The "news" that counterfeit semiconductors have been sold on Amazon comes as no surprise to industry insiders.
Last week, a number of stories that made the rounds on the Internet warned of counterfeit AMD Ryzen 7 processors showing up for sale on Amazon.
All of these stories seem to trace back to the experience of one would be Ryzen 7 buyer who received instead an Intel Celeron processor that was disguised as a Ryzen by a sticker affixed to the top of it.
As counterfeit semiconductor schemes go, this one doesn't appear to be particularly sophisticated or extraordinary, though it did take some imagination. The forums speculate that someone who bought a Ryzen 7 on Amazon returned it, sending back the fake in the apparently unopened original packaging.
Amazon sells a lot of products, and it's no surprise that not all of them end up being authentic. Counterfeits of all shapes and sizes end up being sold on Amazon, from underwear to sporting equipment to cookware and everything in between. It's not that easy for a layperson or even someone with some seasoning to differentiate what chip from another, especially if it is returned in what seems to be an unopened box.
Amazon did not respond to request for comment, but the company has an anti-counterfeiting policy (which can be read here) that prohibits the sales of counterfeit goods and spells out repercussions for anyone who violates it.
Of course, everyone who works in or follows the semiconductor industry knows that the problem is far more widespread and serious than a one-off computer builder or hobbyist being duped. Fake chips continuously find their way into the supply chain and end up being ticketed for use in everything from vacuum cleaners to medical equipment to nuclear submarines, posing serious risks to health and safety.
The problem is significant enough that the Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) maintains an anti-counterfeiting task force, the U.S. government last year enacted a law that includes a semiconductor anti-counterfeiting provision and there are multiple standards in place designed to curb it — most recently JESD243 by the Jedec standards organization.
There have been large-scale seizures of counterfeit semiconductors by customs and border patrol agents and some high-profile prosecutions of counterfeiters in several jurisdictions. But the suspicion is that the vast majority of counterfeit or intentionally mis-marked semiconductors slip through the cracks and the perpetrators go unpunished.
It's difficult, in fact, to get a handle on the exact size of the problem or prevalence of counterfeit chips. "It's really hard to quantify [what counterfeit semiconductors cost the electronics industry]," Lisa Maestas, head of the SIA's anti-counterfeit task force, told EE Times in an interview. "We only know what's reported. That has been a big of a challenge for us as an industry to understand."
Maestas, who is also quality services and anti-counterfeit program manager at Texas Instruments Inc., said she believes that there is growing awareness of the counterfeit semiconductor issue among law enforcement in the U.S., Europe and Asia. "The knowledge and awareness and understanding of the risks that are associated with counterfeit semiconductors is definitely growing," she said.
A 2013 whitepaper written by the SIA's anti-counterfeiting task force cites a 2012 report by IHS iSuppli (now IHS Markit) that found that the five most prevalent types of semiconductor reported as counterfeit represent $169 billion in potential risk per year for the global electronics supply chain.
The main focus of the SIA's anti-counterfeit task force is to work with government agencies worldwide to educate, train and communicate the risk to health and safety of counterfeit semiconductors. Of course, this kind of awareness raising is like shooting at a moving target as counterfeiters adapt and get more sophisticated.
"The counterfeiters are definitely getting smarter about how they counterfeit parts," Maestas said. "As we train law enforcement, just like with other criminal activities, they try to find ways around what law enforcement or customer officials may be knowledgeable about."
For cases like the Ryzen 7 procured on Amazon, the SIA has a simple fix: the SIA and every semiconductor company recommend that semiconductor buyers buy chips only directly from the manufacturer or from their authorized distribution channels.
"That's the way to purchase authentic and reliable parts," Maestas said.
—Dylan McGrath is the editor-in-chief of EE Times.