Counterfeit Computing

Discussing the piratical efforts to rip people off by counterfeiting computer hardware. It’s been happening for more than 40 years.

By Ernie Smith

Today in Tedium: You probably haven’t thought about it lately, but we’re closing in on the 20th anniversary of one of the greatest scam-busting incidents of the early internet era. It happened on the Something Awful forums, and involved an eBay buyer’s attempt to purchase an Apple PowerBook using an escrow service, a clear and obvious scam. Seeing an opportunity to screw over a scammer, the forums collectively came up with the idea of making a fake computer out of a three-ring binder, which became known as P-P-P-Powerbook!, and it was then shipped to the scammer—with a forum member waiting directly outside the delivery location (a combination barbershop/internet café) to see their reaction as they received this physical form of comedy. (The internet was more fun back then.) This got me thinking about computer-related scams, particularly counterfeits. (I’d argue that P-P-P-Powerbook! is a reverse counterfeit, honestly.) Like, why would someone go to the length of making a counterfeit CPU? Today’s Tedium considers the evolution of counterfeit computing. Are you getting the real deal or not? — Ernie @ Tedium

By the way, I know it’s a small thing, but as I lean more into Linux, I’m trying to wean myself off of Photoshop as much as I can right now—which has been frustrating because frame-based animation is something I need. But hey, I got it to work. Tonight’s GIF was built using Krita.

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The year the U.S. government passed the Trademark Counterfeiting Act, a law that makes it a federal offense to intentionally misuse a trademark to sell a good for counterfeit purposes. The law imposes fines of as high as $1 million for corporations, along with up to a five-year prison sentence, for selling goods violating the trademark of others in violation of the Lanham Act, a bedrock of modern trademark law. One could argue that P-P-P-Powerbook was a violation of the Trademark Counterfeiting Act, but the theoretical person arguing that is obviously an idiot.

Apple II Clones

(Marcin Wichary/Flickr)

The counterfeit option du jour at the dawn of computing? The Apple II

As I’ve written about in the past, Apple had a bit of a clone problem with the Apple II, whose popularity and wide software base made it an obvious choice for clone-makers. Apple’s aggressive attempts to fight these clone-makers didn’t always go well, but they stopped at least some manufacturers dead in their tracks.

Why were they so aggressive? One reason for that, beyond what we know about Apple’s famously hard-driving culture, might have something to do with the level of counterfeiting it experienced during the period. As highlighted in Unfair Foreign Trade Practices: Stealing American Intellectual Property, a document produced for the House Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, Apple was seeing some aggressive ripoffs:

The flood of pirate Apple personal computers into markets throughout the world graphically illustrates what counterfeiters can do to a company or even a market for a product. The Apple II has the dubious distinction of being the pirate’s choice by virtue of its popularity and the very large number of software programs, more than 15,000, written for the machine.

According to Albert Eisenstat, Vice-President and General Counsel of Apple Computer, look-alike Apple II computers began appearing in the Far East in early 1982. Most were assembled by small, household sized shops. Counterfeit Apples, which were virtually identical to the original, began to reach the U.S. market within a few months. Despite registering its trademarks and copyrights with Customs in July 1982, filing numerous lawsuits and, most recently, bringing an action before the International Trade Commission, the volume of counterfeit Apples grew. Large firms have moved into the market with the capability to produce and distribute piratical Apples in the U.S. by the thousands.

(Side note: “piratical” is my new favorite word.)

The document then explained how pirates would use aggressive tactics to hide their counterfeit productions, including scrambling official Apple software and including nonsense chips during a customs check, only to replace them with chips containing copyrighted Apple software after the fact.

A couple of years back, my pal Harry McCracken of Fast Company uncovered a report on the public television show New Tech Times, hosted by onetime Detroiters costar Mort Crim, that showed the depths of the Apple II clone problem—with machines very closely ripping off Apple’s original designs, even going so far as to recreate old manuals, replacing the name of Apple’s product with their own—while still leaving in author Steve Wozniak’s name.

“They’re believed to be a billion-dollar threat to the U.S. economy,” Crim, who also used the word “piratical” in his report, at one point says.

To be clear, people went to prison for this, in part because Apple took an aggressive stance against such practices. In 1984, a 29-year-old college student, Joel M. Isadore, received a six-month sentence for his role in smuggling such devices, becoming the first American to be sentenced in the scheme.

Early Macs weren’t targeted with this kind of counterfeiting so much, though it did happen. In Brazil—where legal regulations prevented Apple from operating—the company Unitron developed a clone of the Mac 512K that mimicked the Apple system closely. It was hinted that the system software was reverse-engineered, which would have made it a legal clone. But odds are, it was actually copied illegally, which would make it counterfeit.

“I can’t put a monetary loss on it. That’s part of the problem. We don’t know how big it is.”

— Howard Lincoln, the senior vice president of Nintendo of America during the NES era, discussing its challenges in dealing with counterfeit cartridges during the period, with many copies coming from Taiwan. (The story with Lincoln’s quote, from Reuters, discussed the confiscation of 700 counterfeit cartridges by Customs agents in Wilmington, North Carolina.) Many of these counterfeits came to shape Nintendo culture in the years after. For example, the Dendy, a Russian Famicom clone first sold in the early 1990s, helped generate retro interest in that country, despite its library being full of counterfeit games.

AMD Processor

(Fritzchens Frit/Flickr)

Why would someone go to the lengths of counterfeiting a CPU?

If you wander around the Intel site enough, you can find a little page that offers a simple app that detects whether your chip is authentic or not. This tool, called the Intel Processor Diagnostic Tool, can help confirm that the product name matches what it says on the integrated heat spreader.

(Windows-only, unfortunately.)

As weird and wild as this sounds, it ultimately reflects the fact that processors are popular counterfeiting targets, and it’s been happening for a very long time. (After all, they use the phrase “Intel Inside” for a reason, right?)

And this is not a historic problem, either. A few months ago, a buyer on Amazon’s UK store purchased a top-of-the-line Core i9-13900K processor, only to get it home and test it, and realize that the chip was replaced with an i7-13700K. Someone went to the trouble of replacing the integrated heat spreader with a less powerful processor—not a particularly easy process, as it involves “delidding,” something that you usually have to use a razor blade or custom tool to do.

(Hey, it could be worse—they could have ordered an AMD chip and received a pin-incompatible Intel chip instead. Side note, AMD uses tamper-evident packaging for this reason.)

I wondered how far stuff like this went back, and I uncovered a lawsuit between Intel and the company Terabyte International, which was nailed in the early 1990s for selling math coprocessors labeled with faster speeds than the coprocessors (the 80287 and 80387, in case you were wondering) actually offered.

From a legal summary of the case:

After receiving complaints from its authorized distributors that math coprocessors were available at prices below cost, Intel launched an investigation. It discovered that slower math coprocessors were being redesignated and sold as faster and more expensive math coprocessors. Intel tracked some of those “remarked” math coprocessors to Terabyte. Between July 1990 and January 1991, Intel, acting as an undercover customer, purchased math coprocessors from Terabyte, the great majority of which were remarked. On some of those math coprocessors, the original Intel markings could be detected beneath the remarkings. Each time Intel bought math coprocessors from Terabyte, the box containing the product was already opened. Based on those purchases, Intel sought and obtained an ex parte seizure order against Terabyte. The order was executed on February 26, 1991. One hundred twenty-five math coprocessors were seized; all were remarked.

(For its part, Terabyte appeared to have bought the math coprocessors from a source they thought was an Intel employee. Turns out, he wasn’t!)

The awesome YouTube channel CPU Galaxy, which covers numerous weird old processors, did a whole video on the Pentium counterfeiting scams of the ’90s, in case you want to learn more.

Later on, as the Pentium chipset went mainstream, making Intel’s offering much more of a consumer play, counterfeit schemes became even more prominent. In one case, counterfeit Pentium IIs started showing up in the United States and other parts of the world throughout 1998. Literally thousands of chips were hitting the market.

The German computer magazine c’t caught the issue and later offered a software tool for detecting the issue.

“Since 1994 c’t has reported on counterfeit processors being sold in ever-changing varieties,” the magazine reported. “The current wave mainly consists of Pentium II 233 or Pentium II 266, sold with forged casing as 300 MHz versions. In this case, there’s the unique chance to expose the frauds through software.”

What stopped them from overwhelming the market? Easy—starting in the early 2000s, Intel and AMD started labeling the chips in the hardware’s flash memory, making it easy to detect what the chip actually was without visual cues on the physical hardware.

But even then, you have to actually plug the CPU into the socket to see if you got something legitimate.

More recently, the rise of e-commerce has made chips like these easier to surface. After all, if you buy this stuff online, it’s not like you can be sure it’s going to show up.

Five obvious examples of counterfeit gadgets that have appeared over the years

  1. The Teso “MacBook Air,” released in 2009, had a shape similar to a real MacBook Air, except for two things—one, it was made of white plastic rather than aluminum, and two, it was a Windows machine, complete with Windows key. A clone like this, spotted by pal vga256, appeared on my Mastodon feed this week. While I can’t tell if it’s by the same company, it wouldn’t surprise me.
  2. Various iPhones have been counterfeited over the years, of sharply diverging quality. But counterfeiters are getting increasingly more convincing, with one recent phone highlighted by the YouTube channel Phone Repair Guru showing a device that closely mimicked the iPhone 15 Pro Max, down to software and new features. Only when you try to contact support or take photos do you begin to see the differences.
  3. Various Nintendo Switches have also appeared on the market, sort of the long-term descendant of the old NES clones that have been flooding the market for many decades. Nintendo had to warn about these products surfacing a couple of years ago, saying one site in particular was pushing these. (Likely either or Temu.)
  4. Fake SSDs are becoming more common in recent months, with one person finding an example of a Samsung SSD in the wild that worked far worse than the labeling had hinted. As bad as that was, it’s not as bad as the $70 “16-terabyte” SSD that emerged online about a year ago.
  5. Xbox controllers, and sometimes even consoles, have been known to show up on the market, despite looking like fairly convincing fakes.


The percentage of surveyed global customers who unwittingly purchased counterfeit goods in the past year, according to a study from Michigan State University (go Spartans!). Some customers didn’t sweat this too much, though—the study found 52 percent of consumers knowingly bought such goods, 21 percent buy counterfeit goods frequently, and 38 percent continued to use the counterfeit product even after knowing it was a fake. (The study dives into demographics to some degree—noting that men, people with lower incomes, and highly religious people are most likely to unwittingly purchase counterfeit goods.)

I think counterfeit goods will become a bigger headache for tech companies over time.

Back in the days of the Apple II, those goods snuck into the United States through the back door. But in the e-commerce era, they increasingly show up through the front. You are acquiring counterfeit products on Amazon or eBay, because all the safeguards that once protected consumers have been replaced with networks of companies that can take advantage of limitations in the systems.

The counterfeit goods can often be much more subtle than you give them credit for. Example: Cables are often pretty cheap on Amazon or similar services, but you might see a lot of cut corners in the process, corners that may not even seem obvious at the outset. A good example of this is something called “copper clad aluminum.” As we discussed recently, copper is used for communication wires, but you may end up buying copper clad aluminum without realizing it when you get it online. In some cases, that can be fine, but in others it can weaken the output of those cables. (At least that’s what Big Cable tells me.)

And signs of a legitimate cable—for example, stamping that appears on the side—might not be there at all, and you may be none the wiser. That might not sound so bad, but consider the cabling might have higher fire-safety standards, for example, and you can see why this might be a problem.

A story went viral last week highlighting how some common ChatGPT errors have started to seep into Amazon listings. That has me thinking that a common signifier of a counterfeit good—spelling errors on the packaging or in the product listing—might become a bit less of a smoking gun in the future. And as the iPhone 15 Pro Max I mentioned above shows, people are willing to invest lots of extra money to get one over on you than in the past.

In a sense, some of these problems are non-issues for actual consumers, and more for the businesses themselves. If you know you’re buying cheap junk, you don’t care about the brand name on the side of the container, even if it means you may risk certain quality standards that a quality manufacturer might not ignore. But brands do, to some degree, reflect a baseline quality, and if you are buying something specific—like the latest high-end processor, or a thousand-dollar iPhone—you don’t want to be fooled, of course.

Fake junk is fake junk. Do you want to leave the odds of that junk to chance?


Find this one an interesting read? Share it with a pal! And back at it again next week!


Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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