Auto Outlook: Counterfeit auto parts are no joking matter

By AL SWANSON, UPI Auto Writer  |  Oct. 16, 2012 at 7:59 AM
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Everyone's heard stories about the morally challenged used car salesman who will say or do anything to make the sale.

Remember the classic line: "This little beauty was owned by an elderly widow who only drove to the supermarket and church on Sundays." Such deceptive sales practices, however, are a far cry from out and out fraud like actually tampering with an odometer in the dashboard to roll back a vehicle's mileage.

Charging top dollar for fake replacement parts like substandard nuts, bolts, brake pads, tires, belts, filters, bumpers, fenders, sheet metal, lights and hoods to make repairs after a vehicle is involved in a crash is outright fraud.

The latest fake auto parts outrage involves air bags, potential life-savers if you are in a serious collision. The government watchdog National Highway Traffic Safety Administration last week estimated "tens of thousands of counterfeit air bags" have been installed in vehicles that have been repaired at some independent shops in the last three years and are currently being driven on U.S. roads.

That's more than lying or fraud: It's dangerous, criminal and potentially lethal.

"Air bags save thousands of lives annually. But they can't save lives if they have not been repaired properly," said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety. "When an auto repairer installs a counterfeit air bag, consumers can be killed in a crash."

Testing of 11 replacement air bags found the majority of the fakes did not work at all or failed to inflate properly -- and some actually sent shards of metal flying as they inflated, NBC News reported. The agency listed 100 U.S., European and Japanese vehicles that could have been fitted with a fake replacement air bag, including such popular cars as the Ford Focus, Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Honda Civic, Chevrolet Volt, Chevy Cruze, Toyota Prius, Nissan Altima and VW Jetta.

NHTSA estimates fewer than 240,000 cars and trucks -- less than 0.1 percent of vehicles on U.S. roads -- may have fake air bags and no deaths or injuries have been linked to the counterfeits, so far.

"We want consumers to be immediately aware of this problem and to review our safety information to see if their vehicle could be in need of inspection," U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said.

The warning covers vehicles that have been repaired since 2009. Original factory air bags that came inside a new vehicle and repairs made at a certified new car dealership are not at issue.

The warning is for cheap counterfeits that sell for as little as $50 online. A genuine new factory original air bag can cost $700 to $1,000 and some vehicles have as many as eight air bags.

"While these air bags look nearly identical to certified, original equipment parts -- including bearing the insignia and branding of major automakers -- NHTSA testing showed consistent malfunctioning ranging from non-deployment of the air bag to the expulsion of metal shrapnel during deployment," NHTSA said in a statement.

In February, one of three owners of China's Guangzhou Global Auto Parts International Group pleaded guilty in federal court in Tennessee and was sentenced to 37 months in prison for his role in the fake air bag scam. The U.S. government said the firm "specializes in the production of counterfeit air bags."

Customs agents seized more than 1,600 fake air bags in North Carolina in August, but the problem is not new. Law enforcement authorities seized a shipment of 68 fake air bags for Honda, Audi, BMW, Lexus and Toyota vehicles in September 2010.

General Motors estimates it has seized more than $250 million in fake auto parts since 1985.

"This is a problem started by counterfeiters overseas," Bailey Wood, director of legislative affairs at the National Automobile Dealers Association told The Wall Street Journal, "and because of that, they can't make the customers whole. Our focus right now is getting the proper information out to dealers on how to deal with this, how to identify it."

Owners of vehicles that have had their air bags replaced after a crash are being advised to have a certified dealer check out the air bags.

Peace of mind has a cost.

The inspection -- which is not covered under a vehicle's warranty -- could cost a motorist $200 out of pocket for labor to have a mechanic remove, check and reinstall an air bag if it is OK.

"Dealers will play a critical role in identifying and removing suspected counterfeits as well as easing the fears of consumers not affected by this issue," Frank Borris, the director of NHTSA's Defects Investigation office, said in an email to The Detroit News.

"We expect all motor vehicle equipment to meet federal safety standards -- and air bags in particular play a central role in keeping drivers and passengers safe in the event of a crash," said David Strickland, NHTSA's administrator. "That's why it's critical that vehicle owners work with their automotive dealers and repair professionals to ensure they use the appropriate, original-equipment parts in the event they need to replace their air bag."

Used vehicle prices take a dip

It's simple supply and demand: More used cars reaching dealer lots sent average used car prices down 2.1 percent in September compared to a year ago.

ADESA Analytical Services says wholesale vehicle prices have been on a downward trend since May because of higher trade-in volumes as consumers replace their old vehicles with new ones.

The trend may continue through the holidays.

"We've seen a little more than a seasonal decline [in used car prices], through the summer especially," ADESA Executive Vice President Tom Kontos told The Detroit News. "I'd expect prices in the fourth quarter to be a little bit softer."

Average prices of used midsize SUVs were down 11.2 percent in September, minivan prices fell 4.6 percent and luxury car prices were 5.9 percent lower than September 2011. However, average prices for used full-size cars were up $7,520, or 5.2 percent, and prices of mini-SUVs were 3 percent higher.

Ford targets Prius with C-Max

Have you seen those cute animated line-drawing television commercials for Ford's newest hybrid, the C-Max?

Ford this month kicked off a 15-month advertising campaign it hopes will challenge Toyota's segment leading Pruis family of vehicles -- the sedan, subcompact c and v wagon -- that account for 54 percent of non-plug-in hybrid sales in the United States.

Ford hybrids are far behind with only about 4 percent of the segment this year, so it may take more than stylish, whimsical commercials to get the public interested in the C-Max.

Nearly 1,000 C-Max hybrids were sold after the car was introduced in the United States in mid-September.The C-Max, which has been sold with diesel or conventional gas engines in Europe for years, has a base price of $25,995.

"It is a new nameplate so we have to establish what the C-Max is and get it on people's shopping list," said Matt VanDyke, Ford's director of U.S. marketing communications.

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