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Novel Approaches for the Detection of Counterfeit Electronic Components

A worldwide epidemic of counterfeit electronic components is flooding the market and affects the supply chains of all industries. It is estimated that the financial loss due to counterfeit components is over $10 billion per year. Counterfeiting itself becomes profitable when scrapped components, components from recycled products or inexpensive components can be “remarked” and sold as a new, more expensive, higher reliability version. Much of the effort today has not been placed on preventing counterfeiting but rather screening components to identify and remove counterfeits before they are used in a finished product.

As with any counterfeiting, be it money, designer clothing, or electronic components, there is a battle between the counterfeiter and the industry affected. Each tries to better their ability to either fool or recognize the other. Counterfeit components entered the marketplace and the electronics industry countered by adapting a variety of existing test methods to help screen components for authenticity. These methods have proven effective in detecting fakes before they enter the product stream and have become the conventional techniques used in the war on counterfeiting. They are becoming more and more familiar to engineers and purchasing agents and are often added to purchasing documents to insure the authenticity of incoming supplies. Unfortunately, these techniques and their limitations are also becoming more familiar to the counterfeiters themselves. With this knowledge, counterfeiters are able to improve their craft and utilize materials and processes that can allow a fake component to evade detection.

Because counterfeiting is so lucrative, counterfeiters are motivated to keep improving the techniques that will allow them to stay in business. The onus has now fallen back on the electronics industry to improve its techniques to detect this “next generation” of counterfeit components. In addition to the use of conventional screening techniques, a variety of unconventional techniques are being explored to stay ahead of the counterfeiters.

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Reasons for Proliferation of Counterfeiting
The motivation behind counterfeiting electronic components is the same as any other counterfeiting operation – profitability. There are millions of dollars to be made with, currently, little risk to the criminal.

The origins of these counterfeit parts are now well known and they truly represent a situation in which we are reaping what we have sown. The U.S. was aware that electronic waste contained a multitude of hazardous substances but remained unwilling to restrict the use of these substances, deciding instead that it would be advantageous to sell and export our waste for disposal in poorer countries, who were more concerned with money than pollution. However, before this waste made it to the landfill, it passed through the hands of entrepreneurs who removed anything they could potentially use. The used and potentially inoperable electronic components that these individuals removed were refurbished and/or relabeled and resold back to the U.S. as new parts. Today’s counterfeiting operations have grown from a simple cottage industry to complex operations run by organized crime that produce highly realistic-looking parts.

So why does it seems that so little is done to deter counterfeiting? Well, a variety of reasons act together in preventing an organized attack against counterfeiting. First, many counterfeits, particularly those that operate like the original, though typically not of the same quality, often go undetected and are installed into the finished product. When a counterfeit is suspected, it is frequently difficult to confirm as the inspectors typically do not know all the subtleties of the authentic part. Compounding the problem, Original Component Manufacturers are often unwilling to aid in the identification of suspect parts purchased outside of their approved distributors. They, rightfully, want to sell current products or products through approved sources and do not want to encourage the use of unauthorized vendors.

Second, even if a counterfeit is detected, there is not one central clearinghouse for this information. Thus, when a counterfeit is detected, companies typically just refuse to pay for them and discard them. There are several organizations, such as ERAI, that compile counterfeit information but the sources are only their member companies. Thus, there are likely far more counterfeits being detected than being reported throughout the industry.

Third, there is a stigma associated with possessing counterfeits. Companies which originally reported that they had discovered counterfeit parts on incoming inspection were quickly criticized by media outlets and associated with counterfeit components. A tarnished reputation was immediately felt by the mere association with counterfeit parts even though these companies may have been more diligent than their competitors in preventing counterfeit parts from entering their finished product. A fear of reporting counterfeit detection developed, and if the crime is not reported, there is little that can be done to prevent it.

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Fourth, the law enforcement and government agencies involved in counterfeit prevention have limited resources. There are numerous organizations that have agents and individuals investigating and developing plans to deal with counterfeit electronic components; the FBI, ICE, IRS, Defense Criminal Investigative Service (DCIS), Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), DOD, NASA, Government Accountability Office (GAO) and many others are all aware of the problem. However, in regard to the main investigative agencies, the FBI and ICE, the electronic community does not lobby for action as the apparel, jewelry, pharmaceutical, music and film industries do. Virtually all of the investigative resources go towards industries other than electronics.

All these reasons conspire against a concerted effort to prevent counterfeiting and keep the exact monetary losses unknown. So, instead of focusing on prevention, the companies within the electronics industry currently, individually, focus on finding and eliminating counterfeits on a case-by-case basis. This is costly and inefficient. Thus, the need for screening techniques developed.

Screening Techniques
The screening techniques currently in use have evolved out of necessity. These methods have been successful because they target the ways in which counterfeiting is performed. Generally, used components are either refurbished and resold as new, or relabeled and sold as something different. In the case of refurbishing, the counterfeit is the genuine component,  but it is not new and may possibly not work at all, or at least not as well as a new part. In the case of relabeling, the original markings are generally sanded off the top of the component. A new layer of polymer, termed blacktopping, is applied to mask the sanding marks, and new markings consistent with those of the target component are applied. This target component would be something of the same shape as the used part but of greater value. Each of these processes leave tell-tale marks that the screening techniques are designed to detect. Sometimes it is possible to identify a counterfeit by using one technique; more commonly, a series of techniques must be implemented to ensure counterfeits are detected and that authentic parts are not erroneously considered counterfeit. Additionally, many of the reasons listed above that thwart the efforts against counterfeiting also make identifying unauthentic parts less definitive. It is not uncommon for the result of a screening examination to state “the sample displayed several indicators of fraudulent/counterfeit parts” and not “the sample is a counterfeit.” This is particularly true in the cause of the refurbished part.

Until anti-counterfeiting security features are built into components, these screening techniques will be used to examine for evidence of prior use, evidence of modification or evidence of refurbishment, including relabeling and repackaging.

Conventional Detection Techniques
The first instances of counterfeit components entering the marketplace can be traced back to component shortages decades ago. At that time, the demand for specific components made it profitable to counterfeit. To solve this problem, many existing tests which served other purposes were soon adapted to aid in the detection of counterfeits. These tests have become the conventional techniques commonly used today in the fight against counterfeiting.

External Visual Inspection, Marking Permanency and Blacktop Examination
Visual Examination is the simplest and quickest of the inspection techniques. All that is required is an optical microscope, a few chemicals and a trained eye – the trained eye being the most important of the three. Signs of counterfeiting are often very subtle and there is no substitute for experience.

There are many subtleties that a trained and experienced inspector can identify on a counterfeit part. They include sanding marks, evidence of blacktopping, evidence of rework, bent leads, replated leads, definition and quality of markings, appropriate markings and logos and alteration of the originally occurring features on a component.

A fast and easy method to determine if a part has been remarked or resurfaced is to rub the component body with a chemical agent. To test for remarking, a solution consisting of three parts mineral spirits and one part isopropyl alcohol is commonly used. If the marking is able to be removed using this solution, the sample is likely a counterfeit. To test for resurfacing, acetone is typically used; this will remove the blacktopping but not affect the original material present underneath.

Additionally, in many cases the surface of a component that has been blacktopped can be scraped away using a standard sharp blade. This is not the case on a “good” component.


Figure 1: Overview of a component displaying inconsistent texture and a filled-in mold cavity, both telltale signs of resurfacing.


Figure 2: Overview of a component showing bent leads, a sign of potential prior use.


Figure 3: Overview of a component post acetone test. The top half of the component has been exposed to acetone and the “blacktop” material has been removed.


Electrical Inspection
Electrical Inspection can range from the simple to the very complex. Typically, the complexity of the component and its criticality in use will dictate the intricacies of electrical testing. In its simplest form, electrical inspection may consist of basic electrical characteristics such as resistance, capacitance, voltage or a basic pin-to-pin examination to insure that the internal component connections are as they are supposed to be. Testing like this can take as little as seconds per component.

The opposite extreme consists of full electrical evaluation and can consist of complex measurements at a range of temperatures over which the component is expected to operate. This type of testing typically requires automated equipment and special software written expressly to put the component through its paces. Testing like this can often take weeks or months to design and set-up, and then minutes or hours per component once those systems are in place.

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. Figure 4 is a series of x-ray images of four (4) components with exactly the same external markings, but which demonstrate obvious internal structural differences.


Figure 4: X-Ray images showing different internal structure of four identically marked components.

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. Chemical decapsulation is primarily performed on plastic encapsulated components and is accomplished by jetting various acids onto the surface of the component and quickly dissolving the plastic. Automated equipment is made for this sole purpose.

Typically, decapsulated components are evaluated for consistency within part numbers and date codes.
Additionally, each die typically contains “markings” that identify the manufacturer and the revision level. The markings on the die should be consistent with the markings on the outside of the component.

Figures 5, 6 and 7 show different components that were opened by chemical decapsulation.


Figure 5: Overview of a decapsulated component displaying the die and bond wires which are now visible.


Figure 6: Close-Up of the die and bond wires within a component made visible by chemical decapsulation.


Figure 7: Close-Up of marking on the die visible after chemical decapsulation.


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. The most obvious use is in determining the lead finish, plating layers and internal metallization. This technique can separate a tin-lead part from a RoHS compliant lead-free part or distinguish aluminum bond wires from gold. Both subtle differences, but each allows distinction of authentic from counterfeit parts.

X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF), like EDS, is used to identify elemental constituents. In general, the spot size of XRF measurement is much larger than that of EDS, making it not as useful at examining internal structures; however, it is much simpler to use than EDS and the equipment is much less expensive to purchase, making it a very convenient technique used to discriminate between leaded and lead-free parts.

Unconventional Detection Techniques
Counterfeiters continue to improve their craft; they too know the conventional techniques used to identify their product and they alter their processes so conventional detection techniques will not be effective. For this reason, unconventional detection techniques are being explored in order to stay ahead of the ever-resourceful counterfeiter.

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. It should be noted that virtually all of these techniques require a known good part for comparison purposes. These techniques focus on subtle differences between an authentic and unauthentic part and not on an obvious defect.

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. Some novel approaches include a variety of different chemical agents, extended exposure time (up to hours) and heated exposures. Chemicals which have been traditionally used in the decapsulation of components are now being used to attack the less resistant blacktopping.

When experimentation is being conducted to develop an appropriate procedure, it is even more imperative to test alongside a known good component to ensure the new procedures can differentiate between authentic and counterfeit. Additionally, as deviation from standard methods occurs, close attention must be paid to determine if these techniques are too harsh and thus potentially more destructive to the part than older conventional methods. This will define whether the testing can be performed on 100% or just a sampling of the component lot or, simply put, determine if the part will be useable after the test.

SEM is becoming more commonly used as a technique to detect subtle differences of blacktopping. It is impossible for blacktopping to match the exact surface texture of the original component body; SEM offers examination at several 1000x magnification in order to reveal these textural differences. EDS is being used to detect minor elemental differences between the blacktopping and the actual component body. Additionally, by its very nature a part is handled more and goes through a variety of procedures during the counterfeiting process. Each of these increases the potential of contamination of the counterfeited part. SEM/EDS can detect and identify these elemental contaminants that would not be present on an authentic part.

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. With only a small sample of these materials, FTIR can distinguish between the appropriate polymer and the blacktopping polymer. FTIR can also detect organic contaminants on a counterfeited part much in the same way as SEM/EDS can detect elemental contaminants.

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.
IC can even determine something as simple as the type of water to which the part was exposed. A genuine component would only be exposed to deionized water while counterfeits are often rinsed with tap water. Looking for the telltale signs of tap water can quickly identify a counterfeit.

Scanning Acoustic Microscopy (SAM), 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.

SAM can be focused at different depths within the component to locate potential irregularities. When focused on the surface, SAM can show evidence of relabeling and, when compared to a known good component, it can show differences in surface texture indicative of blacktopping. When focused slightly subsurface, SAM can detect scratch marks under a layer of blacktopping. And, when focused inside the component, SAM can detect evidence of prior use and rework such as cracking, voiding and delamination.

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.

One technique, Differential Scanning Calorimetry (DSC) measures chemical reactions as a function of temperature. Reactions such as melt point, glass transition temperature, crystallinity and heat capacity are all properties inherent to specific polymers which DSC can measure. A small sample can be removed from a suspect component, tested and compared to known values of an authentic part. If a counterfeiter has altered the component body by adding a different polymer, DSC can detect this variation.

Another technique, Thermogravimetric Analysis (TGA), measures weight loss as a function of temperature. This method is useful in that different polymers decompose (lose weight) at different temperatures. Again, when comparing the component body of a suspect part to a known good part, if blacktopping is present or the component body has been altered, TGA can make these differences obvious.

Finally, Thermomechanical Analysis (TMA) measures dimensional change as a function of temperature. Two significant properties which can be examined are the softening point and coefficient of thermal expansion (CTE) of a polymer. Different polymers or even the same polymer with different amounts of fillers will produce different softening points and CTE’s.

All of these techniques can detect a potential counterfeit component from either a small scraping or a small cube of the component body. Additionally, all of the data can be compiled into a library so the properties of authentic components can be centralized and used for future comparisons.

In conclusion, it has become evident that success in the battle against counterfeiting cannot be guaranteed by only employing a rigid series of tests. Specifying a list of several screening tests on a purchasing document will only allow the counterfeiter to determine how to evade detection. Efforts to detect and prevent counterfeiting of electronic components must show the same creativity and determination the counterfeiters show. There are a variety of anti-counterfeiting techniques that are in use, being developed and yet to be discovered. All will be needed to ensure only authentic components make their way into finished products. favicon

John Radman is currently the Senior Technical Director of Trace Laboratories. John has a BS in Physics from University of Maryland and has worked for Trace Labs since 1989. John heads a group of engineers and scientists that specialize in the areas of contamination and root cause failure analysis. Our primary focus is on electronics and materials testing which includes new product development and material properties comparison. Recent work has focused on the electronics industry shift towards Pb-free alternatives. John is the author of many articles and technical presentation on topics, which include failure analysis, test techniques and RoHS compliance. John is the Chairman of the IPC Ion Chromatography/Ionic Conductivity Task Group and Vice Chair of IPC/UL 796F and 746F Task Group, treasury of the Rocky Mount Chapter of SMTA and an active member of ASTM, American National Standards Institute (ANSI), ASM International and Electronic Device Failure Analysis Society (EDFAS).

Dan Phillips is currently a Test Engineer at Trace Laboratories. Dan has a BS in Physics from McDaniel College and has worked for Trace Labs since 2006. Dan is a trained counterfeit components inspector; additionally, he specializes in product qualification and tin whisker testing, as well as contamination analysis.

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