Introduction: Identifying Fake SD Cards and USB Sticks

About: I like to improve myself and things I find :) Learning new things every day is next to impossible but I still try - only a working brain can work. I have no special sector to cover, electronics, electrical stu…

Update 13/04/2015: Edited Step 4 and added info about my mishap with a 64GB card

With Ebay, Amazon and even local shops offering SD cards and USB Flash drives at bargain prices you might wonder if they are worth the money.
I have SD cards from 512mb to 64GB in use, similar story for USB sticks.
And I can tell you the differences are not just in size...

To get a good understanding I do recommend to read all steps, all tools used throughout this Instructable can be found as a download link towards the end.

Step 1: How Does Flash Memory Work? Well, Sort Of....

Let me tell you a bit about the way these memory devices actuall work (in simple terms).
It does not matter if you have a USB stick or SD card, the only difference is the connection type and the way it is addressed, in most cases you can find the same memory chips in both types.
Like a hard drive each flash memory not only contains a memory chip but also a controller to transfer the data.
Some areas of the memory can't be accessed with normal tools as they contain the actual info on the addressing and type of memory.
This is one reason why a 16GB chip never can take the full 16GB, usually between 14.5 and 15.8GB.
So you have the controller taking your data and shifting it onto the actual memory chips.
Here is also the point where all the fakes fool you. Memory chips are addressed in blocks.
See it as a tower with the controller at the bottom and the memory blocks on top of it.
When you start writing to it the first block is being filled, once full the second is being filled and so on.

You see it does not really what file system is used as the controller "translates" it fit for the memory type used.
Ok, I realise I am starting to sound boring here, so skip the technical crap and we move on to the next part.

Step 2: What You Should and Shouldn't Do....

It is important to note that when you get a new SD or USB stick it is already formatted the best way.
A format should only be performed when really necessary, in all other case please take the time, select the files and just delete them.
A format the wrong way can make the memory slow or in rare cases render it useless.
Never try to multitask and start multiple copy actions onto the same device at the same time!
Not only will the data end up fragmented but the controller has to work overtime and this slows the copy process down.
If you have to copy multiple times it will be faster to do it one at a time compared to several simulatnious copy sessions.
Never just unplug a SD card or USB stick! Always make sure to use the save removal options of your OS.
In Windows you can do a right click on the drive letter and select "Eject" - wait for the completion massage or the drive to disappear before unplugging.
On Android you go into the storage setting to safely unmout a stick or SD.
For the Mac I have not clue but am sure there is a similar option, so please use it.

Step 3: Formatting

If you encounter serious problems with your stick / SD don't try to format it, check the other steps on how to check the device and spot a fake.

If you are on old geek like me you might still remember those day where we were proud owner of 20mb hard drives.
And if you do you also remember the verious "low level format" tool we had.
We do I mention this you wonder?
The reason for it that since these old days nothing much has changed.
Sure we have Terabyte drives now with insane speeds and all is done by Windows (or Mac) for us, but the workings behind closed doors are the same.
In fact it is even more true for flash memory of all kinds.
As mentioned before, the controller does the actual work but it has to know where to put the files and how to address the memory.

Now, when you simply use the Windows format option all will be formatted like a hard drive.
So you get the same sector and cluster sizes Windows deems fit for the size and file system.
Furthermore Windows totally ingores all device specific parameter while formatting
If you have done it before and not just used the quick format option you might have experienced a flash drive that is now much slower than it used to be.
Some even report it gets unusally hot when writing big files.
This is caused by Windows as it totally ignores how the manufacturer designed the drive - remember special low level format tools?
A dedicated and proper tool for the job will check the type of memory either directly or by checking the controller of the flash memory.
After that all memory blocks will be sorted and addressed the way they were designed.
If you like your data and flash memory you should never format with Windows on board tools.
Instead for USB flash drives I strongly recommend the HP USB Storage Format tool.
For SD card the only tool to use is the SD formatter from SDCARD.ORG. They define the standards for SD cards, so you can trust they know how to treat your SD card properly.

Here is a quick look:

Under "Device" you select the stick you would like to format. "File system" can be changed between FAT32 and NTFS - both work fine and I recommend NTFS if you only use it in Windows.
"Volume Label" can be used to enter a name for your stick to be shown in Windows explorer (or any other).
This is helpful if you have a few sticks to keep them apart, I prefer to use something like the size and manufacturer in there.
"Format options" : Quick format is basically to quickly delete all files and does not change much.
If you leave it unticked all data will be overwritten - takes much longer but is useful if you want to make sure data recovery is not an option.
Compression was useful in the days of mb sticks and text files, you can use it but the data transfer will be slighly slower.
And I simply guess you won't create a MS Dos bootable stick either, so ignore that option.
Pressing "Start" will format your drive to the right specs.
This tool is quite useful if your stick was formatted through Windows and reacted very slow from then on.
If in doubt and a quick format did not help try without ticking this box.

As you can see options for SD cards are quite similar to the HP tool.
Select the right drive letter, give it a name if you like and for though cases check the "Option" button.
Another small window will pop up and you can choose between "quick", "full" and "full, erase" format.
Again quick is just a delete. Full rewrites the partitions the way the controller chip needs it - use that option if you formatted with Windows before and the drive is slow.
You only have to use this option once to get the SD back to specs, after that a quick format is sufficient.
The erase option will again overwrite all previous data to make data recovery uselsss.
Once you selected what you need, press ok and in the original window click on "Format".
Depending on size, speed and option it can take some time.

Step 4: Is It a Fake?

In my opinion you are now in the most interesting part of the Instructable :)

You found a SD / USB stick of a massive size at a bargain price but before using it for precious pictures of loved ones you want to know if it really holds the amount of data printed on the packing....
A sure way for brand products is the actual price itself.
If a genuine Sandisk Extreme SD is widely sold for around 50 bucks you can't expect the 20$ one from Ebay is genuine.
For Ebay in particular check the sellers feedback for negative ratings on fakes or problems with the memory.
For a while I tried to keep track of the design and packing of some genuine SD cards but gave up soon as they change too often.

Here are two genuine examples, first a Sandisk SD, then a Sony USB stick:

So what might be different on a fake?
For starters the label sticker on the front - doesn't not help for no-name products at all though.
For brand products that are fakes you often see stickers that are pale or have have no glossy finnish.
Also the actual logo shown might look slightly different.
It pays off to check the web for some pics of genuine cards and known fakes to spot the differences.
I do not have any fakes at hand and did not want to "steal" pictures from other websites, so if in doubt please ask my friend Google.
On the back you can see the Sandisk writing as a slightly pushed in font with a shiny finnish.
Fakes usually don't have anything on the back or just the printed writing with no 3D effect.
You also see a number and the "Made in China" print.
This number is used for RMA purposes to get your warranty, a fake might still have one but you can check on the manufacturers website and if the number is not accepted it is a fake.
Fakes also often feel kind of soft. A genuine, quality product feels sturdy and does not bend like rubber.

Ok, what can we see here? The front does not tell us much as anyone can fake this print, although fakes usually come in a different color for the print.
The back is the interesting bit.
You see all the printing is embossed, a fake often only has a print on it.
Fakes are improving, but most of the time you won't find any of the certificate labels on the stick, like the FCC logo.
But the savest way IMHO opinion to spot a fake is the USB connector - notice the lasers writing on it?
Fakes come with either nothing or just the size stamped - this is also true for no-name products.
But if you take a close look you can see it says 8GR Gen1 on the right.
This tells us it is a 8GB stick and the first (and quite slow) type of this series.
On the left you see USM and a number - this is the internal name for the stick and in most cases the serial number you need for warranty purposes.
Again a fake does not show this or at least not lasered or etched into the metal.

Update 13/04/2015:
A few days ago I got a nice 64Gb SDHC Class 10 (brand ADATA) off Ebay.
I was a bit sceptical as I won the thing for just 7 bucks but all tests showed good performance and the stated capacity.
All images I could find on the ADATA website confirmed the packing and card should be genuine.
Today I copied the data from my old SD in the phone onto the bigger SD as an upgrade.
16GB onto 64Gb should not take too long with two card readers....
Half way through the process Windows complained that I removed the 64Gb card and refused to recognise it in any card reader, same for phone, tablet and movie player - like I did not even isert a card.
The seller was helpful and refunded within hours, which is the only good thing about the story.
I did some more digging and found that a massive amounts of fake cards of all major (and minor!) brands are dumped on the market.

Big problem now is that not only fakes make it into the market but also discarded products that did not pass the quality controls.
Samsungs EVO range is one of the prime candidtes at the moment followed by Transcend although others might have the same issue, like my ADTA.
The fake is simple to identify by checking the true capacity with the tools mentioned in this tutorial, a sub-quality brand product not so easy.

Some of the findings in regards to these quality fails:
* It seems they managed to find their way into the wild from one of the major producers in Korea.
As the company produces for a lot of brands it is unknown how many are affected.
* The cards mainly failed due to heat issues or corrupted memory blocks.
One indicator of a problem (if you have an identical card to compare) is how hot the card gets during big file transfers.
If it is getting quite hot to touch it is a dud.
The memory block problem can sometimes be identified by checking the byte size of the formatted card.
For example a 16GB card should show 14.5-15.2Gb of available space depending on the filesystem and memory technology used, if it is below 14.5Gb it can insicate a problem.
* For the customer there is little to no chance of spotting them as they are a genuine product.
The higher range products that offer warranty with replacement can be identified when it is too late as the serial number of the card will be refused during the RMA procedure.
* Those cards with failing controller chips often stand out due to a pause during file transfers or speeds dropping down during the file transfer (from the mb/s range down to a few kb/s).

Here are some videos I found that copare fake with genuine:
There are more if you check Youtube, which I recommend if you are in doubt about your new card or better before you actually buy one.
Take the above as example how good a fake can be and do some research on the web for yourself if you decide on a different product.

Step 5: Checking If It the Correct Size or to Identy a Really Good Fake

Ok, you made it this far, so I assume you got hit with a fake and need some prove for the seller.
There are easy ways, long ways and really technical ones, I will try to use a good mix here.

a) The manual way....
You got a new USB stick or SD card at a bargain price and need to know if it is the real deal.
Simply use a lot of big pictures or video files and fill the card / stick with it.
In any case the write speed should be consistent.
If it starts fast and quickly (before reaching the 50% mark) slows down or just finnishes instantly you can be sure it is fake.
To confirm check the files in the Windows explorer, you might have to change the viewing details so you see the thumbnail pics instead of the filenames.
If all thumbnails show up it can be a good sign.
To make sure open a few of the files, it helps to now which ones were first and last copied.
All works means all good, missing thumbnails or ususable files means you got a fake.

b) RMPrepUSB - should only be used on USB flash drives but not on SD cards in a card reader!
This is a powerful tool, so handle with care!
!!! Waring, doing the quick test will erase all data on the stick!!!
I won't go into all the details of the tool, just the ones important for the purpose of identifying a fake SD or USB stick.
As an example I will use the previous Sony USB stick.

So what can we see that is useful for us?
First take note the stick was not given a name to show in the Windows explorer, it just shows up as a drive letter.
If we check the tools window you already see on top it shows up as "Sony Storage Media".
A fake would not always give you this info.
Some no-name devices can also show up as brand products, indicating it is a re-labeled product.
Companies can get those deals for high volumes, so if your "Aldi, Walmart or whatever homebrand products" shows a good and well known name here you got a bargain.
A bit further down you again see under "Volume" label that it says Sony Storage - this can change if you previously formatted the drive.
The only bit we need for out tests is the "Quick Size Test" button on the lower right.
Please note you should not do any tests on a drive containing files you need!
When you use the Quick Size Test it will show you what is going on on your stick.
You have to confrm you really want to do this before the actual test starts, last chance to abort and backup the files on it ;)
Ok, kinnding, you will be asked again just to make sure you do not lose any vital files and have a chance to abort.
But that is the last warning you get.

In a DOS window you can see the progress of the test.
Depending on the size and speed of the device in question it will take quite some time.

Changes in the predictions are normal, but if the overall time keeps increasing instead of going down it is a bad sign.
If all is good you see a messge like this:

In case you got a fake reporting the wrong size you will see something like this in the DOS window:
COMMAND LINE: drive=2 quicktest

RMPARTUSB v2.1.631 (c)2011 RM Education plc [SSi] =================================================

Accessing Drive 2 - "USB 2.0" (17,179,869,184 bytes)

Writing marker blocks to drive 2

5% complete - 0 min 1 sec remaining
10% complete - 0 min 1 sec remaining
15% complete - 0 min 6 sec remaining
20% complete - 0 min 4 sec remaining
25% complete - 0 min 4 sec remaining
30% complete - 0 min 3 sec remaining
35% complete - 0 min 2 sec remaining
40% complete - 0 min 2 sec remaining
45% complete - 0 min 2 sec remaining
50% complete - 0 min 2 sec remaining
55% complete - 0 min 1 sec remaining
60% complete - 0 min 1 sec remaining
65% complete - 0 min 1 sec remaining
70% complete - 0 min 1 sec remaining
75% complete - 0 min 1 sec remaining
80% complete - 0 min 1 sec remaining
85% complete - 0 min 1 sec remaining
90% complete - 0 min 2 sec remaining
95% complete - 0 min 2 sec remaining
100% complete - 0 min 1 sec remaining
Reading back marker blocks...
Error at Block 33554431 - found Block -1 instead!
Error at Block 33538047 - found Block -1 instead!
Error at Block 33521663 - found Block -1 instead!
Error at Block 33505279 - found Block -1 instead!
Error at Block 33488895 - found Block -1 instead!
Error at Block 33472511 - found Block -1 instead!
Error at Block 33456127 - found Block -1 instead! ......

Seing one or two error blocks means you just got a bad device, seeing an endless list usually means you got fake with just 2 or 4GB real capacity.

In the DOS window when finnished you see a note telling you that you have to format the drive now as all data is erased:

Please use the right tool for it, in this case the HP formatter. A quick format is sufficent here.

c) H2testw - testing USB sticks and SD with no data loss.

!!! No data loss only if the device is genuine, so don't perform without a backup!!!

Click on "Select Target" and make sure to select the right drive letter for the device in question. Again I use the Sony stick for it, although you can check SD cards with it as well. This tool is quite slow but thorough, so prefer the RMPrepUSB tool for a faster check on USB stick and this one only if you want to go deep. If the RMPrep tool reported problems, testing it again with this tool won't make it better. I limited the test to just 500mb, you should test "all available space" on a media in question.

When done you should see a window like this:

Note the "Test finnished without errors" !
If you see errors you device is either bad or a fake, in either case pretty much useless.

d) FlashGenius
I only included this tool if you are a pro and know what to do.
It requires to enter the details of the controller chip to show all vital info on the USB stick.
Check it if you some dusty stick you don't use or those that fall apart anyway.
Not really needed for our checks anyway.

e) FakeFlashTest - you will loose all data on the device!

This little tool again checks for bad sectors or fakes reporting the wrong size to the OS.

I did not perform the check again on my stick, just trust me it will delete your data on it and find out if you can really use the capacity stated on the package.

Step 6: Download the Tools of This Instructable

Here you can find a download link for Filefactory.
Please unpack the ZIP archive to acces the tools, some need to be installed, some work right away.
There is no need for a premium account, the file is just 15mb in size.
However downloading from a file hoster can be a problem for some people.
Don't get confused by advertisements , just select the regular download and accept a few second of waiting time.
If in doubt I recommend to search the web for "JDownloader".
Once installed you only have to copy a link into the clipboard (right click on a link) and JD will take over.
You will be promted for all captchas if required and it also works for many other types of downloads.
My apologies if this particular hoster might not be to your liking but that is what I use.
If you do find the download not working or broken please send me a message and I will fix it asap.

You can check the websites in the credits for updated versions, although the HP tool will not get any updates anyway anymore.

Step 7: Credits

All credits go to the authors of the tools, I simply provided an additional download and some info for the purpose of this tutorial.
H2TestW is from the computer magazine CT
RMPrepUSB Tool by

Please visit the website for much more detailed information if you really want to go into details.
A lot of useful info to find!
Obviously the HP formatter is an old tool by Hewlett Packard.

The SD Formatter comes from - the one place for SD standards.
Fake Flash Test is again from RMPrepUSB.
I don't know the origins of the FlashGenius program as my russian is no good, so forgive me for not including it here.