It is a situation that every buyer faces: a critical semiconductor is just not available or is only available on a seriously extended lead-time. Then, suddenly, a relatively unknown supplier offers the part ex-stock and at a competitive price. That is when the alarm bells should start to ring.
Buyers will first have made calls to franchised distributors, or to companies such as Rochester Electronics, which specialise in manufacturing legacy semiconductors under license from the original manufacturers. If these sources cannot supply the part, the buyer’s next move may be onto the grey market, but this is where the risk is highest.
The vast commercial potential offered by semiconductors means that criminals are developing increasingly sophisticated ways to profit from counterfeit or sub-standard semiconductors.
Reactions from the semiconductor industry have been multi-faceted. Efforts start with raising awareness of the dangers that counterfeit semiconductors pose with further emphasis on ensuring adequate controls on semiconductor manufacturing, storage, shipping and distribution channels, to prevent material reaching the counterfeiters.
The industry also issues guidelines on the best ways to purchase genuine semiconductors, as well as working with the authorities to stop and seize shipments of counterfeit parts and prosecute the offenders.
Despite the steps taken by the semiconductor manufacturing industry to tighten the controls on excess materials, criminals are continually finding new ways to create counterfeit parts that are visually identical to the genuine devices.
The primary source is waste electronic material: semiconductors are extracted from used electronic equipment and then either resold as new or fraudulently re-marked to fulfil a request for a different semiconductor. The processes used to extract the device from the used electronic equipment are not subtle and whether they are sold as new or re-marked as a different part, the damage may only be discovered when the parts fail after being assembled into new equipment.
In an ideal world, buyers would only purchase from authorised sources but, in the real world, there are ways to minimise the risk of being fooled into buying counterfeit parts. Counterfeit semiconductors, for example, are typically offered at a lower price than the genuine parts. They are also, often, unexpectedly available when the genuine parts are on a long lead-time or have been discontinued by the original manufacturer.
As obsolescence is a key driver for counterfeit semiconductors, the Components Obsolescence Group (COG) helps members stay fully informed by gathering information on counterfeiting and disseminating it to its members. This information includes guidance booklets such as The Counterfeit Minefield, which features examples of counterfeit components and outlines measures for minimising the risks associated with counterfeit parts.
For buyers, the best advice is to remain constantly vigilant and always to bear in mind that, if the price or availability is just too good to be true, then the chances are that the parts are counterfeit.