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How Component Counterfeiters Are Getting More Creative

Discover how component counterfeiters are becoming more creative in the electronics industry.

The electronics industry talks a lot about counterfeit components, but many electronics designers probably are not aware of the lengths to which counterfeiters will go in order to create and distribute fake parts. Fakes are not terribly common, but they create a major problem of liability and it is up to supply chain managers to understand how fakes might enter their inventories.

This guide outlines some of the clever ways a counterfeiter might create fake parts and get them into the market. Some fakes are misrepresentations of real parts, while others are outright counterfeits that will make a product totally nonfunctional. But if you know how the professional counterfeiters produce their fakes, you might be able to prevent them from making their way into your product.

How the Pros Create Fake Components

Die Removal and Repackaging

Complete removal of a semiconductor die, or repackaging of a die, are the two oldest ways to fake a component. Essentially, the counterfeiter finds a cheap component, removes the die, and puts the die into a more expensive component with similar packaging. The component is then sold off to a broker or distributor.

This is still going on today, but buyers are wise to this scheme and there are 3PL services for electronics distribution that can test and identify these fakes. Although it’s an old method, it will continue to be tried and true among counterfeiters. Identification of these fakes includes:

  • Visual inspection of packages for damage
  • Visual inspection and chemical testing of top markings
  • X-ray inspection of the internal die

Repackaged dies can have faked markings, and the markings can be inspected by swabbing with a solvent.

Scrap Product Remarking

Batches of components that get scrapped, were desoldered from old assemblies, or that failed qualification should end up being recycled or disposed of whenever they cannot go through a rework process. Counterfeiters may retrieve these parts and package them as legitimate components. These parts may contain functional dies in flawed packaging, or nonfunctional dies in functional packaging, so upon visual and X-ray inspection they may appear legitimate. They may even pass through the standard packaging and marking process, so it is also possible the markings do not fail a chemical test.

Where these components fail is in electrical testing and long-term reliability testing. In the case of a functional die, the product may pass an initial test but may fail under a stress test, or the part could exhibit an intermittent failure. If the part was electrically nonfunctional, then it will fail an electrical test and it can be rejected from a component lot.

Identification of these fakes includes:

  • Standard electrical testing
  • Stress testing

Old Date Codes

Some component search websites will include date codes on components as long as they can get the data from a distributor. However, in some cases the parts you procure, such as from a gray market source, might simply be an old component. This is an instance where the buyer should be aware that date codes matter. In general, an authorized distributor will only be selling parts that have been held within a specified time period, which can be verified from the component date code.

With regard to counterfeits, the parts seller could omit the date code in their order/website information, place a false date code on their website, or fake the date code entirely. If you procure parts, make sure you check the date code. If the date code was scrubbed and faked, the ink used to print a new date code could be identified from a chemical test.

Identification of these fakes includes:

  • Visual inspection
  • Chemical testing

Date code for an STM32 microcontroller.

Damaged or Expired Components

This is related to the above point; after excessive time in storage, or in incorrect storage conditions, a part may experience corrosion and degradation from a variety of factors. For example, most passive chip components have a shelf life of approximately 5 years. Another example is aluminum electrolytic capacitors, which have an unused shelf life less than a year old. These parts should be assembled within these time frames.

Eventually, part leads can experience corrosion along their leads. Parts that have “expired” or are damaged can easily be misrepresented by counterfeiters, especially if you order online. Another possibility is parts that have experienced ESD and have become non-functional or that fail intermittently; these parts require electrical testing to detect. Check date codes, chemically test parts, electrically test parts, and verify the packaging is appropriate when receiving components.

Identification of these fakes includes:

  • Visual inspection of the parts
  • Visual inspection of the packaging
  • Chemical testing (identifies remarking)
  • Electrical testing (identifies damaged parts)

Corrosion on the component leads of an old IC.

Mixed Reels or Trays

Another instance of misrepresentation of components relates to how they are packaged. Components distributed at high volumes are normally packaged in reels or trays. It is possible that a counterfeiter has mixed bad parts or faked parts in with genuine parts, and then these could be repackaged and sold on the broker market.

One might think that mixed date codes on parts would give this away. The problem is that component manufacturers are known to mix date codes onto a single reel or tray to reduce waste. This common practice can be exploited by counterfeiters in order to deceive buyers, and identification would require testing every component as it comes into inventory.

Identification of these fakes includes:

  • All of the above!

Cofactr is a supply chain management platform used by electronic hardware teams and procurement professionals to quote, purchase, manage inventory, and manage logistics for their electronic components. As part of our inventory management platform and warehousing service, we also perform inspection and testing of components as they enter our facility. We take every effort to identify counterfeit components before they are included in your PCBA.

To learn more about our counterfeiting inspection process, read our guide on IC anti-counterfeiting measures.

Zachariah Peterson


Owner, NWES | PCB Design for RF, Mil-Aero, Data Center, AI/ML

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