The South African motor industry has slammed the fitting of counterfeit replacement parts to vehicles, saying that the practice was a threat to life and limb and had now reached epidemic proportions.

The biggest problem was that many motorists did not worry that the installation of the counterfeit parts may be deadly, said a motor industry spokesperson.

"It's one thing to buy a counterfeit T-shirt bearing the name of an impressive designer, but quite another to purchase inferior components that your life may depend upon."

He said that within the motor industry, with the exception of the body shell and the power train, it was no problem these days to simply bypass the manufacturer and obtain almost every part required for any vehicle model on the open market.

Termed "grey" imports or pirate parts, the counterfeit products look very similar to the originals but they almost always deviate in terms of the specifications and/or the composition, and therein lies the problem.

Ranging in quality from good to very poor, the pirate parts tend to experience premature wear and even failure for which there is no recourse, and if pirate parts are found to have been installed, any warranty or guarantee naturally becomes null and void.

This is particularly true in the case of critical safety components such as grills, headlights, windscreens and brake pads - a notorious favourite of parts counterfeiters.

Despite the stringent registration of all part numbers, the inferior parts are produced and distributed en masse and consumers are constantly warned of the need to specify authenticated original parts that comply with minimum international safety standards.

"With all the current hype about counterfeit DVDs and the potential impact on the video rental and greater entertainment industry, one tends to forget that counterfeiting is rampant in virtually every industry across the world.

"The increasing misuse of official trademarks and the peddling of inexpensive, inferior counterfeit brands is responsible for absorbing between nine percent and 11 percent of the world's trade, some R3 000-billion a year, and it is growing by about 25 percent per annum, three times as fast as ethical trade."

The greatest growth of this debilitating industry, however, is being experienced in developing countries where legislation and infrastructure is rudimentary, and South Africa has not been spared.

New technology has broadened the range of goods that are vulnerable to copying currency, official documents, beverages, food, tobacco, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, clothing, financial products, ticketing, petrochemicals, electronic equipment, automotive parts, and now cellphones and gambling chips.

As desktop publishing technology continues to boom and global payment systems sprout, counterfeiters are able to perfect copies of trademark names and devices on labelling, packaging and electronic equipment.

"They have concentrated on the finer details so that it's almost impossible in many cases to assess which is a genuine and which is a counterfeit product.

"These operations continue to multiply as more and more criminals take advantage of high tax-free profits, the low risk of being caught, and the minimal penalties if convicted," he said.