Counterfeit parts are becoming more of a problem every day and it won't be long before serious harm is caused as a result. It is up to us design engineers to prevent such incidents by arming ourselves with the knowledge to spot counterfeit parts.

Counterfeits - My Story

Counterfeit parts are becoming increasingly common and should be taken seriously when designing circuits for both personal and commercial applications. Not only should you carefully source your parts, but you must also be able to identify counterfeits. Before we look at how to identify such components let us look into why counterfeits are problematic.

I was struck by counterfeits a few months ago when I was designing an electronic toggle system for a Z80 computer. The system involved tactile switches connected to the clock input of 4013 flip flops which were configured in toggle mode (D is connected to /Q).

The initial tests worked with no errors, so an order was placed to get 16 of these chips. Once the chips had arrived the circuit was built and connected. But pressing the buttons would only work on some of the toggles intermittently with most of the buttons not working at all. Each of the 32 circuits was identical and there was no reason for the system to fail in any way. Eventually, I constructed a rig on a breadboard to test the individual chips. The circuit consisted of the toggle arrangement for the chip under test, a tactile switch for toggling, and a single LED output indicator. The tests showed that the chips would not toggle and thus assumed that the chips had been damaged by static electricity. More chips were ordered from the same supplier and the same problem persisted. More chips were sourced from another seller and again the problem was still around. 

By now I should mention that these chips were purchased on Ebay, but understand that they were listed as genuine and new. Eventually, I had sourced some 4013 chips from a reputable supplier and the toggle system was working perfectly. After some investigation, it was evident that I had counterfeit parts!

 

The Problem

Luckily for me, this was a personal project and the chips were very cheap, but what would happen if this was a medical device keeping someone alive? What about a fire alarm system? Missile defense anyone? Counterfeit parts are dangerous not because they don’t work outright, but because they nearly work. The problem may not be evident until it has been built and operated for some time. Counterfeit parts are also unreliable and can fail at any point (hence, why they may work during testing where conditions are ideal such as temperature and mechanical forces).

The best way to defend yourself from such parts is to source your components from reputable suppliers. Large companies cannot risk their reputation being tarnished by counterfeits and will go to great lengths to ensure that their parts are the genuine article. Failing this, the second line of defense is to have some form of quality control whereby all parts purchased go under scrutiny. Each component type (resistor, capacitor etc) will have their own related techniques but here we will consider ICs as they are in many ways more important.

 

Defend Yourself! - Know Thy Enemy

Integrated circuits are frequently counterfeited in just about every conceivable way. Such methods include and definitely not limited to:

  • Low spec parts have their part numbers removed and replaced with higher spec parts
  • Rejects from factories are re-purposed
  • Old parts are recycled and resold as new
  • Low spec dies are placed into high spec packages
  • Cheap copies of the part manufactured in a 2nd world country (like fake phones)

The good news is that those who make counterfeit ICs are not very good at it! Here is what you can look for when investigating a part:

  • Incorrect part numbers
  • Incorrect date
  • Manufacturer origin
  • Pre-soldered pins
  • Package is made with the wrong material
  • Laser cut lines in the markings 
  • Wrong / incomplete logos
  • IC markings are in ink and can be wiped away with acetone

Part numbers are one of the biggest giveaways for counterfeits because the people who print them have no idea what they are printing. Sometimes they make up random digits which if checked against the legitimate manufacturer will show they are fake and sometimes put date codes that are in the future!

Because the counterfeiters have to reproduce the IC markings they always get the logo wrong. Before the markings can be included they need to remove the old information which involves removing the surface of the IC package. Then a new ident can be laser cut in, but two factors come into play; the tolerance of the laser will be significantly lower than the official IC fab house capabilities, thus, resulting in a poor replication of the text and the design has to be customized from scratch. This is where the counterfeiters fall over because most times the font is wrong and looks out of place.

 

A Counterfeit Example

Here is an example of a fake TI part next to a legitimate TI part. While these are two different devices (one is a fake 4013 while the other is a legitimate 4017), you can see the differences in appearance between the chips. 

Features of the fake part that give it away include:

  • Pins too wide
  • Font incorrect
  • Logo incorrect and too large
  • E is slanted
  • Epoxy is incorrect in shade

Some time ago I applied for a job and during the interview, I was presented with a challenge. The company gave me three chips in order to identify the fakes. I knew immediately that one chip was fake because it claimed to be a TI part, but was manufactured in England. Now I don’t know about non-English readers, but if you live in England then you know for a fact that we don’t make chips here!

 

Conclusion

Now that you are aware of the existence of counterfeits you just might spot one in a future design and know exactly what to do! Check out the links below for further reading and remember, buying cheap parts from places like Ebay is not something to be shunned. Just be careful and mindful of what you receive.

 

Below are some helpful web pages with more information about counterfeit parts:

 

http://www.aeri.com/counterfeit-electronic-component-detection/

http://www.combatcounterfeits.com/gallery.htm

 

Comments

10 Comments


  • turbo1600 2016-06-02

    WELL , i manage a large electronics repair company , 26 techs,and there several components that i bought 100% genuine and 86% of them failed, ended up buy fake with 100% sucsess rate,, go figure that one….

  • ronsoy2 2016-06-03

    Here in the USA we don’t have this problem. We have wonderful suppliers like Mouser, Digikey, Avnet, and a host of others that support small volume purchases. These companies take counterfeiting VERY seriously because a bad batch can kill a year’s business volume by bad publicity. There is no reason to buy unknown junk off of ebay when you have Mouser and Digikey. The only disadvantage (small) is the minimum quantity needs to be somewhat large because of the base $12 shipping charge even for one 10 cent resistor. But if you order a good quantity of parts then the total cost is very comparable to ebay and you are assured of genuine parts.

  • d0ughb0y 2016-06-03

    I highly doubt anyone would actually set out to manufacture fake parts. It’s simply not profitable enough compared to other items like apparels, etc. If not for the Chinese sellers, there would be a whole lot less Makers out there. As with anything, shop around.

    • User8192 2016-06-03

      They can and they do manufacture fake parts.  It’s especially problematic in aviation, where counterfeit bolts with high-grade markings are make of low-grade steel.  It can lead to problems like engine mounts failing, helicopter rotors separating in flight, etc., with fatal consequences.  The counterfeiters even go to the lengths of having fake cartons printed to look like the real thing.  End-users have only one choice:  Buy the parts from authorized sources where the parts have 100% traceability.  The same is true for electronics parts used in mission-critical applications.

  • aromring 2016-06-03

    Thank you for very interesting article. Time ago I have made a video about fake transistors:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5GbBN0fuhtY

  • radiant 2016-06-03

    Well the downside of comparing real with fake is that you end up creating a nice “to-do” list for counterfeit gangs to get their fakes to look even closer to the real thing…

    But I guess thats the same with “wanted” posters…

  • chrischrischris 2016-06-03

    Interesting, I’ve just had the same problem.  I ordered some shift registers off ebay some time back only to find a few didn’t work.  Supplier apologized.  I only recently ordered a further 40 TPIC6B595’s.  Looking closely at these, some had scratches and one had a bent pin.  The description is “New good quality” (un-opened in original packaging).  I sent a message back to the supplier and they apologized and said they would send me “new” ones.

    The issue is not that they were 2nd hand.  Typically these can cost up to $6 each, but are $1 each on ebay, so I expect maybe 2nd hand.  It’s just the description that gets me.

  • timarlop 2016-06-06

    Robin, could you mention the eBay Seller username ?

    Found a sellers shame blacklist at http://www.sciencetronics.com/greenphotons/?page_id=855

    • Robin Mitchell 2016-06-08

      Hi timarlop,

      I wont mention members here but I may send over a list to this website of some suspicious suppliers. The issue is that there are “UK sellers” who just buy off Chinese eBay sellers then up market them.