Beware of fake USB drives!

Posted by: Gergely Sumegi (3 years ago)

Wow, look at that! A tiny 512 GB USB flash drive is on sale on a popular auction site for less than 50 US dollars. Seems like a steal, given the fact that a hard drive with a similar capacity costs about the same. All right, let’s buy it and try it as soon as it has arrived in the post. Upon inserting it into the computer, everything seems okay, Windows shows 499 GB of empty space which is acceptable. Let’s copy a few gigabytes on it, and it works perfectly.

And the drive really works, albeit a little bit slowly, for a few days, weeks or months – depending on the amount of data you have copied on it, and the way you use it. Then suddenly it starts to behave erratically: it shows mysterious errors, files get corrupted. You try to fix it, format it, but nothing seems working. Or, you might have copied hundreds of gigabytes already, and have successfully accessed some of them, but a less recent file shows empty or random content or is full of zeros.  

What’s happening?

Some people still think they have done something wrong, like letting a virus in or having failed to “remove it safely” and this has caused malfunction.  What’s happening really? The crazy behavior is the result of the flash drive counterfeiting industry. The drive is not a 256, 512 GB, let alone 1 TB sized one, but a 4 or 8 GB one – the fraction of the one on the label.

Those tricky counterfeiters have reprogrammed the internal controller of the drive, so that it shows a much bigger capacity than the actual. As long as you don’t reach or exceed the actual capacity, everything works fine. But then, what happens to the written data is just unpredictable. New files might overwrite old ones, or just don’t get written at all without error message – depending on the way they have reprogrammed the controller.

The industry of flash drive counterfeiting has been flourishing for quite a few years, mainly in China. They produce tampered drives at industrial methods, often using reject memory chips, flagged at quality check. The end result often resembles the product of a well-known manufacturer, using fake logos on the packaging.

How to avoid counterfeit flash drives?

Source: The easiest way to stay safe is to buy from reliable sources, be it an online shop or a brick-and-mortar store.  The worst thing you can do is buying from an unknown seller on an auction site, whose goods are from a non-verified source.

Realistic price: It is worth to be aware of the current market prices of the drives of various sizes. Obviously, as technology advances, prices keep going down, so the best thing you can do is check a price comparison website that covers your area.

So, if somebody offers you a 256 GB drive for the price of a 32 GB one, then something is wrong there.

Physical appearance: A high capacity drive cannot be too small. Just look at this 512 GB monster from Kingston. Memory chips can only fit on three panels, hence the chunky shape.

If someone offers a drive with a similar capacity, and the product is a lightweight slim item, you can be sure it is counterfeit.

Other signs: A brand name very similar to a well-known manufacturer, such as Kingstone instead of Kingston. A warning sign can be a hand-written capacity on the item. If the drive is said to be a branded product, try to find the picture of the product on the official website. For example, this drive seems like a Kingston 512 GB item, however, according to the website, this series has only been produced in 256 GB version.

Unpacking: It can be a bad sign if the wrapping is not a sealed plastic case, but an easy-to-open cardboard. If the drive itself tends to fall apart in your hand, it also means that it might have been tampered with.

Software testing: All flash drives must be tested after purchasing to check if they are able to provide the promised capacity. A free testing program for Windows machines is H2testw. It will thoroughly test the drive, but for this reason it takes quite long though. A quicker one is called FakeFlashTest, it spot-checks the drive by writing data on random areas, and any inconsistency can be easily discovered. Be careful! Using these programs will result in data loss, so use them before writing anything important on the flash drive.

What can I do after purchasing a counterfeit flash drive?

Try to get a refund of course. If this is not possible, you might as well format your drive to the actual capacity, however it is not recommended for storage of important data, as these drives are often made of scavenged, reject chips.

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