The hidden dangers of counterfeit automotive bearings: How they can threaten lives, industries and economies

Hidden and dangerous, counterfeit automotive bearings are not just undermining the auto industry; they're setting the stage for potential vehicle malfunctions, potentially risking countless lives on our roads every day.


Hidden and dangerous, counterfeit automotive bearings are not just undermining the auto industry; they’re setting the stage for potential vehicle malfunctions, potentially risking countless lives on our roads every day.

The manufacturing of counterfeit bearings typically falls far short of the rigorous quality standards demanded of genuine parts. Unbeknownst to many, these counterfeit parts can cause catastrophic failures in vehicles, tainting brand reputations and causing considerable economic loss. Without stringent checks and controls, counterfeit bearings are susceptible to early failure, often without any forewarning.

This unexpected breakdown can lead to devastating mechanical failures in the vehicles they are installed in, posing significant safety risks to drivers and passengers. For instance, the failure of these parts within critical vehicle systems like steering, wheels, or transmissions could cause a sudden loss of control or a complete breakdown, endangering lives and property.

According to the Automotive Anti-Counterfeiting Council (A2C2), the issue of fake automotive parts has been escalating for some time. Data from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection indicates a significant surge in seizures related to intellectual property rights violations. The number of such seizures across all categories escalated from 14,841 in 2009 to 27,599 in 2019, marking an increase of 86 percent, in the most recent data from the agency.

The corresponding domestic value of these seized items saw an even steeper ascent, soaring from $260.7 million to a staggering $1.56 billion, a whopping increase of 497 percent. Surging demand for repair parts, especially since the Covid pandemic, is believed to also be fueling an increase in counterfeit automotive parts.

It’s important to highlight the role of Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) and other safety technologies in the context of wheel bearing assemblies. These modern safety mechanisms, including adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assists and emergency braking, depend heavily on precise and accurate input from wheel speed sensors. These sensors are integral components of wheel bearing assemblies. However, counterfeit wheel bearings lack the stringent quality control required for the sensors, wiring harness and the connectors essential for the wheel speed sensors to work efficiently. As motorists increasingly depend on these ADAS technologies, the implications of their failure due to substandard components can be severe and far-reaching.

Economic impact and examples of counterfeit bearings

While it’s hard to put a number on the overall value of counterfeit parts entering the U.S., one notable seizure in 2021 at a Philadelphia warehouse paints a picture of the variety of fake parts that enter the country. A shipment of 5,657 parts contained counterfeit door locks, hinges, powered mirrors, steering wheel switches, headlights and taillights, grills, rear bumpers and paint kits. U.S. Customs and Border Protection pegged the value of the parts of that one seizure at more than $300,000.

Yet another seizure at the Toronto international airport netted a pallet of wheel bearings.

The cost of counterfeit auto parts can involve more than just the value of the parts themselves. These costs can also include things like damage to a brand’s reputation, the costs of enforcement and litigation, as well as potential safety risks for consumers.

What’s being done about it? The World Bearing Association (WBA) operates as a not-for-profit, unincorporated industrial group. This body was established in 2006 by the joint initiative of three key, regional bearing organizations – The American Bearing Manufacturers Association (ABMA), the Federation of European Bearing Manufacturers’ Associations (FEBMA) and the Japan Bearing Industry Association (JBIA) to combat counterfeit bearings.

The consequences of counterfeit bearings extend beyond immediate safety concerns. These counterfeit goods also pose potential legal issues. Counterfeiting is considered a crime in numerous jurisdictions, and a business being inadvertently involved in their distribution or purchase could face criminal prosecution and civil litigation. There could also be regulatory issues for that company. But beyond that, there’s the risk of reputational damage as well.

But identifying counterfeit bearings isn’t always an easy task. These fake products are often skillfully designed to mimic genuine, premium-brand bearings. Fraudulent brand markings and near-identical packaging further complicate their identification. Moreover, they may not necessarily be cheaper than their legitimate counterparts, adding to the difficulty of recognizing a counterfeit product.

Here are just a few seizures involving counterfeit bearings:

•A special crimes unit in South Africa found thousands of counterfeit bearings in a parts warehouse and warned local motorists they could have had fake bearings installed on their vehicles;

•A customs office in Europe discovered more than 1,200 counterfeit bearings with a recognizable brand name en route to Africa. The legitimate company’s brand protection team was able to verify the fake bearings had duplicated codes which had already been applied to genuine products. The bearings were seized;

•A raid in the UK led to the discovery of counterfeit bearings that could have been sold to unsuspecting customers and end-users.

Buyers and those installing them can take measures to protect themselves against counterfeit bearings. Awareness is the first line of defense. Be cautious of deals that appear “too good to be true” or unusually available products. If there’s any suspicion of counterfeit bearings in your purchase or distribution network, it’s essential to notify the premium brand manufacturer or the World Bearing Association (WBA) immediately.

The role of modern technology in detecting counterfeits

Have you ever considered how modern technology can help fight counterfeiting? The WBA has developed an innovative solution to assist in identifying counterfeits — a mobile app. This app, capable of validating the authenticity of bearings within seconds, works by scanning the code on the product’s packaging.

Prominent bearing manufacturers such as NTN, which is a member of the World Bearing Association, have taken assertive steps against counterfeiting, including the launch of their bespoke bearing authentication apps like NTN Authenti Bear.

The most effective safeguard against counterfeit bearings, however, is to consistently procure from reputable and trusted sources. This approach not only ensures the authenticity of the purchased products but also protects businesses, employees and reputations from the significant threats posed by counterfeit products.

Counterfeit bearings present a significant danger to businesses and consumers alike, posing considerable safety risks. However, this danger can be mitigated with vigilance, awareness and proactive measures. By sourcing from trusted suppliers, employing detection tools like the WBA app, and promptly reporting suspected counterfeits, it’s possible to combat the issue of counterfeit bearings and foster a safer and more dependable automotive aftermarket.

Join your colleagues in the global automotive aftermarket. Get the Aftermarket Intel Briefing, edited by Mark Phillips, AAP.

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