If you go to eBay to buy a voltage relay, you might choose Omron—oops, actually that’s Omrch. It’s a counterfeit part. It looks like Omron. Except, it’s fake.
Omron relays are real. Omrch relays are fake. On the technology and software media website Hackaday, Al Williams describes the fakes: “Your ear can detect the counterfeits by the varying sounds they make during operation.” He writes the investigation went deeper after the relays were tested at their rated voltages and heat dissipation measured.
“The results were not surprising,” he writes. “At lower voltages, the relays seemed to do okay, but closer to the maximums it’s obvious the components in the fakes are not rated for enough power to work. You can even see some charring of a resistor and its plastic holder from having too much power for the component’s rating.”
Then the clincher: “The conclusion was that these relays might work for light-duty projects, but for commercial projects or operating near the edge of the ratings, you want to give these a pass.”
Scenarios like this are becoming more common, and there is no telling how many electrical products are fakes. But they are for sale all over the internet and aren’t always easy to detect. In fact, it’s hard to know if a website, which offers what you’re looking for, is legit at all. Many are set up to sell products that are made from fabricated intellectual property.
In May 2018, Rogelio Vasquez, the owner of PRB Logics Corp. in Orange County, Calif., seller of electronic components, was arrested for selling counterfeit integrated circuits. Worse, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, the products could have been used in military applications.
Vasquez used discarded integrated circuits from Chinese suppliers. They were repainted and remarked with counterfeit logos. Then they were remarked with altered date codes, lot codes or countries of origin and relabeled with more recognizable names like Xilinx, Analog Devices and Intel. It was outright deception. Customers would think they were new.
In the report, “Trends in Trade in Counterfeit and Pirated Goods: Illicit Trade,” the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) presented a comprehensive look at this issue. Electrical contractors need to be fully aware of the prevalence of fakes and counterfeits available for sale from global sources.
The report states: “The volume of international trade in counterfeit and pirated products could amount to as much as U.S. $509 billion. This represents up to 3.3 percent of world trade. This amount does not include domestically produced and consumed counterfeit and pirated products, or pirated digital products being distributed via the Internet. The previous OECD-EUIPO study, which relied on the same methodology, estimated that up to 2.5 percent of world trade was in counterfeit and pirated goods in 2013, equivalent to up to U.S. $461 billion.”
The report refers to various products and equipment—not just electrical related. Many such items are on websites that appear legitimate. The prices are attractive, but the products are fake. In 2018, approximately 33,600 website domain names were criminally seized through a joint effort with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Homeland Security, Europol, Interpol and police agencies from 26 different countries.
“Caveat emptor”—buyer beware—says it’s the purchaser’s responsibility to research goods before buying them. For the average person, the consequences of not heeding this advice is usually benign, but electrical contractors can’t afford to risk purchasing any product that is fake or counterfeit. While officials work hard to sift such products out, they still end up in finished goods, original equipment and installed systems.
In 2017, Mary Denison, trademark commissioner of the Congressional Trademark Caucus, raised caution about the cost of counterfeit goods and the safety risk they pose.
“Counterfeit goods cost the United States billions of dollars and countless jobs annually,” she said. “They also undermine consumer confidence in brand integrity when purchasers encounter knock-off goods of inferior quality. They reduce tax revenue, support organized crime and terrorism, undermine national security, reduce brand owner profit and innovation, increase prevention and enforcement costs, and yes, sometimes even kill people.”
The best defense is awareness and skepticism. If a price seems too good, it very well may be. If a product looks brand name, but something is missing, it may be fake. Unless a product has your full confidence, proceed with caution.