What Good Are Counterfeit Parts? Believe It Or Not, Maybe A Refund

[Charles Ouweland] purchased some parts off Aliexpress and noticed that the Texas Instruments logo on some of his parts wasn’t the Texas Instruments logo at all, it was just some kind of abstract shape that vaguely resembled the logo. Suspicious and a little curious, he decided to take a closer look at the MCP1702 3.3v LDO regulators he ordered as well. Testing revealed that they were counterfeits with poor performance.

Left: counterfeit part. Right: genuine Microchip MCP1702-3302

Looking at the packages, there were some superficial differences in the markings of the counterfeit MCP1702 versus genuine parts from Microchip, but nothing obviously out of place. To conclusively test the devices, [Charles] referred to Microchip’s datasheet. It stated that the dropout voltage of the part should be measured by having the regulator supply the maximum rated 250 mA in short pulses to avoid any complications from the part heating up. After setting up an appropriate test circuit with a 555 timer to generate the pulses for low duty cycle activation, [Charles] discovered that the counterfeit parts did not meet Microchip specifications. While the suspect unit did output 3.3 V, the output oscillated badly after activation and the dropout voltage was 1.2 V, considerably higher than the typical dropout voltage of 525 mV for the part, and higher even than the maximum of 725 mV. His conclusion? The parts would be usable in the right conditions, but they were clearly fakes.

The usual recourse when one has received counterfeit parts is to dump them into the parts bin (or the trash) and perhaps strive to be less unlucky in the future, but [Charles] decided to submit a refund request and to his mild surprise, Aliexpress swiftly approved a refund for the substandard parts.

While a refund is appropriate, [Charles] seems to interpret the swift refund as a sort of admission of guilt on the part of the reseller. Is getting a refund for counterfeit parts a best-case outcome, evidence of wrongdoing, or simply an indication that low value refund requests get more easily approved? You be the judge of that, but if nothing else, [Charles] reminds us that fake parts may be useful for something perhaps unexpected: a refund.

57 thoughts on “What Good Are Counterfeit Parts? Believe It Or Not, Maybe A Refund

    1. People don’t realize that this is an entire industry in China.

      This is how your counterfeit parts are processed. –

      Some circuit boards are even washed in creeks or streams before processing.

    2. @Gravis, Dude! Even a good supplier gets duped by their suppliers from time to time. You might say that they should have noticed the logos but maybe they came in a spool with genuine parts on the outside of the spool and the counterfeits within! Do you expect them to eyeball every individual 10 cent part?!?!

      I wouldn’t try to harm the good name of a company that had rectified the problem with either a second shipment or a refund unless it was a recurring thing. That very well may be the livelihood of some innocent people who were actually the victims of someone else that you are attacking.

  1. Refunds to savvy buyers are just a cost of doing business for fake parts sellers. They count on the fact that only a fraction of buyers will notice, and a fraction of those will demand their money back.

  2. It´s easy to get a refund on Ali. BUT it´s much more easier to apply for a refund because one never received the cheap, untracked package than to prove it´s a counterfeit. In the latter case, even if the seller is reluctant to refund, when Aliexpress steps in, it´s very often in the favor of the buyer.

    Getting a refund for counterfeit parts, is very easy when the transaction is only few dollars, the seller most of the time isn´t willing to fight for it, but becomes much more complicated if the value is over ~10USD

    1. I also noticed that, it’s really difficult to prove a circuit it’s counterfeit. Some time ago I bough some battery fuel gauges and they were completely fake, didn’t even work. Aliexpress requested proof of that but it was really difficult to them to understand the issue, I would have better luck claiming that I didn’t receive the parts.

    1. Negative. I don’t have a rolex.

      Really, with a bit of care you can get the stuff you need. As noted in the article, sometimes the lower dropout of the real part doesn’t matter, so getting these fakes is not a problem. Sometimes you need the real stuff and you pay slightly more or ask in advance if they are real.

  3. Counterfeit parts can be really annoying at times.
    But yes, one can at times get a refund for them, so that is at least nice.

    Then there is a whole slew of applications were the specifications of the fake part is still good enough, even though it at times can lead to a bit of extra trouble shooting.

    Simple solution I know to not get counterfeit parts is to make a large order from a reputable seller, and if one doesn’t need a whole reel of parts or just don’t want to pay the steep price of it, then there is usually others at the local hacker-/maker-space that one can share the order with. Since the discounts from larger orders is a real nice way of cutting off a decent portion of the cost.

  4. With the exceptions for a few sellers, I would think that some have no idea what they are selling. I have bought modules from places that sell household items. LOL. Most are honest people trying to make a living and would gladly refund you as they want repeated business and not ruin their reputation. I usually only buy minimum from sellers that I have never dealt with and only ones that have good feedbacks and been around for more than a year.

    For parts, I tend to go for the cheaper parts from asia that most here haven’t heard of.
    e.g. XC6206P332MR at $0.05 at QTY 10 and “Free shipping”. It is good enough as a general purpose 3.3V LDO with low drop out, stable with ceramic caps, low quiescent current. Not as accurate or have high CMMR as the MPC1700.

    If you insists on using brand name parts, then go to better sellers. Brand name parts tend to be higher prices thus attract those who relabel cheaper parts.

    1. When I buy from Aliexpress, I always look at what range of products they stock. If they have household, toys, and car parts, I will avoid them. Those are vendors that will sell any kind of cheap stock they can get hold of regardless of them not knowing what it is.
      When a seller stocks only electronic components, then there are good chances that the part is genuine. Said that, if I am after a genuine part, I just get it from RS or Farnell, with a free next day delivery. There is not that much difference in price, when all you need is one or two parts.

      1. I agree. There are some all-electronics seller on Ali who are very reliable. It *can* happen that they don´t notice a fake part, but it´s very rare. I´m thinking of Sure Electronics for example. Great seller, great prices.

        Also one thing: When one buys modules, they are less likely to contain fake that would prevent the module to work.

        And last: there are many many many parts around that are NOT counterfeit. Especially things like sensors, and less-than-generic parts.
        Who would fake a MEMS sensor for example ?

        1. Actually there are older chips that get relabeled on switch mode power supply modules. It is usually the more recognized brands of chips e.g. TI-National. They probably got hold of those older parts (from the same vendors) and try to past them off as the newer parts. While they “work” for most applications, they have higher ripples as the older parts are switching at a much lower frequency.

          A few of the sensors modules (e.g. current sensors) uses parts from “not for new designs”. The module makers are cleaning off some old stock.

        2. > Who would fake a MEMS sensor for example ?

          There was a post earlier this year by Ian@DangerousPrototypes about counterfeit MEMS sensors (and also SHT21 temperature sensors). In both cases the sensors weren’t actual counterfeits (e.g. faked markings) but rather were modules listed as containing the brand name chips but shipped with local, supposedly-equivalent chips (QMC5883 vs HMC5883 (not even the same I2C address), and HTU21 vs SHT21). Still, it points to availability of knock-offs to sell as counterfeits even for MEMS technology.

          http://dangerousprototypes.com/blog/2018/04/17/breakout-boards-from-taobao-are-a-mess/

          http://dangerousprototypes.com/blog/2018/04/24/taobao-breakout-boards-are-a-mess-part-2/

  5. 1. or are they factory rejects being sold as genuine? (selling us the famous 808 transistor as genuine)

    2. or is the ti logo an attempt to apply the black and white graphics filter threshold to a color version maybe even scanning a ti hologram sticker and thresholding it to black and white.

    come on!! you chinese counterfeiters can do better you can google “ti logo” and find a good quality black and white logo.

    1. The drop out is 1.2V instead of about 0.5V so there are two transistor junctions instead of one.

      So they’re not rejects as they’re a completely different circuit. They could even be 78L05 / 78L3.3

      Most fake semiconductors are actually genuine secondhand parts that have been labeled with a part number of a part with higher specs or the same part with a higher speed.

      Micro’s are commonly fake this way. Take for example the ATmega low power chips. A 20 MHz chip will easily run at 32 to 40 MHz at room temperature and 5Volts, but it wont run at that speed across the full temperature range or at the lower voltages specified. Many fake micros are the same chip but a lower speed and also secondhand.

      Transistors are even worse. There often completely different and vastly under-rated compared to the specs for the fake number they print onto it.

      1. A drop out that high like that it is old NPN pass transistor design. The vintage puts it closer to the old 78XX series which has a lot of stability issues with large values ceramic caps. To call it a LDO is laughable when it isn’t anywhere low drop out.

        Newer PNP ones (like Microchip-Micrel) would have much lower low drop out (in 0.3-0.5V range), but at the cost of higher quiescent current. MCP17xx parts are MOSFET, so they have both low drop out and low quiescent current.

        HT7533 LDO (3.3V 100mA, low quiescent current) for up to 24V ($1.50 for 50) are MOSFET based. I would use it over the old 78XX series.

  6. Don’t buy parts from Aliexpress. If you do know that they’re very likely counterfeits or parts that failed to meet the manufacturer’s specs. I’m sure that you’ll find some genuine parts too. But its like rolling the dice.

    You get what you pay for

  7. “You be the judge of that, but if nothing else, [Charles] reminds us that fake parts may be useful for something perhaps unexpected: a refund.”

    Reminding us that the race to the bottom and greed have consequences.

  8. Why would anyone buy bargain priced parts on AliExpress and expect them to be genuine? That is the real question. I would certainly not have that expectation. I would expect them to be either manufacturer rejects or counterfeit and avoid them. If you are doing anything at all important, and especially if you are building something for sale, buy from Digikey or Mouser or some such supplier. Now I buy plenty of things on AliExpress, don’t get me wrong, board level things mostly, but certainly not components, definitely not IC’s. Perhaps counterfeits show up even from Digikey, I don’t know — now that would be worth an article. No I am not justifying even folks in China selling things with counterfeit labels. Hats off to AliExpress for facilitating the refund, though I think it is only barely deserved. Caveat Emptor.

    1. The limited variations of the “cheap” parts on Aliexpress tells me that they are used in a production somewhere. The ones that aren’t popular are sometimes more expensive than what you find on digikey as likely they do have to import them specifically. The individual sellers on aliexpress get parts outside of the chip vendors authorized distribution chains. e.g. excessive inventory, liquidation, assembly plants that buy/sell high volume of parts and undoubtedly guys from the back of the parking lot with a Chinese engraver. YMMV.

      For playing around making things as a hobby, they are an attractive option. Nothing is safe and as a hacker I am more likely to take some minor risk. :P With a full refund option, it is not even gambling and is less risky than other things in life. e.g. investments.

  9. My company bought 200x of what we believed good Xilinx Xc9536 plcc44, when i had to put them on the pcb’s, i saw the markings “all brightly white”, i suspected non genuine parts beceause Xilinx for theses parts where in pale brown/gray markings. Made 20x pcb assembled, passed thru an oven pcb’s, when i had to programm them on pcb thru the jtag, we began to have many unrecognized id parts, programmed a few in a chipmaster 6000 uxp, replaced the faulty ones.

    We do 24 hrs burns tests, and some of them failed again, replaced them again, re-did some burn tests … failed again. Some of the good pcb’s have failed 2 month after they where build…. was lucky this board was in end of life, they were the last to be produced, but tons of service client problems issued.

    I asked the buyer where did you buy them when we suspected fraud, the response AliExpress.

    Now i have at least 40chips who have failed, we did manage to find 25x original chips and keep them to do service repairs only.

    I found fake capacitors and crystals …

    1. People will pay more for an old 5 Volt chip like XC9536 because they have to as they’re obsolete. I would have interesting to have checked the chip ID number.

      I wonder how long an XC9536XL will run at 5 Volts. The other way they may be fakes is if they’re a lower speed FPGA.

      I suppose the good thing about FPGA is that it ‘has’ a chip ID so you can spot fakes at an early stage. I’m not sure though if there are different ID’s for different speeds. The speed is determined post manufacture so for them to have a different ID for different speeds then the ID bit would need to be programmed after testing.

  10. I think they know they sell counterfeit, refunds are cheap protection, good for future business too. Ripped off people, are usually pissed off people, and complain loudest, make trouble if they can, need to vent. A refund has a big calming effect, least it didn’t cost anything, be more cautious, next time. Ripped off, and no refund, people be a little stupid, to keep going back for more, after being educated. It goes from a 1-star rant, to a 3-star great customer service pretty quick.

  11. These days you will get a refund from Aliexpress for literally any reason as long as it’s not a very expensive part. They would rather give you a refund than have to setup a new store because it’s not 4.9 stars anymore.

  12. Maybe people are stupid enough not to realize AliExpress is “China” for all intents and purposes. Why would you expect to get genuine parts at an amazing price from China? Do you think manufacturers like TI are selling parts to random sellers in China at a bargain rate? Or do you think that Digikey has a drastic markup and buying the same part out of China will bypass that somehow. What are these people thinking? Or are they thinking? Why is anyone surprised?

  13. And just to set the record straight, there is great stuff available from China. Blue pill boards, esp8266 boards and esp32 boards of every sort. ARM boards like the Orange Pi with Allwinner Soc like the H3 and the H5 — but this stuff is made in China and proudly sold as such. At least I don’t think anyone is counterfeiting ESP8266 chips and undercutting their brothers.

    1. >” At least I don’t think anyone is counterfeiting ESP8266 chips and undercutting their brothers.”

      The Chinese government offers export subsidies in various forms to companies that only export and do not sell their wares on the Chinese market. It’s basic protectionism – they have a 1.5 Billion people domestic market for the good stuff, and the stupid foreigners get whatever is left over.

  14. My first reaction of seeing this article was, “OMG this is exactly the same part I purchased a few months ago, and I even praised the vendor in the comment section for selling good parts, with an oscilloscope screenshot!”… Then picked up the board from my junkbox and grabbed a flashlight.

    Fortunately my MCP1702-3v3 looks identical to the genuine parts, not the fake ones…

  15. They will always issue you a refund, as it has been stated, it is the cost of doing business. The parts are never removed from the sites. They just move on to the next buyer and hope that they don’t notice. FWIW, generally calling the manufacturer will get them to want photos of the parts in question and perhaps even samples of them. This is a god thing to do so they can warn customers that this part is being counterfeited and how to identify them.

  16. Unfortunately, I have never had good luck with returns when it comes to Aliexpress. Every time I’ve tried to make a claim, I’m met with “Please send a photo of it not working.” Of course, it either won’t let me upload a photo because of some server error or I get no response from support until the deadline, when they side with the seller because of “insufficient proof” or because they want me to return the item…as if spending $30 to return a $5 item is an acceptable solution.

      1. I’ve never had luck with that. I’m *always* told to return the item. I don’t know if they’ve actually listened to buyers and changed their policies over the last year, but I stopped buying because Ali seems more interested in protecting the seller instead of the buyer.

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