Compact Flash Memory cards – is yours a fake?

I have been wanting to write this article for some time now… ever since I received a really bad fake SandDisk Ultra II Compact Flash card a few years back. After doing some research online, I found a few others that were getting the same crap cards from their online purchases.

Real and fake SanDisk Ultra II CF cards

Real and fake SanDisk Ultra II CF cards

The first fake CF card I came across was pretty obvious, visually. I received it with a used camera I bought, so I really couldn’t complain. It was basically free and I was thrilled at the time (2006) to have a 2GB card thrown in with a camera. But it was the performance of the cart that tipped me off to the real problem. The card was significantly slower in the writes than my other SanDisk Ultra II cards; about half the write speed or worse. Here is a look at the fake card next to the real card (right):

Back of 2GB SanDisk Elite CF cards

Back of 2GB SanDisk Elite CF cards

It is pretty obvious here which is the fake card. Come on, counterfeiters, can’t you do a better fake label than that? As I read up more, it seems that the early cards were easier to detect. Not only were the front stickers obvious, but the rear stickers were missing a lot of telling information. There were no serial numbers on the fake card. This was the first give-away. There was really not much of anything specifically identifying the card on the back label of the fake card. Notice that the real card on the left had the SDCFH identifier, as well as the patent numbers. This would be easy enough to fake too, if they weren’t so lazy. (right):

Close-up of real & fake SanDisk Ultra II CF cards

Close-up of real & fake SanDisk Ultra II CF cards

When you zoom in close (these images were made on a cheapo flatbed scanner at 1200DPI), you can also see the difference in the grain of the plastic. The fake card has a rougher texture and surface on it than the real SanDisk card. On closer inspection, you can see that the grain in the printing is finer on the real SanDisk card also. But these differences alone are harder to distinguish with the naked eye. If the labels were better duplicated overall, you might not even notice such small details as those. You can click to enlarge the photos to the right and get a better, more detailed blow-up of these differences. (right):

Sides of SanDisk Ultra CF cards

Sides of SanDisk Ultra CF cards

But here is one place that they did get clever… the serial numbering. Notice how close the printing is on both of the cards? Without contacting SanDisk, there is no way to tell which one is real and which one is a fake. (right):

So, recently I decided that it was time to buy me a new, 8GB SanDisk Ultra IV compact Flash card as my Canon 1DS Mark III burns through a lot of space at around 25MB per image. 2GB and 4GB cards were just not enough for events. I decided again to test my luck with a new SanDisk Ultra Card, and thought I would try to save a few bucks on ebay. What the heck… if the owner says it comes new in the box, that’s a pretty good sign, right? And sellers in Hong Kong can have real product once in a while too, right? Especially if it is in the new, retail box? And since it is not from the U.S., it could be cheaper, right? Like half price?

O.K., I have to say that right off the bat the first signs of trouble are right here. Half price, easily duplicated product from Hong Kong is a sure sign of fake product on ebay these days. However, for $29.97 shipped, it was worth it to see how good they really are.

Fake SanDisk Extreme package

Fake SanDisk Extreme package

Here is what I received, in a padded envelope from Hong Kong, partially crushed (right). Surprisingly, the box looks very very real. The gold foils are vibrant and shiny, the texture of the box is identical. And inside the box was the card in a plastic holder, a SanDisk keychain card holder and an SanDIsk RescuePRO 4.0″ installation CD. Pretty much every detail of the real box and contents was duplicated here with extreme care, and with only minor differences. At first glance, I was fairly convinced that this was actually real, or was it just a really damn good knock-off. After closer inspection, it seems that the later was the case. How could someone afford to go to all of this trouble?  Was there really that much profit in selling a $70 card for $30 on eBay with all of these production costs?

Side by side real and fake SanDisk Extreme CF boxes

Real and fake SanDisk Extreme CF boxes

Looking at the box itself side by side with the real thing, it is hard to see many differences. The boxes look identical from the front, outside of the print color being a little off at the bottom (which is much more apparent in these photos and to the eye). Producing boxes like this with the gold embossing is not cheap process. Either these are the real thing, or someone is mass producing these to keep the costs down. I fear at this point that the compact flash counterfeiting business is not a small one. Someone is investing a lot of money into fake product and fake packaging here.

Back of SanDisk boxes

Back of SanDisk boxes

The back of the box is a bit different too. That would be the next clue on first, unopened inspection of the box. The real SanDisk IV box is the one on the left with a lot more text on it.  I only have 4 SanDisk Extreme IV boxes in my office (real ones).  The boxes for my SanDisk Extreme III cards are in storage, so I cannot see how much the back of the boxes changed from the III series to the IV series, but I assume that all boxes of series IV cards are pretty much the same.  This makes these changes on the back of the card more suspicious.

Real SanDisk Exreme Box

Real SanDisk Exreme Box

Fake SanDisk Extreme package

Fake SanDisk Extreme box

Now let’s look at a real box and content next to the fake box and content. They both have the same sleeve and slide-out insert format. They both have the same inside plastic housing and clear cover. They both have manuals, a CF hard plastic case and mini CD with software on them. They even both have a keychain CF card holder, although the real one has red text on it and the fake one white text.  The only piece missing from the fake packaging is a small advertising insert.

Real and fake SanDisk manuals

Real and fake SanDisk manuals

The manuals/documentation are slightly different.  The fake manual (on the right) is printed on cheaper paper with a much yellower cast to it.  The print quality is slightly lower than the original, real documentation pamphlet.  Interestingly, my real documentation is in Spanish, even though it was bought right here in the U.S. from an authorized SanDisk dealer (samys.com),   Notice the difference in phone numbers? I tried calling the number on the fake document and it rings SanDisk.  The phone number on the real pamphlet… wrong number/disconnected.  Now that’s funny.

Bottom of SanDisk boxes

Bottom of SanDisk boxes

On closer look at the bottom of the boxes you can see a numeric difference with the 8.0GB box. The real 2.0GB box has a part number of SDCFX4-2048-901. I assume that the 2048 is for 2,048MB, or 2GB. The 8.0GB fake box has a part number of SDCFX4-4096-904. Would that not be the part number of a 4,096MB card, or a 4GB? In an internet search for SDCFX4-4096, it seems it is the part number for the SanDisk Ultra IV 4.0GB compact flash card. There is our first clue.

8GB Fake SanDisk Ultra IV CF card

8GB Fake SanDisk Ultra IV CF card

But, once we take out the CF card and begin to examine it, the details start to appear. The first thing I noticed was that it looked very close in all aspects to a real card. “Hmmm… maybe this is a real SanDisk Extreme IV.” Even the bottom edge of the card has a full serial number and ‘Made in China’ perfectly stenciled onto the case.

In further examination, I started to notice that the label was on crooked. But hey, that could be an issue in assembly that could randomly happen, right? Then, as the light caught it right, I also noticed two bubbles in the front label sticker. “Hmmm… this is getting more suspicious. SanDisk usually doesn’t let these kind of flaws through. This must be a hand-applied label.” Also notice that the corners of the label are square and not slightly rounded. This is another sign of a shortcut in the die cutting process of the fake label. On even further examination, you can see that the outer plastic edged of the card is different – different plastic to metal widths in the edges of the card.

8GB real vs fake SanDisk Extreme IV CF cards

8GB real vs fake SanDisk Extreme IV CF cards

The next thing I noticed is an issue which began to appear in several other articles, is that the holographic background to the lettering scans as a blue tint, and not gold like all of my other SanDisk Extreme cards. In this image (right), you will see that the fake card on the right has a blue tint to the lettering and the real card on the left appears more gold. Some of the elements are a little different size (like the E.S.P. logo), but overall it’s a pretty decent copy label sticker copy.

8GB real vs fake SanDisk Extreme IV CF cards

8GB real vs fake SanDisk Ultra IV CF cards

Next, lets look at the back of the cards. Again, the card on the left is the real card and the one on the right is the fake. Notice how it is a little dingy looking? That’s about the only difference on the back side. Even the corners of this dingy white label are rounded. It is hard to tell from the back side what makes this one fake, outside of the off-white paper used in making the label.  Again, a lot of work to make a fake card.  We are almost seeing efforts on the level of paper money counterfeiting here with all of the attention to detail in the print work.  Isn’t that another scary issue we have been reading about these past few years coming from China?

6 different CF cards

6 different CF cards

O.K., looks aside, its time to get down to the real meat of this.  How does the fake card perform in comparison to the real SanDisk Extreme IV cards?  To start, I do not have a real 8GB SanDisk Extreme IV card to test against, but I do have many 2.0GB Extreme IV cards that I bought from an authorized dealer.  This should be fine for our tests as the complete series of SanDisk Extreme IV cards are expected to perform similar to each other, within a small margin of error.  I also decided to throw in a few other generic and non-generic cards for comparison, and I included 2 separate SanDisk Extreme IV 2.0GB cards in the test to make sure that the real SanDisk IV cards perform equally in all aspects. You can see all of the cards (except for a 4.0GB PhotoFast Super card that looks identical to the 2.0GB Fotofast Super card) all in the image to the right.  The results are absolutely fascinating.

The test machine is a Mac Pro tower, 8 Core 3.0GHz Intel Xenon processors, 12GB RAM, Seagate 750GB SATA drive, Mac OS X v10.5.5 and a DELL 30″ monitor with 9in1 USB2 card reader built into it.  These specs are really irrelevant as every read and write was done with the same hardware and data.  That part is equal throughout the test.

The read/write copies were done with a folder containing ~1,000 jpg image files, 500k to 4.5MB each in size, 1.83GB (1,949,350,680 kbytes) total in size. 2 identical reads and writes were performed with this folder of images on each cards to insure consistency. All results were rounded to the nearest second. Margin of error is +/- 1.0 second.

Sandisk cards compared

Sandisk cards compared

This first chart is of read and write times for this folder of information to just the SanDisk cards, both real and fake. Notice how the read times are all pretty close, with the real SanDisk Extreme III and IV cards being almost identical, and how far off the 8.0GB fake card is from the others.  This is your first solid confirmation that you did not get what you paid for.  When you buy a card of this class and price, you are paying for speed, quality of build and the reputation of the company standing behind it.  This card is dropping the ball on all of those factors.  Below are the actual numbers from the tests.

Read Write
Sandisk Extreme III 2.0GB 2:57 4:56
Sandisk Extreme IV 2.0GB #1 2:56 4:23
Sandisk Extreme IV 2.0GB #2 2:56 4:23
Sandisk Extreme IV 8.0GB fake 3:03 6:37

All CF cards compared

All CF cards compared

Now, let’s throw some other cheapo cards into the mix.  The first is a Kingston Elite Pro 50X CF card (not necessarily a cheapo) and the other two are FastFoto Super CF cards, 2.0GB and 4.0GB.  These cards were bought 2 years ago off of an online discount house having a sale.  The interesting thing here is that these cards are really out of whack when it comes to write speeds, but their read speeds are good.  These were really cheap at the time I purchased them, and now you can see why.  However, the fake SanDisk 8.0GB cards are not terrible by comparison to the 2 year old generic CF cards. Below are the actual numbers from the tests.


Read Write
Sandisk Extreme III 2.0GB 2:57 4:56
Sandisk Extreme IV 2.0GB #1 2:56 4:23
Sandisk Extreme IV 2.0GB #2 2:56 4:23
Sandisk Extreme IV 8.0GB fake 3:03 6:37
Kingston Elite Pro 50x 2.0GB 4:27 6:20
PhotoFast Super 4.0GB 3:21 16:00
PhotoFast Super 2.0GB 3:33 16:21

Sandisk and fake CF cards

SanDisk and fake CF cards

So, taking the data from the test and calculating MB/sec, we can see the relative performance each of these cards attains.  Let’s start with just the SanDisk cards and the fake SanDisk card.  Below are the actual numbers from the tests.

Read Speed Write speed
Sandisk Extreme III 2.0GB 10.76 6.43
Sandisk Extreme IV 2.0GB #1 10.82 7.24
Sandisk Extreme IV 2.0GB #2 10.82 7.24
Sandisk Extreme IV 8.0GB fake 10.40 4.80

Transfer rate of all cards

Transfer rate of all cards

Here is a comparison of all of the cards for transfer rate in MB/sec.  Below are the actual numbers from the tests.

Read Speed Write speed
Sandisk Extreme III 2.0GB 10.76 6.43
Sandisk Extreme IV 2.0GB #1 10.82 7.24
Sandisk Extreme IV 2.0GB #2 10.82 7.24
Sandisk Extreme IV 8.0GB fake 10.40 4.80
Kingston Elite Pro 50x 2.0GB 7.13 5.01
PhotoFast Super 4.0GB 9.47 1.98
PhotoFast Super 2.0GB 8.94 1.94

So, in the end, do I really feel ripped off? Absolutely!  But wait… I did get a working 8GB compact flash card. Some could argue that I got a functioning card and can still shoot photos. But I equate this to spending $3,500 on that Rolex watch to only find out it was a decent knock-off. Yea, it still tells time, but I did not get what I was paying for, and it has much less resale value down the line. Just as you can buy a much cheaper watch for $50 that isn’t pretending to be a Rolex, you can also buy a much cheaper 8GB compact flash card that performs as well as the fake SanDisk card. As of this writing, those cards are $17.00 on ebay with free shipping – about half of what I paid for the fake SanDisk.

A note to SanDisk:  Please forgive me for straying from authorized dealers just this one time.  The economy is rough, especially for those of us in photography.  The price was just too tempting.  I have purchased over 10 authentic cards from authorized SanDisk dealers in the past.  I promise not to stray again.  I offer this article to help others not stray either as a peace offering to you.

Maurice Naragon
Digital Creations
Website Development and Marketing
Professional Photography in Orange County, CA

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11 Responses

  1. Anonymous says:

    Really interesting article Kerry. I was once thinking about buying a lens off eBay through a seller in Hong Kong but glad I didn't now. When you see the lengths they go through to try and copy the real thing, you can be easily fooled.

    I know in the food industry in Germany that companies produce a product that they sell in expensive packaging with a much higher price but then also sell the same product is very cheap packaging for a much lower price. The only difference is the packaging and not the product. I wonder if this ever happens with electronics?

    Great article and blog.

    James
    Freiburg, Germany

  2. James Walker says:

    Really interesting article Kerry. I was once thinking about buying a lens off eBay through a seller in Hong Kong but glad I didn't now. When you see the lengths they go through to try and copy the real thing, you can be easily fooled.

    I know in the food industry in Germany that companies produce a product that they sell in expensive packaging with a much higher price but then also sell the same product is very cheap packaging for a much lower price. The only difference is the packaging and not the product. I wonder if this ever happens with electronics?

    Great article and blog.

    James
    Freiburg, Germany

  3. Anonymous says:

    James,

    While I have never heard of a counterfeited lens, buying some lenses from Hong Kong will get you product that is considered "gray market" and will not carry a warranty. As for packaging, I think the food industry does that in a lot of places here. Some U.S. factories will run a line of canned food for one company and then switch the labeling machine for the next company… often with the end product selling for very different prices.

  4. Maurice says:

    James,

    While I have never heard of a counterfeited lens, buying some lenses from Hong Kong will get you product that is considered “gray market” and will not carry a warranty. As for packaging, I think the food industry does that in a lot of places here. Some U.S. factories will run a line of canned food for one company and then switch the labeling machine for the next company… often with the end product selling for very different prices.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I read this article a couple days after buying a 8 GB card off ebay. I got it in the mail the morning of a shoot I had and decided to use it at the shoot. When I put it in my camera it wouldn't even take a picture and then the menu and display buttons wouldn't bring up anything on the lcd screen until I took the battery out and put it back in… I don't know if this was from the card but it's never happened before. What a rip off. And had I not had another 2 gb card with me I wouldn've been embarrassed and screwed. Your card worked.. but mine won't even take a picture and its hard to put in the slot and take out. Anyways thanks for the article I'll know never to buy a card off ebay again.

  6. Kayleen T. says:

    I read this article a couple days after buying a 8 GB card off ebay. I got it in the mail the morning of a shoot I had and decided to use it at the shoot. When I put it in my camera it wouldn't even take a picture and then the menu and display buttons wouldn't bring up anything on the lcd screen until I took the battery out and put it back in… I don't know if this was from the card but it's never happened before. What a rip off. And had I not had another 2 gb card with me I wouldn've been embarrassed and screwed. Your card worked.. but mine won't even take a picture and its hard to put in the slot and take out. Anyways thanks for the article I'll know never to buy a card off ebay again.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for your article! I realized i bought a fake card myself. I will try to reason with the seller (i did not leave any feedback yet). Thanks for opening our eyes!
    /Jannis

  8. Anonymous says:

    After reading your article I realized I bought a fake 8GB CF Sandisk Extreme III but I paid less than $40 bucks for it, and surprisingly I didn't have any problems with It, but I had no idea why the transfer rate is so low till now that I found it's a counterfeit 🙁
    Thank you for enlightened me and good luck 🙂

    Al

  9. Name says:

    My friend lost her shoot on such 8 Gb fake card. 🙁

  10. Name says:

    My friend lost her shoot on such 8 Gb fake card. 🙁

  1. January 17, 2009

    […] giorno fa una CF sandisk ultra II da 4gb su ebay… Purtroppo pare sia una truffa internazionale http://cameradojo.com/2008/11/19/com…-yours-a-fake/ — Besos & Busos Marco "Lo Iato" Ioannucci http://studiomimmi.zenfolio.com […]

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