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Ihnatko: Avoiding counterfeit tech

The drive to Yosemite National Park from Fresno International Airport takes about two hours. I was being driven there by the organizer of the conference at which I’d be speaking. My digital amusement of choice (OK, go ahead and call it a security blanket) was therefore my camera instead of a phone or an iPad or anything else that would reduce my social interaction to a series of grunts and grimaces.

It’s not like I took hundreds of photos through the car window during the first half of the journey, but sure, I took a bunch. My battery was fully charged and I had enough card storage for thousands of images, so why not?

The scenery only started getting good once we neared the park. Swooping roads took us alongside tree-lined valleys before we entered the Wawona Tunnel, its rough-hewn edges so beautiful that I shot a couple of minutes of video. Again, why not?

Here’s why not: the Wawona Tunnel exits to a rest area and a devastatingly stunning vista, immortalized by no less than Ansel Adams himself. I’m not dissing Mr. Adams, but it’s one of those spots where all you need to do is aim your camera at the correct side of the planet and you’ll get a brilliant photo.

Here’s the picture I took. I got it with my iPhone, because the battery of my Really Nice Compact System Camera With The Terrific Lenses died in the tunnel.


I was not happy. I’d owned this Olympus OM-D E-M1 long enough to instinctively know how much I could get out of a single battery and this was by no means the first time I’d been caught way, way short.

I examined my gear after we reached the lodge. The battery I pulled out of the camera looked different from the other two I owned:

Ugh. OK. I had bought it from a third-party Amazon seller. It had been sold to me as an authentic Olympus battery, it had arrived in an Olympus box and had the Olympus logo on it, and it claimed to be a 1220 mAh battery, like an authentic Olympus battery but it was clearly a counterfeit. I’d bought it from Amazon awhile back and, as I recall, it was a fair bit cheaper than many of the other listings.

It wouldn’t be my first tussle with counterfeit Amazon items.

I’m off on a kick of searching for off-brand, no-name tech that costs a lot less than the fancy-schmancy alternatives but which nonetheless does the job well. I bought a set of no-name Bluetooth headphones for a song:

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These aren’t the actual ones I bought, but they’re identical and sell for about the same price ($10). I liked ‘em a lot. The sound quality wasn’t awesome, but I wasn’t going to use them for music. I wanted wireless headphones for the podcasts and audiobooks I listen to.

Why wasn’t I aware that these were obvious knockoffs of the popular LG HBS-750? Because I don’t work out in gyms (where, I’m told, they’re as ubiquitous as passive-aggressive notes about wiping down weight benches) and I get so many press releases for bluetooth audio things that my brain screens them out.

My knockoffs were sold and bought honestly. Still, I felt guilty, so I determined to buy the real things.

But the Amazon search results for “LG HBS-750” were weird. Most of the listings were from independent sellers: shipped by Amazon but not sold by them. The prices? All over the map. The ratings were often dismal, complaining of lousy sound quality and cheap packaging.

Yup: the Amazon marketplace had been poisoned by outfits selling these knockoffs as the real thing. It got me so mad that I grabbed my coat and my car keys at 4:30 p.m. on a Sunday to buy them from the closest Best Buy that same day.

It’s a bad situation. Customers get ripped off, and the reputation of the genuine product is sullied by bad reviews read by shoppers who don’t know they’re not reading about the actual LG-750.

Here’s the lesson: be supremely careful whenever you buy tech-related items on Amazon or eBay that seem to be easily counterfeited. Consumables such as phone batteries and printer cartridges — expensive and frequently replaced — are particularly worrisome.

On Amazon, there are ways to reduce the chances that you’re about to buy fake merch. If I’d made sure that “Olympus” was listed as the highlighted, linked manufacturer under the product name, and that the product “ships from and is sold by Amazon.com,” I probably would have received the real McCoy.

Otherwise, be suspicious of independent sellers who only sell a few products. And find out what the manufacturer’s retail price is. Genuine products all come from the same source. If someone’s selling something for 40 percent less than anybody else, it’s assuredly not because “Captain Bodacious Tech Co LLC” cunningly negotiated a better wholesale price from Apple on genuine MacBook Air chargers than anybody else.

Also: search for “(name of product) knockoff counterfeit.” If people are getting burned, they’re probably already complaining about it.

What if you wind up with counterfeit merchandise? If you bought it from an independent online store — well, good luck to you. Emailing the seller is useful in the same sense that writing a letter to your dead brother finally forgiving him for breaking your Coleco Electronic Football game when you were kids. You’ll get catharsis, but probably not a refund.

If you bought the item on eBay, or paid for it with PayPal, you’ve got a chance at receiving a refund but it’s going to take some effort. Both of those companies have policies against the sale of counterfeit merchandise and they accept fraud claims against sellers (follow the above links). But their role is as an intermediary.

Amazon offers a magic wand. Purchases are covered by the company’s “A to Z Guarantee,” which (broadly) says that if you didn’t get what you ordered, then it becomes Amazon’s problem instead of yours. The policy applies to stuff sold by third-party sellers as well as “sold by Amazon.” Just report the issue and they’ll issue you a free return label and an immediate credit.

Alas, I didn’t figure out the problem with my Olympus battery until long after I bought it. I filed it in the “sadder but wiser” box, and when I got home from Yosemite, I chucked the knockoff battery in a battery recycling bin so it couldn’t let me down ever again.

And when it came time to leave Yosemite, I asked the conference organizer to please stop the van again at Tunnel View. I made sure the battery in my camera didn’t have any Kanji characters on it.