President of Lansdale Semiconductor, R. Dale Lillard, reminds purchasers it’s better to be safe than sorry when faced with the ingenious tricks of master counterfeiters.
I have always admired the intricate work of counterfeiters making the fake Rolex watches that are hawked on New York City streets or on the internet. It’s hard to imagine it would pay to tool up for a difficult product with limited sales opportunities on the black market, but maybe the sales are great, or maybe it’s simply a very lucrative business.
In comparison, making a counterfeit IC and creating fake documentation to support it is not particularly complicated. The risks to the counterfeiters are low and it’s a booming market, so buyers must be cautious.
The defense industry has determined counterfeits are a major problem. Recent procurement laws force contractors to be proactive by using legitimate manufacturers and their sales channels so they can avoid liability for any failures caused by counterfeit parts. This can include fines and even jail time if counterfeit parts are used intentionally.
Counterfeiters are ingenious at masking the true identity of ICs and use various techniques to produce them. Some counterfeit ICs may even function enough to get through outgoing quality testing, but still fail in the customer’s hands.
Generally these parts are remarked, repackaged product. The most common source for commercial counterfeit ICs is old equipment being recycled to reclaim valuable metals. Parts are pulled from the boards, cleaned, and remarked to appear new. They may or may not function, but any functionality will be marginal due to poor handling. In some cases, the marking matches what’s inside the package; in some cases it does not.
For high cost military ICs, counterfeiters will sell commercial product as military, changing markings and paperwork accordingly, or even salvage die from commercial parts and repackage it as military product. Sophisticated counterfeiters will even repackage cloned or emulated die that has a similar function so it will pass basic electrical testing. Usually the parts are well marked and have paperwork to pass as original product.
The most common sales channel for counterfeits is through brokers, often doing business on the internet. This is why it’s important to purchase ICs directly from the manufacturer or from authorized distributors or aftermarket manufacturers. Although an industry has developed to inspect and identify counterfeits, it is always better to buy from the source than to trust that counterfeits can be identified by extra testing and inspections.