Don’t be fooled by fake electronics: 5 tips

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By Christopher Elliott

Ever had a “duh!” moment that you regretted for years to come? Here’s one: you’re a college freshman living with your grandmother for the summer. You’re running a few errands in town with a friend and you pull into the parking lot of a grocery store. Some guy approaches and offers to sell you a “new” TV, “still in the box”, for just $40.

Ah, your own TV! Wouldn’t that be great? No more sharing the TV with grandma. Can you have a look at it, you ask?

“No, no,” the guy whispers. “Not here.”

So you fork over the $40, suspecting it’s a hot TV, race home, and open it. And you find out it’s a piece of junk.

Scammed!

I know what that’s like because it happened to me many years ago. I wrote about this embarrassing moment in my last book, “Scammed: How to Save Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals.” It turns out that scammers are still successfully using this trick, which is one strain of the counterfeit electronics scam, on consumers like you.

Just a few weeks ago in Orem, Utah, authorities uncovered a scam involving fake iPhones. Someone approached the victim in a parking lot (sound familiar?) and offered her a new iPhone for “a good price,” according to a report.

Too good to be true, it turns out. When she took the phone to get activated, she realized she’d been ripped off. The fake phone didn’t even turn on.

She shouldn’t feel so bad. Even Apple fell for a version of this scam. Chinese fraudsters earlier this year reportedly used Apple’s return system to swap fake iPhone parts with real ones. The components in question make up the core of the phone’s internals and are worth just under $500 each, according to one report. (Related: Surrounded by impostors, what’s a consumer to do.)

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So, how do you tell a real one from a fake?

Turn it on

Counterfeit electronics look almost identical to the real thing, but they almost always don’t work right. Exhibit A: my scammy TV and the Utah iPhone. If you can’t fire it up, you’ve got problems. By the way, you shouldn’t buy legitimate electronics if you can’t turn them on, so make sure you get that little icon before you walk away with a purchase.

Look for misspellings

Since many counterfeiting operations happen in countries where English isn’t spoken, you may find that some words are misspelled. That can be a sign of trouble. Most labels on legit electronics are copy-edited by someone who speaks English, and although it’s possible that a real manufacturer will misspell a word, it’s unlikely.

Check for dates that don’t make sense

Any one of these could be a sign of a counterfeit item: A date code that hasn’t happened yet, or is unlikely (like, 01/01/1813) or that doesn’t match the product in the box. Criminals are not always detail-oriented, and they expect you won’t be either when you hastily buy a fake Samsung Galaxy in the parking lot of an Albertson’s. All the more reason to be a little obsessive.

Find the hologram

Some things are difficult, if not impossible, to fake. If you can’t find a reputable certification mark such as the UL mark on the box and product, you might be looking at an impostor.

Consider your circumstances

Look, I probably shouldn’t have to say this, but buying a TV in a parking lot makes about as much sense as buying a smartphone in a parking lot. It’s dumb. If you see a too-good-to-be true price for electronics at a flea market or anywhere gadgets aren’t commonly purchased, then you might not be dealing with the real thing. (Here’s how to fix your own consumer problems.)

The Semiconductor Industry Association recently estimated that counterfeiting costs U.S. semiconductor manufacturers $7.5 billion a year in lost revenue, and costs U.S. workers nearly 11,000 jobs. Don’t become another statistic. Read the box on your electronics purchase, check for misspellings and bogus dates, look for the seal of approval and turn the darned thing on, fer cryin’ out loud.

And please — don’t buy your next iPhone in a parking lot.

Have you ever bought fake electronics?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Panamá City.

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