CSI: Toyota

How Toyota’s Brand Protection Group helps keep counterfeit parts out of our cars

April 17, 2018
Contraband Pose -- No, she's not moving. Instead, Brand Protection Analyst Teena Bohi is posing with contraband law enforcement agents collected during a counterfeit parts raid in Missouri. 

Teena Bohi doesn’t have any formal investigative training.
 
But still, the brand protection analyst is a hawk when it comes to spotting counterfeit parts and helping law enforcement agencies crack down on sellers.
 
“She’s just nosey,” suggests her boss, Continuity, Compliance and Brand Protection Manager Joe Cammiso.
 
“It works,” Bohi says, firing back at the good-natured barb.
 
Bohi and Cammiso make up Toyota’s Brand Protection group, fighting against outside entities who make and sell fake Toyota and Lexus parts online, usually without any regard for quality or safety.
 
“Counterfeit parts are absolutely fake parts that look indistinguishable from genuine parts,” Bohi says. “If they get on a vehicle and fail, not only is it an issue for the consumer, but there’s potential liability for us. There’s the issue of goodwill. We’re typically going to do what we need to do to make it right for the consumer. We spend millions of dollars ensuring our vehicles meet all the specifications they’re supposed to meet to provide crashworthiness and safety for people when they’re driving our vehicles. Counterfeiters don’t do any of that.”
 
 

Team Effort

Cammiso and Bohi may be the only team members working on busting counterfeit parts, but they’re part of a much larger effort. They work with counterparts from other OEMs to stamp out the problem. Why? Well, if a seller is pushing fake Toyota parts, there’s a pretty good chance they’re pushing fake Honda or Mazda parts, too. So, it’s not uncommon to go on raids involving other companies.
 
“Our goal is to protect Toyota’s brand,” Bohi says. “But we know that, working together, we get a whole lot more done. It’s about who can get to a raid, who has the knowledge to go. We had Subaru go down to Georgia in a raid where they only found parts from the Detroit 3. Law enforcement wants the case because they know the auto industry means business. We do what it takes as a group to support whatever law enforcement needs.”
 
Their efforts are organized, too.
 
“We’ve formed a nonprofit called the Automotive Anti-Counterfeiting Council,” Cammiso says. “It’s made up of 11 OEMs, and we meet every quarter.  The group collaborates with Homeland Security, FBI, and Customs. Our mission statement is to protect the American consumer from counterfeit parts. So, we’re all pointing in the same direction. And we can work together because we’re all fighting an illegal activity. There are no antitrust issues.”
 

Sorting it out -- Bohi sifts through counterfeit parts with law enforcement agencies after a raid in Missouri. 

Raid!

The process starts each morning, when Bohi peruses websites like eBay, Amazon and Alibaba. They also employ an outside vendor to search for suspicious parts. Upon finding something suspicious, Bohi may hire a private investigator to make an anonymous test purchase. Once they confirm it’s fake, she notifies the hosting site, which takes the listing down. The seller usually changes a minor detail and relists the item, then Bohi decides between two options: send a cease and desist letter or get law enforcement involved.
 
And that’s how Bohi ended up in the back of a Homeland Security vehicle in Ozark, Missouri last August, helping authorities raid the home of a 28-year old man who sold $120,000 worth of counterfeit airbags online. After Bohi’s complaint, the Department of Homeland Security investigated, secured a warrant and asked her and her Nissan counterpart to come along to identify parts.
 
“We roll up to the meeting site,” Bohi says. “In this case the IRS was there because a lot of times they also get other types of fraud, tax evasion, wire fraud, mail fraud. The local sheriff’s office was there. Homeland Security, and one guy from the FBI. There were probably 15 law enforcement folks. So, we meet up, they say ‘We’re gonna drive over there in a wagon train. And we’re gonna go knock on the door, we will signal to you that the house is clear and you can go into the house when the garage door goes up.
 
“A couple of guys go around back of the house. A guy runs up to the front door with a battering ram and they bang on the door yelling ‘Police! Open up!’ The folks opened the door, and the cops run in with their guns pulled, yelling ‘Hands up! Hands up!’ About 15 minutes later, the garage door opens and we go in. In this case, it was a brand-new house in a nice neighborhood and they had a 2-year-old kid. It was sad to see, but they were doing what they ought not to be doing. The suspect had an assembly line in his garage to assemble counterfeit airbags. He didn’t know if they were going to work. He didn’t really care. And he was selling them on eBay. We took probably 600 parts and airbags out of that garage.”
 
The suspect pleaded guilty to mail fraud and smuggling. 
 
Turns out, Bohi’s job does come with some tangible excitement. But more importantly, she helps keep fake and dangerous parts out of Toyota’s products.
 
So Bohi’s nosiness? Just a part of protecting the brand and saving lives.
 
By Dan Nied

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