Real or Fake?

Get ready. A wave of counterfeit photo gear is washing up on these shores, and it ain't pretty!



Buy a camera, take a picture, print it out, help terrorists.

Say what? Well, according to the Department of Homeland Security and the National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center, a significant tributary of funding for terrorism leads back to a growing pool of counterfeit photo products: memory cards, batteries, ink cartridges, and even cameras. Although warnings are posted on eBay and online discussion boards, it's not always easy to tell a fake from the real thing.

Even when the people making money off these counterfeits are anything-for-a-buck manufacturers and vendors, not terrorists, the consequences for unsuspecting buyers can be costly. Phony batteries melt whole cameras, knock-off memory cards blank out in the middle of once-in-a-lifetime wilderness expeditions, and used ink cartridges, packaged to look new, gum up photo printers.

"People know when they're buying knockoff purses, shoes, and Rolexes," observes Don deKieffer, an attorney whose trademark-protection law firm investigates counterfeiters all over the world. "But when it comes to photo supplies, people want to be able to count on the quality of the product and don't want to take a chance on it being inferior."

Related: Harold Martin explains Pop Photo's Checkrated retailer program and warns of the dangers of gray market merchandise.

Big-name manufacturers and law-enforcement officials are fighting back. Companies such as Brother, Canon, Epson, Hewlett-Packard, and Lexmark have filed and won aggressive lawsuits and cease-and-desist demands. Memory card maker Kingston Technology has worked with eBay in shutting down about 100 vendors of fake products in the past 18 months. And Homeland Security (specifically the U.S. Customs & Border Protection agency) is lending its considerable firepower to photo manufacturing trade associations in criminal investigations.

The eager market for counterfeit consumer goods is reflected in recent seizures at U.S. borders. Seizures of all counterfeit goods rose 83 percent, and their value rose 67 percent, between 2005 and 2006, according to Customs. The contraband ran the gamut from phony Reeboks to knockoff NFL jerseys, and even included a $16 million load of bogus Zig-Zag rolling papers. The total includes a significant increase in seizures of camera batteries and a huge increase in memory cards, but, curiously, a decline in ink cartridges.

The eye-popper? A 900-percent increase in the value of seized cameras and accessories. The actual dollar amounts are paltry: just $35,665 in 2006, up from $3,917 in 2005. But multiply by 20, as Customs inspects only about 5 percent of the 13 million cargo containers entering the U.S. annually. "We get 5 million containers a year" through the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, says Customs spokesman Mike Fleming. "You can't deny the obvious-some of this stuff gets through."

The inevitable question: Could your next camera be counterfeit?

Keeping Quiet

Of course, there were famous fakes in the past, like the old chrome Nikon SP rangefinders painted black that are still passed off to collectors as the 10-times-more-valuable (and uncommon) authentic black Nikon SP, which comprised less than 10 percent of production, according to the Nikon Journal.

And there were all those Leica knockoffs made in China, starting in 1958 with the Shanghai 58 and later the Red Flag 20, ordered by Madame Mao in 1971. Indeed, whole books and websites are devoted to Leica fakes, knockoffs, and wannabes, including those of the famous gold-plated Leica Luxus, of which only about 95 were made in 1929-30. Favorite targets of Russian counterfeiters, even known forgeries of the Luxus are valuable, albeit far less so than the now-$40,000 original.

Not surprisingly, modern skullduggery is a subject the major imaging corporations don't even like to acknowledge, much less discuss. Ask the big boys about their far-reaching and many-leveled counter-counterfeiting campaigns, and they either draft a careful "statement" or have an outside public relations firm give you the brush-off.

For instance, Hewlett-Packard, which is almost as aggressive in protecting its trademarks (read: ink cartridges) as Disney is in protecting Mickey Mouse, declined to comment on its many lawsuits and private investigations against makers and sellers of fake HP products.

Although HP wouldn't speak with us about it, according to its website the company has a policy of never standing pat on a "static deterrent"-a single hologram on different products, for instance-because counterfeit package makers are so nimble in copying new package designs (even holograms).

And given the research touted in HP press releases, the company may be embedding covert codes in infrared ink, as well as using color-shifting inks, color bar codes, and hidden holograms to deter fakery.

Then there was the recent law-enforcement bust HP helped broker in Taiwan. According to the Taipei Times, agents of the Taiwan Criminal Investigation Bureau described in April how HP's local investigators led them to arrest two women selling fake HP laser-printer cartridges through wholesale shops all over the island nation. "Police also said that HP headquarters in the U.S. had paid attention to the crime," the newspaper reported.

SanDisk, one of several companies that has seen counterfeit memory cards sold on internet auction sites, sweated for a week over a statement to Pop Photo, finally saying, "Consumers are the ultimate victims of counterfeiting. Phony flash memory cards are often poorly designed and assembled, which may cause them to fail within a few months of purchase, to operate slowly, or to damage data files. SanDisk is taking action in multiple ways against counterfeiting."

As are all the major makers of memory, batteries, ink cartridges, and cameras, SanDisk says it's "working with" the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center, the FBI, various industry organizations, and eBay's Verified Rights Owner (VeRO) program. The company has also set up counterfeit reporting hotlines in several countries.

A Canon USA executive involved in the legal assault on counterfeiters agreed to talk about his efforts in the photography industry on the condition that we not name him in this story, for reasons of personal safety. There's a widespread assumption that organized crime has a hand in counterfeiting rings.

Are cameras next in line? "It's happening now in South America," he says. "We found them many years ago in Brazil and Paraguay. There were Canon logos affixed to cheap generic cameras. It hasn't happened in the U.S. or Canada yet; people are smart enough not to buy such cheap-looking cameras."

Batteries for digital cameras are a main concern for Canon, not least because it has received three reports of accidents involving meltdowns of fake batteries in the past few years. "We continually make test-purchases on eBay," says the Canon executive. "We try to buy every one of our items being offered." Sixteen of the 29 batteries he bought in the first six months of 2007 were fakes.

In 2006, Canon sent eight cease-and-desist orders to distributors it believes were selling counterfeit batteries and ink cartridges. Under threat of criminal proceedings, the sellers were forced to stop distributing the products, send out letters about the counterfeits to all buyers, and pay monetary damages to Canon. If the agreed-upon damages aren't paid on time, they triple. One seller in Canada hasn't paid and could lose his house.

The Canon executive explains that tracking counterfeit sellers is getting more difficult because distribution is shifting away from resale-which requires large shipments of contraband into the U.S. past increasingly vigilant inspectors-and toward the "drop-ship" method: When a buyer places an order online, the seller forwards it to a distributor in China, for instance, who ships the battery or cartridge directly to the buyer.

This may explain the dip last year in seizures of ink cartridges by Customs. "It's difficult to pursue the seller in the U.S., because he'll say he didn't know they were fake," the exec says. "And it's very difficult to identify the seller in China."

Air of legitimacy

Sales of fake photo goods aren't confined to the internet; there are numerous reports of people claiming to have done everything right, who purchased an ink cartridge or battery at a big chain store, and found it to be fake.

"This is how they end up in the major chains," says attorney deKieffer, whose firm keeps a comprehensive database on counterfeiting and represents about 50 consumer product companies in trademark protection cases: "Warehouse chains, which offer very low prices, take a lot of stuff that appears to be diverted from the gray market, and sometimes gray market stuff is fake."

Gray markets are channels where authentic goods are sold in unauthorized ways-usually when products intended for sale outside the U.S. are distributed within its borders at a lower price. Reputable retailers clearly label this merchandise as "gray" and explain that the manufacturer's warranty may not be valid in the U.S. (Often, the retailer will provide a store warranty instead.)

Although legitimate gray goods are just as reliable as their authorized counterparts, sometimes the gray market shades toward black. According to deKieffer, many illegitimate memory cards work almost as well as the authentic ones as a result of what the experts call "the midnight run." This is when the factory foreman runs a third shift on the same machines used to produce legitimate cards, but sends that load out the back door into his truck-and onto the gray market.

The midnight run is also a source of "overclocking," in which an original product is packaged to look like a better model, such as a 2GB memory card packaged as a 3GB.

Are counterfeit cameras next on the horizon? Mark Menz says yes. A computer forensic specialist who teaches investigative techniques to law enforcement agencies and is an instructor in the University of New Haven's Forensic Computer Investigation Program, he used to work for Kroll, the global intelligence and financial services giant, investigating high-tech knockoffs in Australia, China, and Russia.

"A year ago I was at the Orange County [California] swap meet, and a vendor had a number of cameras. He had a display just like Costco's, with regular point-and-shoot digital cameras and some cheap, cheap ones. I bought a little camera that looks like a stick for $5," Menz says. "He had a couple models of high-end cameras-Canon DSLRs. The tip-off was that some of them had Canon boxes, and some were in white boxes. One that caught my eye was a high-end Canon DSLR for $580. He had seven of them. A friend of mine had bought a legitimate one of the same model for over $1,000."

Menz reported the vendor to the Orange County Sheriff's office. Out of curiosity, I checked out a different swap meet, near Newport Beach, CA, in April. Amid the used power tools and stacks of cheap apparel, it was easy to find what looked like a brand-new Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W90 in its original box. A couple of guys had set up an awning beside their van, and laid out a jumble of new DVD players, stereo speakers, and miscellaneous consumer electronics, new and used.

One of them opened the camera box, which on closer inspection seemed as if it had been opened before. But all the paperwork seemed to be in order, the packaging was pristine, and the ultra-thin chrome camera itself looked like it had never been out of its plastic wrapper. Price for this gem: $220.

It looked real because it was-a real DSC-W80, not a W90. On the front of the camera it said 7.2 megapixels. The W90 has 8.1MP. So while $220 would have been a great price for a W90, it's not much less than the street price of a legit W80. This lesser model had been given a box upgrade.

The seller shrugged when we moved on. He knew that somebody else would snap it up.

The CompactFlash cards above look nearly identical. But, like twins on a soap opera, one of them is really, really bad. We know because we tested them both-and it didn't take much to discover which was the evil twin.

Of course, we went out looking for a counterfeit memory card. First stop: eBay. We bought one from an online vendor called Sharpdisk, based in Shanghai, China, which experts consider one of the world's counterfeiting capitals. Although Sharpdisk's eBay customer feedback rating was 99.2 percent positive, several buyers had posted comments warning that the company sold fake SanDisk memory cards.

The price should've been warning enough-about $15 for a SanDisk Extreme IV 2GB CF card (we paid nearly $26 with shipping), compared with $60 at retailers we trust.

The card arrived in a package that looked like the real thing, until we spotted all the typos in the fine print. We also had help from eBay, where a guide to fake SanDisk CF cards displayed a counterfeit's serial number that matched the one we'd bought.

The real proof came when we popped our card into a SanDisk Extreme CompactFlash FireWire reader, plugged into one of our office computers, to see how it would perform in real-life circumstances. It took 2 minutes to transfer a 600MB folder containing 18 big image files from the computer, a rate of 5MB/sec.

Transferring the same folder to a genuine card, which was sent to us directly by SanDisk, was six times faster-it took just 20 seconds, a rate of 30MB/sec. That's a huge difference.

(Note that SanDisk advertises the read/write speed of this card as 40MB/sec. The difference can be attributed to the speed of the FireWire cable we used, not to the card itself.)

So which card is the imposter? You can tell by the squared-off metal plate behind the label: The counterfeit is the card on the left.

Have You Been Had?

Manufacturers of photo products that have been counterfeited typically won't cover them under the standard warranty you thought you were getting. Does this mean you're out of luck? Not necessarily. The web abounds in stories of ripped-off consumers who, after raising hell with the company whose product they thought they'd bought, got at least a partial refund.

But the issue that immediately comes to mind for SanDisk spokesman Mike Langberg: "Did the buyer intentionally buy a fake, or were they truly fooled?"

If you bought what you thought was legitimate photo gear and then become suspicious, you can at least find out if it's counterfeit-the first step in helping to fight the global surge in photo flimflams. Here's how:

Ink cartridges. The Imaging Supplies Coalition, which includes Brother, Canon, Epson, Lexmark, Oki, Toshiba, and Xerox, created a program it calls WIDCIO: When In Doubt Check It Out. Send your questionable cartridges to the ISC, and the organization will send them to its member companies to determine whether they're counterfeit, infringe on a patent, have been used, or were remanufactured and sold as new. Then the ISC asks you to name the seller (confidentially) so the company can give chase. Twenty percent of the cartridges the ISC receives turn out to be fakes of some kind, which means most bad cartridges should be covered by warranty. For more info, call the ISC at 941-961-7897 or go to its website at

Memory cards. eBay lists feedback from buyers about its sellers, but it's not hard for the unscrupulous to jack up positive reviews. Cautionary guide pages on eBay claim that 95 percent of all 1-8GB memory cards sold on the site are counterfeit, or "have fake capacities." Pictures of fakes and genuine SanDisk cards, as well as phone numbers for technical help for other manufacturers' cards, can be found through a search on

Batteries. Nine camera makers-Canon, Casio, Konica Minolta, Nikon, Olympus, Panasonic, Pentax, Sanyo, and Sony-have issued battery safety warnings. Their trade group, the Camera & Imaging Products Association (CIPA), has a website with detailed information on counterfeits and links to all the safety notices:

Canon's safety notice on its website warns all users of its digital cameras and camcorders that counterfeit lithium ion rechargeable batteries, are being sold on internet auction sites. It says the company is not liable for "any malfunctions, damages, or injuries" caused by counterfeits, and shows pictures of genuine and fake batteries, including one that burned up when charged. Look for the notice at Click on Support, then choose Digital Cameras from the drop-down product menu. Click on the button labeled with a caution sign, and you'll find a link to the alert in the pop-up window.



A real SanDisk Extreme IV 2GB CompactFlash card


A fake SanDisk Extreme IV 2GB CompactFlash card


A real Canon Lithium Ion Battery Pack


A fake Canon Lithium Ion Battery Pack


A ruptured, fake Canon Lithium Ion Battery Pack after an attempt to put it in a real Canon charger.


Another real Canon Lithium Ion Battery Pack


Another fake Canon Lithium Ion Battery Pack


The package that held the fake Compact Flash Card as it arrived at the author's home.


The packaging of the fake Compact Flash card looks authentic, until there's some closer inspection.


Another view of the packaging of the fake Compact Flash card


The packaging of the fake Compact Flash card


The opened packaging of the fake Compact Flash card