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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.

Be suspicious of a seller that offers a discount if you buy more than one pair of headphones. In addition, you should pay special attention to the packaging in this category. Don't just look for typos on the box—make sure that the photos aren't faded or smeared, and that the shrinkwrap is tight and professional. If you're buying used, listen to the headphones first. And, as with smartphones, verifying the product's weight can help you spot a fake.

Packaged software
As software sales move from the store shelf to the cloud, this is mercifully one counterfeiting category that is slowly dying. That said, fake packaged software—particularly for high-end products—is still commonplace. It's a major problem for companies such as Microsoft, which has undertaken great effort to ensure that you can tell, at a glance, whether a software disc is authentic.

Microsoft offers a guide to checking software disc validity. The company's biggest tip is that a counterfeit product will undoubtedly fail online validation—but by that point it's far too late for you, since the cash will have already exchanged hands.

With high-end packaged software, checking for a valid certificate of authenticity is your best bet. Usually the certificate is a specially designed sticker or insert that, in the case of Microsoft products, has an interwoven security thread as well as holographic or color-shifting ink features. Generally discs will also feature holographic designs. The hologram should always be printed on the disc, not attached with a sticker. Consider those with no hologram to be suspect. For Microsoft products, one of the most difficult security features to fake can be found on the outer band of an optical disc: Look for the "Microsoft" label that changes into "Genuine" as you shift the disc in the light.

Remember that secondhand discs, while they may be authentic, are likely to fail validation due to prior use.

Microsoft changes its packaging and disc designs with regularity, so you'll need to stay on top of what your specific product should look like. Microsoft offers sample photos online, and Google image searches can help in identifying genuine packaging as well.

Mobile apps
Physical-software counterfeiting may be on the decline, but mobile apps are a growing and far more hazardous counterfeiting target market.

Counterfeit apps don't just consist of those designed to get a quick buck from you in exchange for a nonfunctional product. Most of them are free, but are malware in disguise, making them both enticing and extremely dangerous.

A common MO with counterfeit applications is to "Trojanize" them: Take a paid app, break it down and add malware, and then reoffer it online as a "free" version. A different approach among lazier scammers is to package up a link to the mobile version of a website (such as and offer it as a "mobile app," littering it with extra ads to earn a quick buck. The more nefarious apps are commonly designed to send Premium SMS messages—texts that can cost up to $10 each time they're sent.


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