How to spot counterfeit goods

posted by Chris Schrader
5 May 2017

Why pay £100 each for a widget when someone offers it for the “bargain price” of £45? The answer is simple: that cheap widget is probably counterfeit.

This pervasive problem raises serious financial and safety concerns for industry and consumers. Counterfeit equipment failure can cause downtime and production problems; in other cases, the consequences are more severe. In 1989, 55 people died in a plane crash when counterfeit bolts in the plane's tail section failed. That sort of disaster is rare, but every company should be alert to counterfeit warning signs.

Who, what and where? Common counterfeit warning signs

Ask yourself these three questions before you take that great deal:

1. Who is the seller? Purchase only from authorised resellers. These sources have reputations to protect and aren't going to risk their relationship with OEMs just to make a quick buck. Be especially wary when perusing sites like Amazon, eBay and Alibaba, which are known to have counterfeit products.

2. What are you buying? Many companies have developed track and control mechanisms, such as QR codes, to help keep counterfeit products out of the supply chain. Canon identifies products with a special hologram. If there's any question, check with the OEM.

3. Where is it coming from? Online sales are the biggest red flags because sales are essentially anonymous. Anybody can set up an official-looking website. Again, check with the OEM for a list of authorized retailers and resellers.

Basically, use common sense. If a deal seems too good to be true, it usually is.

Common counterfeiter tactics

Spotting counterfeit products is easier if you know what to look for. The two most common tactics are fake packaging and sourcing used parts as part of a larger assembly.

Scammers use graphics software to create boxes identical to OEM packaging, right down to the same fonts and designs. They can also create security stickers and serial numbers that match those used in the original manufacturing.

Counterfeiters often take an actual product serial number from the manufacturer and put it on a finished assembly — except they use all their (usually inferior) component parts inside the box or assembly. Manufacturers may someday develop a reliable system that tracks real serial numbers. Until then, understand that the mere presence of a serial number doesn't make a product legitimate.

They're also adept at placing used parts into a whole assembly and passing it off as new and unused. For example: HP uses Seagate hard drives in their computers coupled with HP firmware and HP brackets. Counterfeiters will purchase a Seagate drive that’s likely used and then counterfeit the brackets and the packaging to trick you into thinking it’s a genuine HP computer. They then are charging a premium for a used part that’s cheaper than new but more expensive than a refurbished.

Is it real or counterfeit?

Unfortunately, it's often hard to tell, but here are common red flags:

  • Mismatched date codes: Check the codes on the components against the code on the assembly.
  • Misspellings: Rest assured that Hewlett Packard won't misspell its name as “Hewlet”.
  • Improbable date codes: April has just 30 days, so a 0442 date code isn't just improbable, but impossible.
  • Missing part-specific requirements: Electronic components, for example, often carry specific requirements such as a humidity indicator card or special packaging. Check the manufacturer's data sheet for specific packing/storage requirements.

The bottom line is to always buy from an authorised source. Once you go outside authorised reseller channels, it's the Wild, Wild West — and all the gunfighters are much better shots than you are.

☛ Chris Schrader was an IT parts specialist for Flash Global.

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