Detecting Counterfeit Electronic Components to Protect Your Brand

Tens of thousands of counterfeit components work their way into the supply chain every year. While some of these counterfeits are detected, many more go unnoticed, making the true impact of this problem incredibly difficult to quantify. With a global, decentralized supply chain and plenty of profit to be made from counterfeit parts, it may be impossible to prevent counterfeiting altogether, but the right expertise can help you detect counterfeit parts and keep them out of your products.

Where do counterfeit components come from?

Counterfeiters often use scrapped components, components from recycled products, or inexpensive components and re-mark or otherwise modify them to pass them off as a new, more expensive, more reliable version. Much of the electronic waste produced by North America and Europe ends up in poorer countries for recycling, and while some of this waste is recycled using high-quality methods and used legitimately in name-brand components, a large quantity of it is also used in low-quality counterfeits. Although counterfeiting is illegal in many places, it is highly profitable and the probability of being caught or facing serious consequences is extremely low. Because keeping counterfeit components off the market is so difficult, the burden usually falls to manufacturers to screen out counterfeit components before they end up in finished consumer goods.

Three-step risk assessment for counterfeit parts

To protect your brand and your customers, it’s important to conduct your own risk assessment for counterfeit components. Consider these factors:

  1. Assess the percentage of non-OCM (Original Component Manufactured) parts you purchase; this is where the danger lies.
  2. If you are purchasing “brokered parts,” decide if field failure returns will endanger lives, tarnish your company’s reputation, or cost you significantly in warranty repairs.
  3. Calculate the cost versus the risk. It does cost money to screen parts, so extensive testing may not be practical for a low-cost, low-stakes final product, but in some cases, a product failure due to a counterfeit part could be a risk to your brand and meaningfully impact sales.

Although manufacturers have become better at spotting counterfeit components, counterfeiters have also become better at disguising their counterfeits. It’s often impossible to tell from visual inspection alone if a part is real or not. To ensure the legitimacy of your parts, you may find that partnering with a laboratory for scientific analysis provides a lot of benefits. Laboratories can assess parts with specialized tools and compare them to industry standards.

Counterfeit parts prevention testing

Laboratories use a variety of techniques to assess parts for signs of counterfeiting. The most common method of counterfeiting is to take used components and refurbish them to resell as new or relabel them to sell as something different. Laboratory screening techniques detect telltale marks from each of these processes.

Conventional detection techniques

External Visual Inspection, Marking Permanency and Blacktop Examination

Visual Examination is the simplest and quickest of the inspection techniques, requiring just an optical microscope, a few chemicals and a trained eye—the most important of all three. An experienced inspector can identify sanding marks, evidence of blacktopping, evidence of rework, bent leads, replated leads, definition and quality of markings, appropriate markings and logos, and any alterations to the original features of a component.

Electrical Inspection

Electrical Inspection can range from a few electrical measurements to complex measurements at varying temperatures by using automated equipment and special software.

X-Ray Inspection

Like the x-ray of a fractured bone, x-ray inspection of an electronic component allows for the simplest view into the internal structures. X-ray inspection is made even more effective when suspect components can be compared to a known authentic part.


Decapsulation involves the destruction of a sampling of parts. Decapsulation can be accomplished by mechanically or chemically removing the lid or top layers of the component body to expose the die and internal structures of the component.


Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM) offers a great benefit in the examination of the microscopic internal structures of components. Like X-Ray, SEM examination is benefited by direct comparison to a known authentic part.

When coupled with Energy Dispersive X-Ray Spectroscopy (EDS), microscopic areas of the component can be compared for their elemental constituents.


X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF), like EDS, is used to identify elemental constituents.

Unconventional detection techniques

Counterfeiters continue to improve their craft; they too know the conventional techniques used to identify their product and they often try to alter their processes so conventional detection techniques will be less effective. Some of these techniques, such as FTIR, are newly being used in authenticity testing; others are old techniques being used in novel ways, such an x-ray machine calibrated specifically for counterfeit examination.

Marking Permanency and Blacktopping

These tests are performed in a similar manner as the conventional techniques, but without the constraints of industry standard test methods, chemical solutions used for decades and static procedures.


SEM is becoming more commonly used as a technique to detect subtle differences of blacktopping. EDS is being used to detect minor elemental differences between the blacktopping and the actual component body.


Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR) is a method used to identify organic compounds. The polymers that comprise the component body and the blacktopping material used to hide the evidence of counterfeiting are all organic materials.

Ion Chromatography (IC)

Ion Chromatography (IC) is another technique that can be used to detect a third form of contamination – ionic. Ionic contamination is usually present in the form of salts or organic acids and may be deposited on a part by handling or application of chemicals during the counterfeiting process.

Scanning Acoustic Microscopy (SAM)

Scanning Acoustic Microscopy (SAM) is a form of ultrasound, has been demonstrated to be an effective anti-counterfeiting screening tool. SAM uses cyclical sound waves to determine density differences within a sample.

Thermal Analysis

There are several thermal analysis techniques that can be employed on a small sampling of the component body. Thermal analysis measures some chemical or mechanical property as a function of temperature.

  1. One technique, Differential Scanning Calorimetry (DSC) measures chemical reactions as a function of temperature.
  2. Another technique, Thermogravimetric Analysis (TGA), measures weight loss as a function of temperature.
  3. Finally, Thermomechanical Analysis (TMA) measures dimensional change as a function of temperature. Two significant properties that can be examined are the softening point and coefficient of thermal expansion (CTE) of a polymer.

If you have concerns about counterfeit components in your supply chain and have questions about how laboratory testing might be able to help, contact the experts at Element. We have decades of experience specifically tailored to detecting the signs of counterfeiting and can help you ensure your products perform as expected and are safe for use by the public.

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