Tech Tips: Buyer beware of risks of counterfeit electronics

There are a lot of shady products sold online, luring consumers with fake five-star reviews. These ripoffs come at unbeatable prices and claim to use the same popular technologies as name brands, such as Apple’s MagSafe chargers. But the technology inside isn’t always the same, and the products don’t always meet safety standards. Here’s what to look for in legitimate electronics, and what to do if you’ve purchased a faulty product.

The proliferation of online marketplaces has made it easy for shady sellers to peddle inferior or counterfeit wares, so be careful when purchasing electronics via sites like Amazon. There even have been incidents of unsafe equipment being sold under the Amazon label itself. But the problem isn’t isolated to Amazon.

If you use a site that allows third-party sellers, you run the risk of receiving fraudulent goods. These knockoffs can look almost identical, down to the packaging. And because they’re mixed with legitimate products in the search list, it’s easy to buy the wrong one and fall victim to a counterfeit scam.

Knockoff batteries and chargers are especially dangerous. There have been many incidents of explosions and fires traced to such counterfeits. For that reason, I strongly suggest that you stick with name-brand batteries and chargers for all of your consumer electronics.

That’s not to say name-brand electronics can’t fail. They absolutely can. But these products undergo rigorous safety testing and scrutiny. And if there is a widespread design problem that poses risk to consumers, a legitimate manufacturer will issue a recall announcement and provide refund or replacement options.

Apple’s MagSafe magnetic chargers are one example of technology that’s become popular with counterfeiters. But just because a product says “MagSafe” on the label, doesn’t mean it contains Apple’s proprietary technology. Products have to be certified by Apple to use the MagSafe name. If it’s not certified, it’s not genuine.

So how do you know if the electronics you buy are legitimate? Your best bet is to purchase from a reputable store that doesn’t allow third-party sellers. For example, if you need an Apple MagSafe charger, I recommend you buy one direct from Apple. You also could select a certified device by a reputable manufacturer like Belkin.

Are these more expensive than the bargain models? Maybe, but it’s well worth the cost to know that the items you’ve purchased aren’t counterfeit. If you’ve already purchased an item that you suspect is counterfeit, the StopFakes.gov website has a consumer guide that can help.

Even good products eventually can go bad. I suggest that you keep an eye on your cables, chargers and batteries. A battery that’s starting to swell is a sure sign that it’s failing in a possibly catastrophic way. Similarly, any cables or chargers that show fraying wires or other damage should be replaced. Don’t forget to dispose of old equipment responsibly. The McHenry County Green Guide, courtesy of our friends at McHenry County College’s Sustainability Center, can help you find a local place to recycle e-waste.

• Triona Guidry is a freelance writer and consumer technology specialist offering tech support and advice for home computer users. For free weekly tips and news by email, subscribe to her Simple Tech Tips blog at www.lightningtechsupport.com.