It sounds like something out of a Hollywood blockbuster: A military fighter jet mechanic discovers a part on a plane that isn’t quite right. Upon further investigation, officials discover that the The Dangers of Counterfeit Electronicscomputer chip, a piece no bigger than an inch square, is not in fact the military-grade advance technology that was touted by the manufacturer, but instead a salvaged piece from a consumer computer that was obsolete several decades ago and disguised to look new. Had the jet actually taken flight with the fake chip, there’s no telling what sort of disaster could have occurred.

It might sound far-fetched, but the issue of counterfeit computer components is very real, and such an incident actually occurred in 2008. The military is just one of the many targets for counterfeiters, who take advantage of buyers looking for the most advanced equipment at the best prices. Instead, those pieces end up costing them time, money and more.

Understanding the Problem

In the past, the counterfeit industry was limited mostly to high end accessories, such as designer bags and watches. But according to experts, electronic devices now comprise the largest number of counterfeit goods in the U.S. because the profit margin is so high.

Most people who purchase counterfeits are tricked by into believing that the items are real, as they are usually indistinguishable from the real thing, at least to the untrained eye. But even well-trained, experienced IT professionals might not realize that a component is a fake until it’s too late and the device doesn’t work properly, and it causes slowdowns, crashes, incompatibility issues and more.

Even if the item seems to work as it should, there are other issues with counterfeiting, including:

  • Counterfeiters often fund terrorist or crime organizations. When individuals purchase these items, they are indirectly supporting crime.
  • Many counterfeit devices are made without concern for safety. Many contain high levels of toxic chemicals, including lead, or are so poorly made that they can cause fire, explosions and serious injury or death.
  • Counterfeit devices present security risks. In the case of computer components, cybercriminals may work in connection with counterfeiters to sell devices that are pre-installed with malware or other “back door” means to gain access to the networks they are used on. In these cases, it’s difficult for existing security measures to recognize and mitigate the issue, as it’s inherent in the computer component.

Avoiding Counterfeit Items

With all of the potential dangers of counterfeit items, how can you avoid inadvertently purchasing a possibly harmful device?

First, always purchase electronics from trusted sources, i.e., right from the manufacturer or authorized retailer. If you want to save money, you might be able to score a great deal on a used server from an online classified or auction site, but there’s usually no way to know for sure that you’re getting an authentic piece. Instead of buying used, look for refurbished pieces such as those offered by xByte Technologies. A reputable refurbished component dealer will have stringent quality control procedures in place designed to ferret out the fake devices and ensure that their customers only receive authentic items.

Second, learn to identify the signs of counterfeit goods. Price is often a good indicator; you aren’t likely to find a brand new, current model of a hot device for less than half the manufacturer’s price. However, since counterfeiters often sell items at full price to trick consumers, so it’s important to learn to look at other clues, such as

  • Mistakes on the labeling. Misspellings, incorrect date codes (such as codes in the future or impossible dates), mismatched codes and missing information are all clues that something isn’t right.
  • Imperfections. Counterfeiters often sand off the original serial numbers or other markings and then recover the surface, but the process often creates imperfections. Other imperfections to look for include markings that are out of place and a surface that is different from authentic pieces.
  • Mis-marked countries of origin.
  • Poor functioning.

If you do receive a counterfeit item, gather the evidence and ask for a refund. If you cannot get a response, or the seller denies the allegation, contact local law enforcement for advice as well as the manufacturer, who will most likely want to see the evidence you’ve gathered in order to launch an investigation.

Above all, take steps to avoid becoming a victim. Stick to proven vendors and if you want to save money, purchase refurbished items that have been confirmed to be authentic. There is far too much at risk to take a chance on a deal that’s too good to be true.