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The unreal deal: How to ID phony phones, counterfeit CPUs, and other tech traps

Christopher Null | Sept. 25, 2013
Fake tech products are a multimillion-dollar business, and you're the intended victim. Here's how to protect yourself.

Counterfeit tech carries significantly higher consequences than a fake Rolex or a hastily copied handbag. Hapless individuals and business owners can find themselves stuck with tens of thousands of dollars of useless fakes pawned off as the real thing. A phony app masquerading as the real deal can infect your business's devices with malware, opening the door for even more damage. And at the very worst, counterfeit products have been implicated in serious injuries and even deaths, such as when poorly made fake power adapters electrocuted several iPhone users.

As counterfeits grow increasingly sophisticated—and increasingly brazen—it's harder for even sharp-eyed buyers to differentiate an authentic product from a fake. Here's how to tell a legitimate product from a phony one, in five of today's most susceptible market segments.

Smartphones and tablets
Counterfeits tend to follow the market, and lately they've been going mobile: Smartphones and tablets are becoming hot properties for fraudsters. Not surprisingly, iPads are increasingly common targets for counterfeiting.

Street-vendor items, especially overseas, are almost always fakes, and eBay items that are priced to move are frequently scams. Even retailers are prone to acquiring and selling fake gear, often unknowingly: A scammer simply purchases an item from the retailer, unwraps it, replaces it with a fake, and then returns the imitation item to the store for a refund. Even if the retailer inspects the gear to avoid the old brick-in-a-box scam, the store remains none the wiser since the fake, on cursory inspection, looks legit.

Credibly counterfeiting a phone is very tough to do. Most users report that counterfeit versions of high-end phones and tablets are fairly easy to spot—once you have them in hand. For starters, the weight won't seem right. (Use a postal scale if you want to check—an iPhone 5s, for example, weighs 3.95 ounces.) The case probably won't be as seamless, and won't feel the same as the real thing. And the buttons won't have the right fit and finish, as on the real phone.

Most fake phones may "work" in some form, meaning they have a rudimentary operating system and a few apps installed. These knockoffs aren't built to emulate iOS or Android (generally they run some version of Linux), but are instead designed to pass muster with someone who takes only a quick glance at the device. A fake tablet will likely turn on, but you may find different icons than you expected, a blurry screen, and a number of apps that simply don't do anything when you tap them.

Most fakes remain shoddy. In 2009, the blog MacMedics offered an instructive in-depth look at a fake iPhone 3G that was purchased via eBay: While the box looked good, everything else was suspect. The included accessories were wrong (a spare battery and a stylus?), the phone operated extremely slowly (and often not at all), and the screen was made from plastic instead of glass.


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