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Fake microSD cards and how to spot them

(Image credit: Image Credit: MaxPixel)

microSD is a very common form factor, and cards are used in a vast array of consumer and professional devices. Because they are removable and user-replaceable, microSD cards give the owner of a device the potential to keep it useful for longer by increasing its storage capacity, or even swapping out cards to use for different purposes. 

The ability to augment the capabilities of a device in this way means that the microSD card business is big. Unfortunately, because of the size of the market, there are many fake microSD cards for sale.  Fake microSD cards might deliver less capacity than they claim, or they might not work at all. Worse still, they might stop working after a short time, or corrupt some data, so that what you’ve stored on them is no longer available. Fake cards also undermine the legitimate market, costing trusted manufacturers money they could put into improving their products.

Buyer beware

It is quite shocking that it is possible to buy fake cards from reputable web sites, but fake cards are just a small part of a wider issue. Retailer Amazon published its first Brand Protection Report this year, and has said that during the pandemic counterfeit products have been a growing problem.  

I found it was remarkably easy to buy fake microSD cards when I looked for a dashcam. I spent a long time researching different models at a well-known online retailer, and I found a lot of images of cards that were not accurate. This included where cards had been altered to include the dashcam maker’s brand name. The presence of the fake card made me question whether the dashcams were also fake. 

I ended up buying a dashcam from a reputable and trusted name in electronics and was pleased when it arrived as it had a genuine SanDisk, high-performance microSD card inside.  

For the average person, telling the fake from the real just by looking at a picture of a card on a web site is challenging. This is because of the range of different markings that a card carries, whose meaning might not be immediately obvious to everyone. But the fact is, there are standards set for these markings which apply across the industry, and which are designed to provide certainty on the specification of any one card, and to help purchasers compare cards from different makers. Deviation from these standards markings, as well as anomalies of colour or corporate branding, can alert people to fake cards.

So, how do you spot a fake SD card when buying online, either as a standalone card or as part of a bundle with other hardware? And if you’ve bought a microSD card and you suspect it is fake how do you test it and what do you do next?

Spotting a fake microSD card online

To avoid the need to find out whether a card is fake or real, the best advice is to buy from a reputable seller that’s a specialist in the field you are interested in, such as, for example, a camera related web site, or to buy direct from a reputable card brand. 

But if you want to buy from a ‘boxshifter’ or generalist web seller, there are some key ways you can spot a fake microSD card by just looking at a picture of it.

  • Check the marks. There are a lot of marks on a microSD card, and they are all present for specific reasons. Some marks are mandatory. For example the SD logo itself, which is trademarked and belongs to SD-3C LLC, the company that licenses and enforces intellectual property rights for SD memory cards and ancillary products. Other marks belong to the SD Association. These marks and their meanings are at the web sites of those two organizations.
  • Check the company branding and how colors are used on the card. If the brand isn’t one you’ve heard of, look it up to find out if it is real, and do some digging online to check its reputation. If the brand is one you’ve heard of, check out how it is represented by going to its web site and compare its own images of cards with the image of the card you are looking at. Fake cards often use the same color schemes as leading brands. The red/black and red/gold branding of market leader SanDisk is often copied. 
  • Check that the company named on the card actually makes cards in the capacity offered by visiting their web site and looking at the products listed.
  • Don’t think that just because a card is listed on the first page of a web retailer’s search results it is not a fake. When I was searching for dashcams I found examples of fake cards on the very first search page.

Spotting a fake microSD card after purchase

When you get your microSD card there are some simple diagnostic tests you can run to check it is not fake.

  • Check the packaging. Genuine cards should be CE and UKCA certified (for Europe). There should be a recycling logo too. Always check for symbols and evidence of compliance. Good companies are always happy to promote their address and contact details so maybe there is cause to be suspicious if this information is not present.
  • Check the write speed.  This requires a high quality memory card reader. It’s not a good idea to use readers that are built into laptops as these can be quite slow. It is better to buy a reader from a card manufacturer such as Lexar or ProGrade Digital. Copy a large file to the card – ideally something that is several GB in size. The write speed achieved during the copy process will be displayed on the progress box on screen. The write speed expected of the card will be marked on it, though it isn’t always immediately apparent. There might be “R” (read) and “W” (write) speeds in numbers. If the write speed you get is considerably slower than that on the card, then either your card reader isn’t up to the faster speed, or you may have a fake card.
  • Check the actual storage capacity. Legitimate card makers can reject cards because bad sectors mean they don’t have the storage capacity that’s required. There’s nothing wrong with the remaining memory on the cards, but they can’t be sold as having X capacity when they only have Y capacity. Third party companies can buy these cards and use them in various ways, but they should not be branded with the intended, but unachievable storage capacity. There are free tools that will test this such as FakeFlashTest.

Doing the right thing

Finally, if you have bought a fake micro SD card, there are some important things you can do

  • Don’t use it. the card might stop working and your files will be lost.
  • Write a review at the site you bought the card from, alerting other people to the issue. You could explain how you tested the card, and what tools you used.
  • If it is possible to alert the site you bought the card from then do that, so that they are aware they are selling a fake product. 
  • Think twice next time. Buy from reputable web sites, and remember, while there are bargains to be had in the world, it’s always worth being a sceptic.

Paul Norbury, CEO, Cardwave

Paul set up Cardwave in 2004 to provide customised memory solutions to global manufacturers, from automotive companies to computer developers, and has built it into an award-winning international business.