If you order an electronic component, how do you know what it is you are receiving? It has the right package and markings, but have you got the real thing from the original manufacturer or have you got an inferior counterfeit? We hear so much about counterfeit parts, and sometimes the level of effort put in by the fraudsters is so high that from either a visual or electrical standpoint they can be hard to spot.
The first feature of a package to be examined are the indents. Relabeled chips often have their old markings sanded off and a coating applied to simulate the surface of an unmolested chip, and this coating can either obliterate or partially fill any indentations. Using comparison photos we are shown discernable hidden indents, and partially filled indents.
We’re shown textures and paints, and how markings can sometimes be shown as counterfeit by washing with solvent. A Cypress-marked part is found to be a cheaper Altera one under the paint, and other parts are shown with misaligned markings and markings placed over indents. Wildly varying countries of origin are claimed while seemingly retaining the same batch codes, an impossibility confirmed by manufacturers.
If you order your parts from legitimate distributors then it’s likely that what you receive will be the genuine article. However with the popularity of online auction sites and online bazaars the possibility has become ever more likely of being left with a counterfeit. Knowing some of these tips might just make the difference between the success or failure of your work, so it’s an interesting read.
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.
[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.
Recently, the voice push to talk circuit in [Ryan]’s BITX40 radio was keyed down for a very long time. Blue smoke was released, a MOSFET was burnt out, and [Ryan] needed a new IRF510 N-channel MOSFET. Not a problem; this is a $1 in quantity one, but shipping from Mouser or Digikey will always kill you if you only buy one part at a time. Instead, [Ryan] found a supplier for five of these MOSFETs for $6 shipped. This was a good deal and a bad move because those new parts were fakes. Now we have an opportunity to play spot the fake MOSFET and learn that it’s all about the supply chain.
To be fair to the counterfeit MOSFET [Ryan] acquired, it probably would have worked just fine if he were using his radio for SSB voice. [Ryan] is using this radio for digital, and that means the duty cycle for this MOSFET was 100% for two minutes straight. The fake got hot, and the magic blue smoke was released.
Through an industry contact, [Ryan] got a new, genuine IRF510 direct from Vishay Semiconductors. This is a fantastic opportunity to do a side-by-side comparison of real and counterfeit semiconductors, shown at right. Take a look: the MOSFET on the left has clear lettering, the one on the right has tinned leads and a notched heatsink. [Ryan] posed the question to a few Facebook groups, and there was a clear consensus: out of 37 votes, 21 people chose the MOSFET on the left to be genuine.
The majority of people were wrong. The real chip looked ugly, had tinned leads, and a thinner heatsink. The real chip looked like a poor imitation of the counterfeit chip.
What’s the takeaway here? Even ‘experts’ — i.e. people who think they know what they’re talking about on the Internet — sometimes don’t have a clue when it comes to counterfeit components. How can you keep yourself from being burned by counterfeit components? Stick to reputable resellers (Mouser, Digikey, etc) and assume that too good to be true is too good to be true.
Counterfeit parts are becoming increasingly hard to tell the difference from the real deal, the technology used by the counterfeiters has come on leaps and bounds, so even the experts struggle to tell the real product from a good fake. Mere fake branding isn’t the biggest problem with a counterfeit though, as ieee.com reports, counterfeit parts could contain malware or be downright dangerous.
Way back in 2014 the FBI charged [Marc Heera] with selling clones of the Hondata S300, a plugin engine module for Honda cars that reads sensors, and depending on their values can change idle speed, air-fuel mixture and a plethora of other car/engine related settings. What, might you ask, is the problem, except they are obviously not genuine parts? According to Honda they had a number of issues such as random limits on engine rpm and occasionally failure to start. While the fake Hondata S300 parts where just poor clones that looked the part, anything connected to an engine control unit brings up huge safety concerns and researchers have shown that through ECU access, they could hijack a car’s steering and brakes.
It’s not just car parts being cloned, remember the fake USB-to-serial chips of FTDI-Gate? Entire routers are also being cloned, which doesn’t sound too bad until you realise that the cloners could configure your internet traffic to be redirected through their network for snooping. In 2010 Saudi citizen [Ehab Ashoor] was convicted of buying cloned Cisco Systems gigabit interface converters with the intention of selling them to the U.S Dept of Defense. While nothing sinister was afoot in [Ashoor]’s case other than greed, these routers were to be deployed in Iraq for use by the Marine Corps networks. They were then to be used for security, transmitting troop movements and relaying intelligence from field operations back to HQ.
So who are the cloners and why are they doing it? It is speculated that some of them may be state funded, as there are a lot of countries who do not trust American silicon. Circuits are reverse engineered and find their way to the international market. Then just like the FTDI-Gate case, cloners want to make profits from others intellectual property. This also brings up another question, if there is a mistrust of American silicon, nearly everything is made in China these days so why should we trust anything from there? Even analog circuits can be made to spy on you, as you can see from the piece we recently featured on compromising a processor using an analog charge pump. If you want to defend yourself from such attacks, perhaps look at previous Hackaday Prize finalist, ChipWhisperer.
The nRF24L01+ is a highly integrated, ultra low power (ULP) 2Mbps RF transceiver IC for the 2.4GHz ISM (Industrial, Scientific and Medical) band. Popular, widely used and inexpensive – and the counterfeit foundries are drawn to it like honey bees to nectar. But to replicate and make it cheaper than the original, one needs to cut several corners. In this case, the fakes use 350nm technology, compared to 250nm in the original and have a larger die size too.
These differences mean the fakes likely have higher power usage and lower sensitivities, even though they are functionally identical. The foundry could have marked these devices as Si24R1, which is compatible with the nRF24L01 and no one would have been wiser. But the lure of higher profits was obviously too tempting. A look through Hackaday archives will dig up several posts about the work done by [zeptobars] in identifying fake semiconductors.
This week, we’re switching off the ‘Tube and taking a field trip to Emporium, Pennsylvania, home of the Sylvania vacuum tube manufacturing plant. Now, a lot of companies will tell you that they test every single one of their products, ensuring that only the best product makes it into the hands of John Q. Public. We suspect that few of them actually do this, especially these days. After all, the more reliable the product, the longer it will be before they can sell you a new one.
For Sylvania, one of the largest tube manufacturers of the golden age, this meant producing a lot of duds. A mountain of them, in fact, as you can see in the picture above. This article from the January 1957 issue of Popular Electronics vilifies forgers who used all kinds of methods to obtain defective tubes. They would then re-brand them and pass them off as new, which was damaging to Sylvania’s good name and reputation.
In addition to offering a reward for turning in known tube forgers, Sylvania did the most reasonable thing they could think of to quash the gray market, which was building a tube-crushing machine. Pulverizing the substandard tubes made sure that there were no “factory seconds” available to those fraudsters. After crushing shovelful after shovelful of tubes, the glass splinters were removed through a flotation separation process, and the heavy metals were recovered.
Phones, MP3 players, designer bags, artwork, money…. anything with value will bring out the counterfeiters looking to make a quick buck. Sometimes the product being counterfeited isn’t even necessarily expensive. For example, an Apple iPad Charger. [Ken Shirriff] got a hold of a counterfeit iPad Charger, took it apart, and did some testing.
So why would someone buy a counterfeit product? To save some money! The counterfeits are usually cheaper to reel the potential buyer in thinking they are getting a deal. In this case, the Apple product costs $19 and the knock-off is $3, that’s a huge difference.