Don’t be fooled by fake electronics: 5 tips

Ever had a “duh!” moment that you regretted for years to come?

Here’s one: you’re a college freshman living with your grandmother for the summer. You’re running a few errands in town with a friend and you pull into the parking lot of a grocery store. Some guy approaches and offers to sell you a “new” TV, “still in the box”, for just $40.

Ah, your own TV! Wouldn’t that be great? No more sharing the TV with grandma. Can you have a look at it, you ask?

“No, no,” the guy whispers. “Not here.”

So you fork over the $40, suspecting it’s a hot TV, race home, and open it. And you find out it’s a piece of junk.


I know what that’s like because it happened to me many years ago. I wrote about this embarrassing moment in my last book, “Scammed: How to Save Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals.” It turns out this trick is one strain of the counterfeit electronics scam and — I hate to tell you this — it’s still being used successfully on consumers like you.

Just a few weeks ago in Orem, Utah, authorities uncovered a scam involving fake iPhones. Someone approached the victim in a parking lot (sound familiar?) and offered her a new iPhone for “a good price,” according to a report.

Too good to be true, it turns out. When she took the phone to get activated, she realized she’d been ripped off. The fake phone didn’t even turn on.

She shouldn’t feel so bad. Even Apple fell for a version of this scam. Chinese fraudsters earlier this year reportedly used Apple’s return system to swap fake iPhone parts with real ones. The components in question make up the core of the phone’s internals and are worth just under $500 each, according to one report.

So, how do you tell a real one from a fake?

Turn it on. Counterfeit electronics look almost identical to the real thing, but they almost always don’t work right. Exhibit A: my scammy TV and the Utah iPhone. If you can’t fire it up, you’ve got problems. By the way, you shouldn’t buy legitimate electronics if you can’t turn them on, so make sure you get that little icon before you walk away with a purchase.

Look for misspellings. Since many counterfeiting operations happen in countries where English isn’t spoken, you may find that some words are misspelled. That can be a sign of trouble. Most labels on legit electronics are copy-edited by someone who speaks English, and although it’s possible that a real manufacturer will misspell a word, it’s unlikely.

Check for dates that don’t make sense. Any one of these could be a sign of a counterfeit item: A date code that hasn’t happened yet, or is unlikely (like, 01/01/1813) or that doesn’t match the product in the box. Criminals are not always detail-oriented, and they expect you won’t be either when you hastily buy a fake Samsung Galaxy in the parking lot of an Albertson’s. All the more reason to be a little obsessive.

Find the hologram. Some things are difficult, if not impossible, to fake. If you can’t find a reputable certification mark such as the UL mark on the box and product, you might be looking at an impostor.

Consider your circumstances. Look, I probably shouldn’t have to say this, but buying a TV in a parking lot makes about as much sense as buying a smartphone in a parking lot. It’s dumb. If you see a too-good-to-be true price for electronics at a flea market or anywhere gadgets aren’t commonly purchased, then you might not be dealing with the real thing.

The Semiconductor Industry Association recently estimated that counterfeiting costs U.S. semiconductor manufacturers $7.5 billion a year in lost revenue, and costs U.S. workers nearly 11,000 jobs. Don’t become another statistic. Read the box on your electronics purchase, check for misspellings and bogus dates, look for the seal of approval and turn the darned thing on, fer cryin’ out loud.

And please — don’t buy your next iPhone in a parking lot.

Have you ever bought fake electronics?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • polexia_rogue

    as it was said on consumerist (back when their comments section was working) “ask to open the box.”

    if the seller says “no” or “you are wasting my time” (or other angry response) then walk away.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Don’t buy hot merchandise and the problem goes away.

  • Rose Young

    Long time ago a co-worker told me he bought a VCR at a parking lot of a local restaurant. It was just bricks inside the box.

  • Raven_Altosk

    If you buy stuff from a guy selling it out of his trunk in a parking lot, you deserve to get scammed.

  • Robert Karpel

    This is the classic “white van scam”, where they sell speakers. One thing to add – these scammers often have fake brochures printed up to show you, to make it look legit. With fake prices, to make it look like the price they are selling it to you is a deal.

    Pro tip: Never buy anything from somebody who calls you, who knocks on your door (other than neighbor’s kids, e.g. girl scout cookies), or who approaches you outside of a retail store.

  • Dutchess

    I’ve been approached many times with the white van scam and never fell for it. The first time someone approached me the driver said they were “accidentally given an extra set of high end speakers for a job and their boss doesn’t know about it and I could buy them cheap”. Of course I said no, in my mind I would be buying stolen merchandise. Only later did I realize it was a whole different scam.

  • Dave

    They have been doing that in philly for 30 years (probably more). And always a white van.

  • John Baker

    5. If the deal is too good to be true, it probably is….

  • Mary Dulaney

    I bought what was supposed to be a Sony memory card on eBay some years ago. Before I got the package open, someone else contacted me & said to check carefully- that he’d bought from the same person & it turned out to be fake & potentially harmful to his electronics. After investigating through Sony & taking it to Best Buy, I learned it *was* a fake.

    The seller claimed not to have known it it was bogus, but he had sold many before & even more *after* I’d told him that they were pirated/ fake items. The packaging looked good on first glance, but when I looked closer, there were misspellings, wrong markings, a fake hologram, etc.

    I learned my lesson about being careful when buying electronics on eBay- If it sounds to good to be true……

  • Raven_Altosk

    If you ever meet a guy in a parking lot to do a deal, make sure to bring your firearm. –My Dad

    (And this was long before the internet. This was in the days of selling used cars through the classifieds)

  • Miami510

    Avoid anything that’s offered on the street, or in an alley or from the back of a truck. Theres a good chance it is stolen merchandise or counterfit goods. A brilliant attorney I know once bought a Rolex on the street for $40. Did he really think a real Rolex could be purchased for $40? Hope springs eternal.
    The best guideline is “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.”
    Now, having said that, I have this bridge… that connects Brooklyn to Manhattan… and at this price it’s a steal….

  • m11_9

    If you are close enough to analyze date codes, get AWAY!

    If you get that close you almost deserve to get thrown in the van and dumped along the road in the dark.

  • Pegtoo

    Had a guy knock on my door last week. White van in the driveway. 96 degrees out. He had meat for sale. Ummmmmm….no thanks.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    Exactly. The scenario in the article would only appeal to the incredibly gullible or those who didn’t care if the item had been stolen.

  • Nikki

    Not fake electronics, but fake DVDs.

    My boyfriend’s birthday was coming up, and I wanted to get him something special… I knew he liked the James Bond series (this was 2004, not the current 50th anniversary release), and I had seen a special release version on eBay – – so I went hunting for it, and found the exact same one that I had seen on Amazon, for $225. Went ahead and did the whole Buy it Now thing, and got them… only to give them to him and then find out it was a fake. I was pretty pissed.

    The idiot that sent me the fakes had FedEx’d them to me with his own address on the box. Happened that I was talking to my oldest brother on the phone that night – at the time, he was an FBI agent – and I gave him all the information I had. Less than 2 weeks later, I not only had my money back, but there had been a counterfeit ring that had been busted – which included the seller I’d gotten the DVDs from. I’m not afraid to say this… but without my brother, I’d have never gotten anything back. I’m aware that I’m one of very few that actually saw results from that.

    Now, I won’t even entertain the idea of buying anything on eBay that can be easily counterfeited. My boyfriend and I purchase cell phone accessories and some of my medical equipment online, and that’s about it. Otherwise, I find that most of the major manufacturers of electronics have an outlet store online – I go through those. (Logitech, for example, has a great store with some pretty good bargains.)

    Edited to add: And my boyfriend did get the 50th anniversary edition of the Bond movies. :)

  • emanon256

    I miss the good-ole’-days when fake electronics didn’t look like the real thing. I remember some guy trying to sell me a SANY TV back when I was growing up in NY. Also, it was not uncommon for a fake Rolex to have Rolex misspelled on the face. I actually did intentionally buy a Rolox for $20 only for comedic value. It even worked for a few years.

    The parking lot scam my mom fell for once was a guy who offered to fix a dent in her car in the parking lot. The guy said he was an off duty body shop worker and would fix the dent to a “paint ready” state for $200 cash. She went to the ATM and the guy bacially drilled 2 holes in the dent, pulled it out slightly, and smoothed everything over with some putty and sprayed over it with what looked like rustolium. He said she just had to buy some touch up paint and paint over it and it would look as good as new. The surface was so jagged it looked horrible, an after it rained the putty and paint fell out and the two holes stated rusting. It was in better shape before the work.

  • Nikki

    Unfortunately, it’s like the spam thing… there’s at least one in 10 that will fall for it.

  • Nikki

    lol – I remember those fake Rolexes… used to see them in Tijuana all the time. An ex-boyfriend actually purchased a bottle of Polo cologne right off a guy selling them on the street in Tijuana… one of his friends tested it later on and said it was horse urine… we all got one hell of a laugh out of that…

  • LonnieC

    As my Dad used to say: “You can only cheat a greedy person.”

  • emanon256

    I totally forgot about fake DVDs. I bought one on (owned by eBay). And when I started watching it, it was someone holding up a video camera in the the move theater recording the movie. I could hear people coughing and people would walk in front of the camera from time to time. The picture and audio were horrible. I did contact and got a full refund. Then another time I purchased a book on, and got a paper photo copy of the book in the mail. It was 8.5X11 paper and they just photo copied right out of the book. I filed another complaint and got my money back, but was told I reached my complaint limit. So I stopped using them. I don’t think cares that people are selling counterfeits.

  • emanon256

    Ewwww. Wow! Mine came from Canal street in NY.

  • m11_9

    Yep, their greed does them in. The victim, who may suspect stolen goods or expect stolen goods, deserves what they get.

  • emanon256

    I also learned to watch our for eBay sellers, and even Amazon and third party sellers, when the item is cheep and the shipping is expensive. I once bought an HDMI cable for $0.01 on and the shipping was $15. I figured it was a good deal because the cost of the cable everywhere else was $15 before shipping, so I would save a few dollars. I got a regular letter envelope in the mail with a scrap piece of wire and a 1oz stamp on the envelope. I complained to and was told that I had to return it, with tracking, and when confirmed it was returned, they would refund the $0.01, however the $15 shipping I paid, and the return shipping I would pay are not refundable. I argued that this was a scam, not me changing my mind, and they would not budge. They said they had to protect their third party sellers. I didn’t return it as it would have cost me more, and I now refuse to use at all. But I still see deals like this on Amazon from third party sellers, and eBay all the time.

  • emanon256

    When I tried to sell my old car in the classifieds, I got many calls from people asking me to meet them in some parking lot somewhere at night. They all offered to bring cash. I told every one of them the only parking lot we will meet in is my banks, during business hours, and they can have the car only after the bank verifies their cash is real. Not a single one of them were willing to do it.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Yes, but at least with spam the victim might be innocent.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Lol. This happened to me, but I didn’t realize it was a known scam. Whenever I buy gas in West LA, I’m approached to buy speakers from guys in a van. I never did because I assume they were stolen. I didn’t know that there was more to the scam.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I won’t buy anything from a seller that charges a cheap price and high shipping, even if its a good deal. I figure if they’re scamming ebay, they’ll scam me just as easily

  • DavidYoung2

    These scammers count on your greed getting the best of your common sense. Not only should you follow your parents’ advice about it “being too good to be true,” but also ask your self, “If this is such a great deal, why are you offering it to me? Why not keep it yourself or sell it to family and friends?”

    Same thing with shonkey real estate ‘seminars.’ If it’s such a great money maker, why are you wasting your time giving seminars instead of flipping real estate?

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Unfortunately that’s not completely true, but there is a lot of wisdom there

  • Carver Clark Farrow


  • LeeAnneClark

    Not true. You can also cheat a vulnerable person. My elderly mother, in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, was scammed by the “I’ll fix your dent for cheap in the parking lot” scam. The guy pretended that he worked at her regular auto repair place and knew her. She, knowing that she sometimes “forgets things”, didn’t want to be rude and admit she didn’t recognize him. So she let him “fix” her dent…which ended up costing her more to repair his phoney repairs.

  • m11_9

    nothing is completely true, but it sure applies here.

    “You cannot sell a brick in a VCR box out of a white van in a rest stop to an honest man.”

  • Joe_D_Messina

    At least they honestly could have billed it as being “all natural.” That makes it worth even more than the real stuff!

  • Dcochran3

    I used to manage disc drive returns under warranty, a sizeable percentage were from scammers, missing parts, relabeled, etc. Even with proper S/N we had to inspect each one and look for matching P/N, correct spelling, etc. It’s a million dollar business.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    shonkey!!?? I think I learned a new word. LOL

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Unfortunately, its not even mostly true. Tons of good, kind-hearted people, get scammed every day, think “Seniors”. However, if you aren’t greedy, your chances of getting scammed does fall substantially, as in this case.

  • Dutchess

    I forgot about fake DVDs as well. I bought a DVD from eBay and it arrived and looked off, the seller had done lots of stuff trying to make it look legit but it was an obvious fake (a friend had a legit copy, so I was able to compare). I contacted the studio that made the DVD which was really small and wanted them to know this person was selling fakes on eBay. You wouldn’t believe their response, they accused me of being a pirate and said I got what I deserved for buying a used copy and we only ever complain when we get burned. I flamed on them so hard, and copied their CEO as well as the artist they represented and I ended up with a nice apology and a free copy of the movie in exchange.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Good for you.

  • Charles B

    Fake SD cards and flash drives are a common scam. They’ll offer a name-brand chip in a huge size for half or less of the going rate. Plug it in to your computer and you find your 64GB SD card holds 256MB. Some of them even go to the trouble of fixing the chip to report 64GB size, and just toss all data you save after the real 256MB limit is reached. If you’re really lucky, they left you a virus on that 256MB while they were at it.

  • Nikki

    Ohhhh… there are so many better, legit places to get stuff like that…,, etc. Pricewatch has some good deals through legit sellers as well.

  • Nikki

    I generally tend to think the same of eBay. When I complained to them about the fake DVDs I got, all I got was a form email from them saying that they would investigate. The seller was not up when I checked a few months later – but there sure were a ton of sellers like him, so that was actually when I made my decision never to trust a DVD online unless it came from a legit site like Amazon.

  • Nikki

    I think if it was one of the smaller bottles, I could have let it pass… but this was one of the bigger ones, and my ex thought he was getting a bargain. The worst part was smelling it on him for the few days he actually wore it… until his friend said that smelled nothing like Polo and offered to get it tested. When he came back telling us what it was, I think that was the hardest I ever laughed then… I mean, I went to work laughing, and came back home laughing. lol

  • Nikki

    Yup. Especially with the fake Louis Vuitton/Prada/Coach bags… used to see them everywhere.

  • Nikki

    I’ve seen that here too… have had a few knock on the door offering to sell seafood really cheap. Like Carver, I usually assume the stuff is stolen… never knew there was more to it.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Seafood. Hot seafood (literally and figuratively) from a car. Sounds like a case of food poisoning just waiting to happen.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    LOL. You owe me for dry cleaning my pants. I laughed so hard I almost pee’d myself

  • Nikki

    Nah. Always a van, always a deep freeze in the back. :D

  • sofar

    Yes, my friend was approached by some guys with some very professional-looking brochures and some bogus “official” paperwork. And he fell for it.

    In his case, the scam had a few extra layers as well.

    The scammer told my friend that he had “$3,000 worth of electronic equipment” that he’d sell to my friend for $600. My friend didn’t need the stuff and told the scammer so. And the scammer goes, “Look, if you don’t need it, you can just sell it on eBay for just half the value and still make a profit!”

    My friend looked in the boxes to determine that there was actually electronic equipment (speakers, TVs, etc). And he went to an ATM and withdrew $600 and gave it to the guy, who helped him load up his truck.

    When he got home and looked up the items online, he found they were cheap things worth only about $100 total. Those high-quality speakers the brochure said were worth $200? They were being sold on Amazon for less than $20.

  • Mary Dulaney

    I was rather naive, but after I got the warning from the other customer, I didn’t even try it. I tried to reach as many of the other customers as I could until the seller threatened to take action with ebay against me. I reported him to both ebay & Sony & soon after his account was taken down.

  • Cybrsk8r

    Another way to get scammed. Buy software on E-bay. I bought what I thought was a copy of Win 7 Home Premium. Then I got an e-mail from E-bay stating all this sellers auctions had been pulled. They didn’t say why, but I decided to take a close look at the discs and discovered they were obvious fakes. Filed a Paypal claim and got my money back. I did get a spare Win 7 box to hold the working copies I made of the discs I later bought from Amazon.

  • emanon256

    We had a guy selling fruit door to door, and he was on a bicycle with a milk crate attached to it. Very odd. I did not buy his fruit.

  • AH

    it’s not just stolen merchandise. i’ve seen several articles where people purchased an “iPad” or “iPod”, only to discover that it was a mirror or something of a similar shape and size. they actually did open the package, and all the logos, etc. looked okay at a glance from the front, but as soon as the shady seller vanished, they realized that it was a fake.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I think that’s the point. The buyer was purchasing a high value item under dubious circumstances. Consequently they got taken. There’s nothing wrong with buying used items per se. But if you are buying something where the “shady seller” can vanish, you should probably take a closer look.

  • y_p_w

    I know someone who took up an offer to repair various bumper dings and to realign a trunk that went out after going bumper to bumper with another car. It was a “bargain priced $300”. Asked me for advice after the fact, which would have been “don’t do it”.

    I got to see what happened after the fact. I suppose it wasn’t fraud on the scale of a TV sold in a parking lot, but it looked like they used cheapo Bondo, a can of Krylon spray paint, and car wax. They said it would look better once the wax dried and it could be buffed. It looks like swirls of wax, paint overspray on the badging, and an overall mess. They didn’t even bother to remove an expired residential parking sticker and just sprayed around it. About the only thing that was halfway acceptable was that they realigned the trunk and it’s now only about 1/8″ off when it used to be about 1″ off, as well as getting the rear bumper cover back in place when it was knocked off where it mates with notches in the body panel. Still – they used semigloss black spray paint, which stands out against the gloss black factory paint.

    I suppose the saving grace was not being robbed and not being followed home.

  • y_p_w

    I mentioned something like that elsewhere. It wasn’t a dent though – but large scratches and trunk and bumper cover alignment issues. It looks worse than before.

    The only thing that would look worse is if the entire car was repainted with spray paint. My uncle did that once to his car. He used what was supposedly automotive paint in a spray can. It looked like he painted his car with house paint.

  • y_p_w

    That fake Rolex probably kept time better than a real one. Real ones are mechanical watches (with a few notable exceptions), and the fakes are mostly built with quartz movements that keep decent time.

  • PsyGuy

    This year I fell for a fake Girl Scout cookie scam. They were set up in a parking lot, and selling these Mexican branded cookies The boxes looked pretty real but after examining them carefully there were odd inconsistencies on the box. Of course I only did that when I opened the cookies Nd found the were cheap knockoffs that tasted nothing like the real thing. The thin mints were just cheap hydroxy Oreo type cookies.

  • Rebecca

    I worked at a grocery store for years. What’s really disgusting is where they hide it on their body to sell it. I once saw an entire ham fall from between a very obese womans legs out of her skirt. Honestly!

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Guys selling fruits, nuts, and flowers on the street is fairly common in Southern California

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I’m sorry, but your friend is greedy and/or not very street smart. Did it ever occur to him that a complete stranger is not likely to give him $3000.00 worth of anything for only $600.

    As someone else said. If it as such a good deal, why doesn’t the seller put them on eBay himself and make the larger profit himself

    I guess technically its a scam.

  • LonnieC

    I certainly didn’t mean to suggest anything negative about someone in your Mother’s condition. However, I have noticed that my Dad’s comment holds true for the great majority of instances where scammers have cheated people. It’s the need to “get something for nothing” than induces so many of us to think we can take advantage of a “deal”. It causes us to lose our own good judgement. No, I think those who would prey on someone like your Mother, when she’s particularly vulnerable, are the lowest of the low. I apologize if you were in any way hurt by my comment. It most definitely wasn’t meant that way.

  • Fly, Icarus, Fly

    Bottle it! It’s obviously worth something to someone!

  • Fly, Icarus, Fly

    Wow. Never heard of them faking Girl Scout cookies… Were the sellers little girls dressed like Girl Scouts? That sounds like an awful lot of trouble to go through to sell a bunch of cookies!

  • LeeAnneClark

    Understood, and thank you for your thoughtful apology, which I accept wholeheartedly. And I recognize you didn’t mean anything negative to people like my mother.

    I agree with you that people who are NOT mentally compromised fall for these scams out of pure greed. That’s what scammers zero in on: vulnerability, or greed.

  • sofar

    Well duh!

    Of course he wasn’t street smart. Nineteen years old, on his own for the first time in a new city, stressed about the cost of school, hoping to make a quick buck… caught at a weak moment. And obviously, there are a ton more people like him, falling for set-ups like these.

    But don’t worry. He learned his lesson.

  • Nikki

    Nuts are very common in Southern California… All the ones falling from the trees are in the north, the ones born there (like me) are born in the southland… lol

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    “Well duh?”
    A truly eloquent response.

    You didn’t state that your friend was 19 in your original post. I would probably have been a little kinder. But still, if your friend isn’t street smart, he may need to figure out how to get some, otherwise when scammers see him, their first though will be “prey”

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    and some are imported…like me :)

  • sofar

    Sorry! Didn’t realize how my response came off in writing. My “well duh” was said with a smile and a laugh, promise!

    I guess y knee-jerk reaction is to always defend the victim because I was scammed at the same age (I was working as a cashier, and a scammer got me with a quick-change scam, and I got in huge trouble for it). I use my story to warn others (and so does my friend), and it always stings a bit when the person’s response is “Well you should have been more street smart! I’d never fall for that.”

    These are the very experiences that build street-smarts and that 20-20 hindsight that many people claim THEY were born with. Chris is a smart, skeptical person, but he once got fooled, too. It happens.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    No worries. That’s the limitation of posts. We can’t always appreciate humor and levity.

    I almost got scammed at the same age. I got a call saying I’d won either a car or a something silly like tube socks. All I had to do was buy $800.00 vitamins and skin care products. The hook was that I also had to send them back a picture of me standing next to my prize for “promotional material”, the implication being that I won the car. My greed almost took over my good sense, until I remembered that anyone who wants you to buy something to claim a prize is a scammer.

    So when they called back I kept them on the phone for over an hour wasting their time. I did negotiate them down to $250 before they finally hung up.


  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Unfortunately, people like that who prey on folks like your mom are commonplace.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    I guess I lucked out. I had a car with a ding. Some one told me that he and his son could take care of it for $40. They told me point blank it was a ten minute job. They did exactly that. Popped out the dent, did their magic, and Voila, no more dent

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    You know. In Los Angeles, they used young kids to sell overpriced junk. Every so often they would come by selling snickers for $5.00.
    I also encountered a magazine company (Capital) using kids to sell terrible magazine subscriptions. Overpriced and it took six months for the first issue of TIME to arrive.

  • y_p_w

    A ding without a paint job is one thing. My insurance will actually pay for paintless dent repair with no deductible and no increase in premiums.

    A lot of people don’t want to take their bumper damage to insurance because of fear their premiums will increase.

  • PsyGuy

    No Just some pictures of a little girl in uniform. The “mom” claimed to be selling them for her daughter, who was in school at that time of day.