A Guidebook to the World of Counterfeit Parts

We’ve all experienced it: that sinking feeling you get when you’ve powered up your latest circuit and nothing happens. Maybe you made a mistake in your design or you shorted something while soldering. It’s even possible that ESD damaged one of your chips. All of these issues and more are possible, maybe even inevitable, when designing your own hardware.

But what if your design is perfect and your soldering skills beyond reproach? What if your shiny new device is DOA but you’ve done everything right? A fascinating report by [Yahya Tawil] makes the case that it’s increasingly possible that you’ve run across a counterfeit component. While it’s still relatively unlikely the hobby hacker is going to get bit by the counterfeit bug, the figures and examples referenced in his report may surprise you.

One of these is an ATmega328, the other is literal garbage.

[Yahya] points to a number of government studies on the rising scourge of counterfeit components, and the numbers are rather surprising. For example, the U.S Department of Commerce conducted a study between 2005 and 2008 where over 50% of respondent manufacturers and distributors had encountered counterfeit components. Another estimate claims that up to 15% of the semiconductors purchased by the Pentagon are counterfeit, presenting a serious risk to national security.

But how exactly does one counterfeit a microcontroller or transistor? Interestingly, in the vast majority of cases, old chips are pulled from recycled circuit boards and new labels are written over the original. Sometimes the forgery is as simple as changing the date code on the component or up-rating its capability (such as labeling it military spec when it isn’t), but in some cases chips with the same package will be labeled as something else entirely. Other tricks are decidedly low-tech: the documentation for the device may list functions and capabilities which it simply does not possess, artificially raising its value.

The report is a worthwhile read, even for those of us who may not be purchasing components in the same quantities as the Pentagon. It may make you think twice before you click “Buy” on that shady site with the prices that seem to good to be true.

Counterfeit components certainly seem to be on the rise from where we’re sitting. We’ve covered a number of other studies on this increasingly common trend, as well as first hand accounts ranging from successful recoveries to frustrating failures.

33 thoughts on “A Guidebook to the World of Counterfeit Parts

  1. One must assume a QC role considering the global supply chains, silicon lot errata, and seconds-bin recycling.
    It got bad enough for us to only order directly form Analog Devices & TI , then physically deliver them to the assembly line.

    We simply can’t trust the assembly people to source components that can’t be profiled directly (students should build an octopus if they don’t have one for their scopes yet). As even spools of resisters with the wrong tolerance, capacitors with the wrong rating/dialectic (some china MLCC also fail-closed witch can cause fires), and multi-lot pad re-printed recovered SMD parts.

    It is a dangerous problem, but consumers demand cheap products.
    I think it poses a greater problem these days as the rate of new hardware component families has slowed over the past 5 years.
    The part that annoys me is the de-standardization of packages by some manufacturers…. I have seen some QFNs around with over 3 different oblong/trapezoidal contacts where the ground pad should be…. I can’t imagine a good re-flow without a prior glue process slowing things down a lot.

    1. From what I’ve seen those qfns tend to solder pretty well with reflow alone (assuming a properly sized stencil is used for the paste…surface tension with melted solder is a crazy thing) and they allow for switching power supply controllers with increasingly high current capabilities with integrated mosfets, among other things. The weirdest one I’ve used is this strange dual-row qfn package found on TI’s TUSB7340. It’s practically a bga without the balls.

      In a lot of these cases, the manufacturer will supply fairly clear instructions on how to reflow the part. So long as those are followed, things tend to be pretty reliable since it’s in the manufacturerer’s best interest to keep you using their part in your design.

  2. I as repairing a 3D plasma a couple of years ago and required a couple of IGBT’s. The only place I could find a supplier was an eBay store in the US.

    Of course as soon as the power was applied they didn’t even go bang the set just failed to start up correctly. I eneded up sourcing a similar specked part from a manufacturer that was readily available from element 14 and low and behold the set worked

  3. This has become a serious problem at my (unnamed) work. A trusted vendor became decidedly untrusted as they fed us a series of bogus parts. Bad capacitors in this case. Not the marked voltage rating. Sure looked correct, but X-rays demonstrated a different part inside. The worst thing is that they survived our initial burn in.

  4. I’ve gotten what I suspect are recycled parts before, especially with ultra cheap Arduino clones. Most recently I picked up a dirt cheap pro micro (Atmel 32u4) board and it worked great at first. Then while I was working on a project with it and iterating on firmware after a few times reprogramming the chip it started to fail every now and then. Finally it just died completely and can’t be reprogrammed at all, even with an ISP.

    1. Hi Wade, I’m not saying your story isn’t true or anything like that. Don’t get me wrong. I just want to shine a different light on the conclusion some might draw when a project no longer works as expected. Nothing personal, I’m sure we’ve all been there. See my comment as a guide to the youngsters, as we don’t want to scare them with stories of counterfeit parts, we must stimulate them in finding causes in order to make a better design.

      The problems you describe sound very similar from my first projects, back in the day when counterfeit components simply didn’t exist. What I’ve learned is to think about what went wrong, it is very easy to say that the component failed. But is it real or realistic. I hear this a lot at work from time to time. But in practice there are mostly very good reasons why components fail. Sometimes people are simply not aware of what they are doing wrong. Programming their circuit through an external programmer… but using the wrong voltages (5V in a 3.3V design), applying the wrong type of load to the driver (slightly inductive when assuming 100% resistive), or simply ringing circuits. Don;t forget people crippling/damaging their devices with Electro Static Discharges. Unconnected pins (floating when the should be defined H/L). And many times just crappy software/firmware applied to the device, effectively causing the problems yourself. It doesn’t help by shouting that the specifications aren’t right or shouting that the interrupt doesn’t fire, while in the mean time the problem is all about not reading the datasheet properly.

      Now these are just some silly examples of what can go wrong, my message is simple, always look back to what you did. Always doubt yourself first, ask a colleague or friend. Use google wisely, keep on searching even if you think you’ve found the answer, finding an answer that satisfies you doesn’t mean it is the right answer. Finding info on the internet doens’t make it true. There are many people making the same mistakes as you and some put them on the internet.

      Never discard a problem as an incident, if something went wrong and you did not find a reason, do not discard it as a glitch. A problem not solved properly will come back to hunt you… Unless smoke is coming from the device, keep on searching for the problem until you are 100% sure it is defect OR a counterfeit.
      In many cases you can take a shortcut, replace the part, when it works, put back the old part, when it stops put back the new one, when it works, then you may conclude it’s the part. Step 2 would be finding out why it died..

      Stay humble in your quest of finding the answers top your problems, always doubt yourself first.
      (hmmm… that would make a nice phrase for a tile)

      But still… the whole counterfeit business is pretty scary and it is good to see that it is mentioned on sites like this. In the retro computing world, these things are also happening. Old SID-chips being relabeled and sold as “better” ones. Or simply defective devices sold as fully functional. Scary stuff!

      1. I agree that these are all likely culprits, but in my case I do know what I’m doing. Voltages and such were all correct and the device in question was protected from ESD. And it’s not a firmware issue either, it still responds but it looks like the EEPROM failed. Of course it’s possible that there is something else wrong, but I looked for everything you mentioned and more and didn’t find indications of anything other than the chip itself failing.

        It’s not the first time I’ve seen something similar. I suspect they aren’t counterfeit per se, but actually old chips or chips that were manufacturing rejects.

      2. yes there was… no there wasn’t… yes there was… no there wasn’t
        to make a long reply short, you very well know what I mean.
        But then again, perhaps you don’t. Anyway, what I mean was: “a long long time ago in a place far far away…”

  5. I had a case with Vishay optocouplers on 2006. That was a headache from purchasing area; I never accepted to buy from external dealers but the inspection showed a reprinted ID number mixed with good ones. So reworks were above $20,000.

  6. I went to a presentation by a company that specializes in finding obsolete parts once. They showed a picture of a fairly big capacitor that, when taken apart, revealed a much smaller capacitor inside.. still my favourite photo of counterfeit parts. And it goes to show that it’s not only IC’s that’s vulnerable..

        1. There seems to be a bug in the link generation function, it did cut off the !! at the end of the link which are required to direct to the picture.
          I am going to joint the “Edit button now” party. :)
          Different link, same image:

    1. I work in a tool repair facility for a specific manufacturer.
      Almost weekly we receive a clone of one of our electronic tools in for repair or firmware update.

      When you see a new “brand name” tool on that worldwide garage sale, and it is half the price of what you would normally pay…

      …don’t expect us to fix it.

  7. I’m technically a counterfeiter.

    In my youth I worked at Flight Systems in Harrisburg. They were (are?) under contract by at least Chrysler, if not other OEMs, to supply replacement electronic modules. So if someone’s Jeep ECU or ABS unit failed, FS got the bad core and sold a “reconditioned” ECU to the mechanic.

    To “recondition” boards, they first removed the shell. Then used very hot and high pressure “water picks” to remove the potting compound. New PCBAs were made for the cores deemed beyond repair.

    Since many components were obsolete, they had a “salvage department” which did exactly what you think. They pulled valuable parts from old boards and either used them to repair or build new boards! I repaired boards and secretly started marking each board I repaired, with expected results. Many salvaged parts failed. I quit when I realized FS Management and Chrysler knew, but didn’t care.

    They were so guilty and embarrassed by the salvage department, that they banished it to an area that visitors couldn’t see. There was no heat/AC there, but it was always unbearably hot and humid due to the water picks. It was an honest sweatshop. The ceiling was only about six foot high and for some reason they had it lit with some red spot lights and one large yellow high bay light. Everyone working in that place was fresh out of jail or had mental health issues so none of the ‘regular’ employees visited.

    I only mention this because I think many ‘recycled’ parts are used internally. Most people discovering counterfeit parts are doing so not on the reel, but in a product. Not saying counterfeits on the reel aren’t common, just less so. For example, a USB thumbdrive or lithium battery or ESP32 or Arduino clone was made by people who specifically requested the cheapest part with “X” markings.

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