the SEMA Show, Omix-ADA released an official statement:
“The company views counterfeiting and infringement as a serious and widespread problem in the aftermarket industry and one that can be combated through proper legal channels, and would encourage other members of the aftermarket industry to follow a similar path.”
Aeromotive founder and president Steve Matusek has also seen an increase in counterfeited products.
“The counterfeit product issue is growing,” he said. “It’s not just growing in volume with certain components, it’s growing with more components.”
Counterfeit vs. Knock-Off Products
Counterfeit and knock-off are often used interchangeably; however, there’s a difference.
A knock-off part typically uses patented designs and technology, but usually stop short of using the original part’s name or logo. It is not sold as the original part.
Counterfeit products are usually passed off as the originals they copy, and are designed to intentionally confuse a customer.
Differences between authentic and counterfeit parts can be subtle. This is a comparison of an actual MSD 6AL ignition box and a counterfeit. The products look similar, but the real MSD box has the Mag Input on the left.
In the case of the Aeromotive and MSD counterfeits we saw, the differences were so subtle it would be easy for a customer to miss them. For example, the counterfeit Aeromotive products had a copycat Aeromotive logo that closely mimicked the company’s actual logo. Many of the differences between the authentic MSD products and the counterfeits were found inside the ignition box, where the customer isn’t likely to look.
Both companies have been proactive in educating customers on what to look for if they suspect a fake. You can watch the video below for a tutorial on authentic vs. counterfeit Aeromotive products and read an article on MSD counterfeits here.
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How You Can Avoid Counterfeit Parts
The issue of counterfeit parts isn’t just about corporate patents and trademarks. Counterfeit parts can under-perform, wear out prematurely, and outright fail. As Matusek points out, it can become a financial and safety issue for consumers who purchase the wrong parts.
“You can have problems with not just the product not functioning properly, but you can have a fire,” Matusek said. “We deal with fuel. We take great pains in developing a product and we put a lot of cost into qualifying a product and making sure it’s developed and designed to live in that environment. When these products fail, it can cost you a lot.”
We reached out to SEMA for tips on how consumers can avoid counterfeit parts. The organization stressed the importance of purchasing only from reputable companies and authorized web retailers. SEMA has urged its member companies to provide a list of authorized dealers, but recommends buyers contact the manufacturer if there’s any doubt about the authenticity of a product.
“Purchasing through reputed sales channels can reduce the risk of getting stuck with a counterfeit product,” a SEMA spokesperson said. “If the retailer is new or not well known, consumers should feel comfortable reaching out to the manufacturer to see whether their products are sold through that channel. It is better to take this step and confirm authenticity than to get stuck with a knock-off of inferior quality.”
Aeromotive has taken the extra step of listing non-authorized retailers on its website. As a rule of thumb, it’s also wise to avoid — or use extra caution — when shopping with retailers and large e-commerce sites where instances of counterfeiting is reportedly on the rise.
Even packaging can help differentiate between an authentic part and a fake one. For example, this counterfeit Aeromotive 13109 kit is packed in Styrofoam. Aeromotive doesn’t use Styrofoam in any of its packaging.
Finally, compare prices before buying. If the price of a product is significantly lower through one distributor, you should be suspicious and do some further homework.
For its part, the aftermarket industry is also taking steps to make it harder for counterfeiters to succeed.
“SEMA encourages all our members to register their intellectual property with the appropriate government agencies,” SEMA said in an email statement. “New and useful inventions should be protected with patents. Brand names and logos should be registered as trademarks. When the company encounters a counterfeiting situation, it will be in a position to enforce its rights if it has taken these steps ahead of time.”
Many proactive companies have heeded that advice.
“We’ve licensed our trademark in China,” Matusek said. “Now we’re developing some new product that is the next generation of our regulators, similar to our original regulator. It’s the same function with a little bit different aesthetics, but now we have design patents. The reason we have design patents is because now we can go after them legally when they’re infringing on our design patents in China.”
You can also look for legitimate aftermarket companies, like Omix-ADA, to aggressively enforce their rights. Although two companies were served subpoenas and shut down during the SEMA Show raid and four more companies received subpoenas and were shut down at the nearby AAPEX Show, Henk Van Dongen, Omix-ADA’s director of marketing, knows it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
“We did receive a lot of positive feedback from peer companies, customers, consumers and other interested aftermarket parties,” Van Dongen said of the search-and-seizure operation. “This will be an ongoing discussion within our industry and we are working with different organizations to figure out what the next logical steps are to protect the industry as a whole from the counterfeit issues. This is not just limited to the SEMA Show, but third-party market places like Alibaba, Amazon, and eBay as well.”