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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.

The key is making sure to check out an item in person and to put it through its paces before you buy. Deep-discount eBay shoppers, be warned.

CPUs, RAM, motherboards, and graphics cards
Phony tech components such as microprocessors, RAM modules, and graphics cards are big business. Compared with mobile devices, they're easier to fake and harder to spot, and since they're often sold in bulk, they can rake in huge amounts of cash all at once.

The problem extends beyond eBay. Even the respected e-commerce site Newegg had trouble when it inadvertently sold several hundred fake Intel Core i7 chips in 2010. The "processors" turned out to be just pieces of plastic and metal packed into a fake box littered with misspelled words. Consumers were justifiably irate.

While some fake components may be nothing more than paper clips and clay, others are more sophisticated. Scammers may repaint and relabel real, operational products as something different—a dirty seller could stencil a new product number onto a $100 low-end CPU and flip it for $500. Unscrupulous sellers might also pawn off used or damaged products as new if they know that you won't be testing them soon. For example, since an on-site buyer can't easily test whether a RAM module works, the scammer has more time to get away with the crime.

On any printed circuit board, check for a serial number. Some manufacturers will accept support calls to verify whether the number on the board is legit. (Boards without serial numbers should be considered suspect.) Products that have been repainted and relabeled can be hard to spot without lab-grade equipment, but one thing you can do with a tricky component such as a CPU is to search for the product name on Google and look for a high-resolution photo online. Compare the picture against the product you're buying, looking for even the tiniest variation in component placement, color, or label markings. eBay offers some guidance on identifying phony CPUs, including side-by-side real/fake photo examples.

Oversize headphones are growing in price and popularity, and as a result they're also becoming one of the hottest categories of counterfeit items. On the street, fake Beats by Dr. Dre cans cost a paltry 3 percent of the list price of authentic ones. And since the look is what's critical, it's probably safe to assume that many wearers of these items don't even care whether they work at all. (The Beats manufacturer offers its own guide for spotting fakes.)

Presumably, if you're reading this, you're interested in genuine, operational headphones. Many fakes in this area are painfully easy to spot—if you're buying equipment on the street or without retail packaging, you might want to think again—but some "headfauxnes" are more sophisticated.


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