DAILY NEWS Jun 20, 2011 7:49 AM - 6 comments

Detecting counterfeit electronic components

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By: Martine Simard-Normandin, Ph.D., MuAnalysis Inc., Ottawa

The economic impact of counterfeit goods in our society is staggering. The world trade of counterfeit goods is estimated at over $600 billion dollars annually1. As consumers, we often buy counterfeit goods in the form of clothing, handbags, watches, golf clubs etc, either willingly or naively since we are not particularly concerned with the long term quality of such items.

No one wants to buy counterfeit food or medication, yet we often purchase those from uncontrolled sources, becoming targets for unscrupulous sellers of less-than-perfect products. Counterfeit cereal is so widespread that Kellogg's has developed a hi-tech method to stamp out imitations by laser branding individual flakes in Corn Flakes cereal with the company logo2. If melamine can find its way in brand name baby formula or pet food, what lurks in deliberately counterfeit food products?

The purchase of electronic components is a business-to-business transaction, since few of us have needs to acquire reels of thousands of integrated circuits, resistors or capacitors in our daily lives. Business transactions have checks and balances regarding quality, such as procurement specifications, ISO certifications, terms and conditions. Yet counterfeit electronic components proliferate within the supply chain. As reported by IHS, there has been "a 140% increase of counterfeit incidents in three years, but that's only what the U.S. Department of Commerce has been able to document. The problem is unquestionably bigger than this. That figure only accounts for the incidents reported, and the majority of incidents go unreported."

Who falls prey to counterfeit components?

Why would you be a target for counterfeit components? Do you have a need for obsolete components, a need for leaded components in a lead-free world, a need for lead-free older components, for repairs or for special applications? Caveat emptor! (Let the buyer beware). What can you do to ensure that counterfeits do not find their way into your product?

Although counterfeiters get better all the time, when the intention is to deceive, quality monitoring is not too strict and there are often tell-tales signs to look for. Scratches, poor markings and evidence of prior use are often present and easily detectable to the naked eye or a low power microscope. Such defects are not to be ignored. If you do dismiss these indications, you may be the next victim of a sly forger.

Not every counterfeit component is a clone. In our experience at MuAnalysis, we have seen only a few cloned ICs but several instances of cloned capacitors and some cloned diodes. Many counterfeit parts are not clones, they are genuine older parts, sometimes used, sometimes known to be defective, that have been rebranded, often cleaned of lead plating, and sold as new parts. The uniformity of manufacturing expected in a date or lot code is absent when parts from various dates and sources are grouped together.

Counterfeits are often re-branded

A common counterfeit is a BGA chip, originally leaded, now rebranded and sold as lead-free. Sometimes the counterfeiter will not even bother to replace the balls. It's easy to spot lead balls, if you know what to look for, and if you bother to look. If your lead-free BGA has shiny balls, a check with an X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF) instrument is called for. If the balls have been replaced, it could have been done well, or very badly. Remember that this seller is trying to deceive you. Have ESD precautions been adhered to? Most likely there will be more than one date code in the "lot". Were the parts fully functional before reballing? Were they whole? Were they new parts or have they been reclaimed from recycled boards? Assuming that there are no obvious defects, you have a part with lead-free balls in-hand that was never meant to be. It is probably not RoHS compliant. It has received two additional reflow cycles already, one to remove the lead balls and one to attach the lead-free balls. The die attach was not designed for the higher temperatures of lead free soldering and its glass transition temperature has possibly been exceeded already. The good parts in the lot may work, for a while.

The worst case scenario is a part that looks brand new. It can be from a defective wafer batch, targeted for destruction, but that somehow survived and was assembled as a genuine part. It can be from a reclaimed second-hand part. The reclaiming "plant" is certainly not ISO registered. It's likely to be a bonfire by the side of the dump. The process of refurbishing second-hand parts is called black topping and consists of applying a thin coat of new encapsulant on an old part. Only certain chemical etches can reveal that the part has been black topped.

X-Ray may not detect anything unusual

What lies inside the new exterior is a defective die. X-Ray may not detect anything unusual, acoustic microscopy might detect a reclaimed part, if the die has cracked or the part is badly delaminated. Parts assembled from bad wafers look pristine if the counterfeiter is skilled. Opening the part and looking at the die may not reveal anything amiss unless the defects are gross. We have seen a part that was missing a mask level. If a reference part had not been available the deception would not have been detected.

Passive components are easier to clone than ICs. Cloned capacitors are unfortunately very common. Usually the electrical performance of the cloned components does not match the datasheet. Bench testing a few components from the lot is quick and simple. If the mean value of any parameter is off, including the exterior dimensions, further analysis may be desirable. The consequence of installing a counterfeit capacitor or resistor in a product is a shorter than expected lifetime which may result, among other things, in tarnishing of the product's and company's reputations. Other easy to clone items include diodes, resistors and hybrids.

Some parts look suspicious and are easy to spot. Most parts are small, but what is missed by the naked eye is obvious under a microscope. If the package thickness is less than specified, this is a tell-tale sign of rebranding. Pay attention to cleanliness, fonts and logos. Do not ignore the subtle signs. If the quality looks questionable, it probably is.

X-Ray Fluorescence can detect residual tin-lead plating or lead balls. If the part is sold as lead-free, you have a counterfeit in-hand. X-Ray imaging can easily pick up differences in die size or configuration, and detects die attach voiding, which is never a good thing, particularly if the part has high power consumption. Acoustic microscopy reveals previous use by detecting delamination or cracked die. Mask revisions and die level defects, which can affect functionality, are much harder to spot.

New standards aim to mitigate problem

Standards such as AS5553 and AS6081 are being developed to mitigate the proliferation of counterfeit components by defining practices and methods related to parts management, supplier management, procurement, inspection, test/evaluation and response strategies when suspected or confirmed counterfeit parts are discovered.3
Tests are available to spot counterfeits, some you can do yourself, some that require specialized equipment. However tests are useless if you are not aware that you are a target and ignore the evidence before your eyes. Be vigilant and avoid falling into the counterfeit trap.


Cracked die inside a blacktopped part detected with acoustic microscopy.
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Caption: Cracked die inside a blacktopped part detected with aco...
'Lead-free' components with lead balls.
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Caption: 'Lead-free' components with lead balls.
Poorly re-balled.
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Caption: Poorly re-balled.
With missing encapsulant, leaving the bond wires unprotected and still with lead balls.
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Caption: With missing encapsulant, leaving the bond wires unprot...

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Reader Comments

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Elia Lara

I need quote (equipment) x-ray detecting counterfeir electronics components

Posted April 27, 2012 01:59 PM

David Myers - Group Director Rebound Electronics

Rebound was originally a highly successful Broker of Electronic components, with Worldwide offices in Europe and Asia particularly. With major concerns how the Counterfeit market was developing, Rebound accepted the opportunity to focus on supplier approvals. Over the years a network of secure suppliers have been found and verified. The transition from Broker to a Hybrid Distributor was made and the accreditations of SC21 and AS9120 in recent months have cemented the commitment in the market. If you require more information on our counterfeiting policy visit our website at www.reboundeu.com

Posted June 27, 2011 11:33 AM


To Whom It May Concern:

For the last several years, ERAI, its principals and employees have been the target of an intense smear campaign orchestrated by an individual who seeks to bring harm to ERAI, its principals, employees and any person or business who interferes with the perpetrator┬┐s ominous cyber attacks. For a long period of time, ERAI was more or less exclusively the primary target of these libelous broadcasts. Now, numerous businesses are among the victims of these often-times unprovoked outbursts.

ERAI is frequently asked why these posts have been and continue to be made. Simply put, due to the nature of our organization which involves monitoring, investigating, reporting, and mediating issues affecting the global supply chain of electronics, it is not uncommon to have companies that have been reported by ERAI attempt to discredit our organization. The hundreds of posts that are currently visible on the Internet have been made by one individual using dozens of Internet screen names. Because the Internet provides bloggers with a cloak of anonymity, a person can create the illusion of numerous disgruntled or concerned individuals when that is simply not the case. The author of these posts is an individual that was reported by ERAI for selling faulty material. He made numerous threats against ERAI and its employees both during the investigation and after he was reported.

It helps to have a better understanding of our organization in order to understand the motivation of these types of criminals. Founded in 1995 and incorporated in 1996, ERAI is a privately held trade organization that has been the industry's primary reporting and investigation service supplying information, mediation and risk mitigation solutions to electronics professionals worldwide. Membership to ERAI is open to franchised and independent distributors, OEMs, OCMs, CMs, test houses, government agencies and associations serving the industry. ERAI is actively involved in a number of committees and task forces that are addressing the issue of counterfeit parts in the global supply chain of electronics.

There are a number of reasons why counterfeiting has become so rampant in the last few years, such as the breakdown of trade barriers among countries with less restrictive IP laws, the green initiatives that have led to more e-waste and easy access through the Internet to market and sell material easily. Counterfeiting has become a global issue affecting multiple industries from electronics to golf clubs, pharmaceuticals and tobacco, among others. It is particularly troubling to ERAI since counterfeit electronics can not only affect individuals┬┐ health and safety, but could even be a threat to national security. Every industry has been affected and ERAI is working diligently to address the problem in the electronics sector and to offer solutions to this very serious issue. Unfortunately, we have to accept the fact that the Internet creates an audience for individuals to post information that is entirely false, inaccurate and without merit.

ERAI is uniting the industry in addressing issues that are plaguing the market and we hope you can be part of the solution with us.

ERAI deeply regrets the frustration and/or confusion these cyber attacks have caused. Despite the difficult obstacles ERAI must sometimes face, it will continue to provide the valuable information and services its Members have come to rely upon to make the most informed business decisions possible. ERAI remains committed to serving its customers with the integrity and professionalism the semiconductor industry has come to expect.

Kristal Snider
Vice President

Posted June 23, 2011 03:14 PM

counterfeit watch

75% of improvised counterfeits in USA meant for military application are handled by ERAI and IDEA members. Recently ERAI members like USBID ( caught with BB,TI,AVANTEK COUNTERFEITS), AERI,V&C Technologies inc ( caught with NSC fake military components) , Visiontech components ( indicted), MVP MICRO( indicted), Tytronix aka EPIC INT, IDENTEK, BIG APPLE. It is upto authorities to protect them or to help them. It is been observed that many big names in this industry work hand in glove with authorities here, else American military will not account for 40% of its supply chain embedded with counterfeits from China.

Posted June 22, 2011 03:11 PM


Majority of counterfeit military and commercial components are retailed in USA by independent brokers affiliated with ERAI and IDEA. ERAI has office in China to facilitate visual inspection pass of known pirated military components. They also provide escrow services and business networking between Shenzhen based companies and American buyers. Interestingly ERAI has had over 500 known counterfeiters on its trader membership network. Besides counterfeits are openly allowed to be sold on b2b sites like brokerforum.com, netcomponents.com, icsource.com, ebay.com, hkinventory.com Basically it is America who is responsible for bringing in Chinese counterfeits into USA.

Posted June 22, 2011 03:05 PM

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