While many of us in the photography world spend time talking about the necessity of dual memory card slots and their importance on modern digital cameras, few seem to truly understand bigger problems related to storage media. One of the biggest issues that the photography community faces today is fake memory cards that show up in many online stores, including the most popular ones such as Amazon. Some of these fake memory cards have no-name brands, but most of them look legit under big brand names such as SanDisk and Lexar. The problem with fake memory cards is that they either completely misrepresent their true capabilities, or contain much less storage than advertised, which can result in storage failures with unrecoverable data. Understanding which memory cards are real vs fake is extremely important, which is why we decided to write this article.
Table of Contents
1. Buying Cheap Memory Cards Online
Without a doubt, photographers love great deals, especially when it comes to memory cards. Why spend hundreds of dollars on expensive storage, if you can pay much less? That’s the typical thought process of many photographers and that’s understandable – after-all, given how expensive camera equipment is, it is tough to spend even more money on accessories. Personally, I only shop for memory cards when they are on sale about once a year, as I also think that it is not necessary to pay full price on an item that often goes on sale. However, while shopping for memory cards, we should always pay close attention to things like memory card brand, speed, size, price and seller. The last is especially important, because buying from an untrusted source can result in receiving a fake product. Unfortunately, things are getting more complicated today, because even trusted companies end up selling fake products, often without knowing about it.
For example, the online giant Amazon.com is perceived as a trusted seller, but a number of photographers have experienced receiving camera boxes filled with sand, bricks and other junk, while those who have purchased memory cards through Amazon received fake SanDisk and Lexar memory cards. And the worst part is, some of the products were marked as “Prime”, sold and shipped by Amazon. Does this mean that one should not be buying from Amazon? Not necessarily. Amazon is a huge company and as a result, it sometimes gets scammed by resellers and sometimes even by some customers, who buy legitimate products and return fake ones to get a full refund. The fake product might then recirculate and end up with another customer. Since Amazon handles so many returns, its staff might not be able to understand differences between a real and a fake product.
Personally, I do buy quite a bit from Amazon, but I always make sure to test electronics out after receiving, to make sure that they are not fake. If I don’t want to go through these hassles, I just buy camera gear and accessories from the companies I trust: B&H Photo Video and Adorama. These companies are much smaller than Amazon and they are specialized in camera gear, computers and storage. The staff they employ in their return departments are typically very knowledgeable, and if they see anything wrong with the return, they won’t issue a refund. Smaller companies take returns very seriously, because it is one area that could get out of hand quickly and result in huge financial losses to the company. As a result, such companies are less likely to get scammed. In addition, they have a reputation to maintain – if they ever ship a fake product, they know that the news will quickly propagate across the Internet and hurt their businesses in the long run. That’s why they take extra measures to only purchase products directly from manufacturers and they never allow anyone to resell their products on their online platforms.
However, many online retailers such as Amazon, NewEgg and Walmart allow third party sellers on their platforms and that’s typically where most of the troubles come from. When buying from such websites, I always make sure that the product is shipped and sold by the same company. For example, when buying from Amazon, I always make sure that I get the product that is marked as “Shipped and sold by Amazon”. The same goes for others.
Be especially careful when buying from websites such as eBay and Craigslist. eBay is filled with sellers with high ratings who are involved in selling counterfeit products, while Craigslist or other online forums are going to be mostly selling used, refurbished or counterfeit memory cards that you are not going to be able to test before you hand them your money. In fact, it is not worth buying used and refurbished memory cards, because you won’t be able to tell how heavily those cards had been used.
2. Types of Fake Memory Cards
When it comes to counterfeit memory cards, you will find a number of different types of them out there:
- Reduced Read / Write Speed: This one is very common. You buy a memory card that shows something like “maximum 95 MB/sec read and 90 MB/sec write speed” and a “V30” label that is supposed to guarantee a minimum write speed of 30 MB/sec. But when copying a file using a fast memory card reader, you might not even get more than 5-10 MB/sec. Old, slow memory cards are cheap and some companies simply change labels on unsold memory cards to make them look fast, when in reality they are very slow. The only way to test such memory cards is by performing file read / write operations. While such fake cards are unfortunate to come by, they rarely result in data loss and often get used continuously, without the owner even knowing about it.
- Reduced Capacity: Another very common issue, where the card will report large capacity to your computer, camera or storage device, when in reality it contains only a very small part of the overall capacity. For example, a 512 GB SD card might show up as 512 GB on your computer, but in reality contain only 16 GB of storage cells. This happens because the microchip (a tiny part of the memory card that is responsible for reporting the total amount of storage available) within the memory card has been reprogrammed to report a different size to the host. Such memory cards are extremely dangerous, because you might never be able to tell that they are fakes until you start filling them up. In this particular case, the first 16 GB of storage might work just fine, but anything past that is going to produce data errors. Counterfeit memory cards with reduced capacities should be avoided the most, because they will most certainly result in data loss.
- Fake Brand: Some memory cards have big brand labels attached to them and sold at a premium price, when in reality they are made from cheap parts by some unknown manufacturer in Asia. In some cases, it could be a small manufacturer that sells “rejects” from bigger brands, and in other cases it could be a real OEM product from a legitimate manufacturer with misrepresented specifications. Such products are often more difficult to identify and might require a call to the manufacturer to verify the serial number.
- Unrealistic Capacity: There are memory cards that are sold on eBay and some other sites that advertise completely unrealistic storage sizes. For example, if you search eBay for microSD memory cards, you can find cards with capacities as large as 2 TB:
In reality, the largest capacity microSD card you can buy today is only 512 GB. Similarly, 1 TB+ SD cards have been sold on eBay for a while now, when SanDisk made an announcement in 2016 that it had a 1 TB SD card prototype, which still has not made it to the consumer market in 2019. So where does the other 1.5 GB of storage come from? A “reprogrammed” controller, of course. The real storage space in such cards might be 16 GB, 32 GB or even 64 GB, but they report themselves as 2 TB to the host. Until one fully tests the card over its “real” capacity, it is impossible to tell how much of that 2 TB is actually usable!
- Bogus / Non-Working: Some memory cards are sold at incredibly low prices by unknown sellers. Buy one of these and you will quickly regret your purchasing decision, as these cards are pieces of plastic that don’t work. You can forget about trying to contact the seller and returning such memory cards.
3. Fake Memory Card Issues
So what happens when you have a fake / counterfeit memory card? Well, as you can see from the earlier section, the issues can range from getting very slow speeds all the way to data loss and unusable memory cards. Out of all the potential issues, data loss is the biggest risk, especially when a large capacity memory card is used. The problem with fake memory cards with reduced capacity, is that many photographers might not understand that once they go over a certain capacity, all data from that point on will be corrupt. So everything might appear to be working great at first, only to have troubles show up later. This is especially problematic when photographers plan expensive trips where memory cards fail after a few days of use. So the biggest risk one might run into, is loss of data – that’s where you do not want to end up! And having a dual memory card slot camera is not going to help in any way with fake cards, because both will fail at some point. This is why it is especially important to identify fake memory cards and get rid of them.
4. How to Identify a Fake Memory Card
If you have already purchased a memory card, there are a few things you can inspect and basic tests you can run in order to identify a fake memory card:
- Inspect Product Packaging: First, start by inspecting the packaging of the memory card, if you still have it. If it looks very cheap with odd, inconsistent printing and no seals, that could be the first sign of a fake card.
Make sure that the back of the package contains information about the product such as its specifications and card speed, as well as all the appropriate labels, warranty info and a proper UPC, as shown below:
Keep in mind that if the package looks fake, the product itself is most likely fake.
- Inspect Memory Card: If you don’t have the product packaging anymore, the next step is to visually inspect the memory card itself. Start with the front label of the memory card – is it positioned more or less evenly, or does it look tilted? Does the label look properly printed in high quality? Does it look like it will easily peel off? Those are all signs of potentially fake memory cards. However, the biggest sign is lack of a unique serial number that identifies the card. If you cannot find any long strings containing numbers or letters with numbers, the memory card is most likely fake.
The location of the serial number will vary depending on memory card type and manufacturer. If you have a SanDisk card, take a look at this article, which details the possible location of serial numbers on its storage products.
Some manufacturers will include specific watermarks and other markings to differentiate their genuine products. For example, Kingston Technology uses “Colorshift Verification” to identify genuine vs fake products. If your Kingston memory card does not have such a feature, it is fake. Take a look at the below video that demonstrates how the Colorshift feature is supposed to look on different products:
- Test Memory Card: Last, but not least, is to actually test the memory card on your computer. This is the most important step and if you are going to perform it, you can skip the first two, as this test will quickly reveal if the memory card you are dealing with is real or fake. I typically start with a quick file copy test that does not require any particular software. Since most fake memory cards significantly underperform when compared to genuine ones, one can quickly identify such cards by performing a file copy. First, make sure that you have a fast memory card reader. If you don’t, the speed test will be completely pointless. Next, grab a large file from your computer (a 1-2 GB video file is ideal for this) and simply drag and drop it into the memory card and observe the average write speed:
If you don’t get more than 10-20 MB/sec on a memory card that promises up to 90 MB/sec write speeds, you probably have a fake card. Once the file is copied, try copying it back from the memory card to see what kinds of read speeds you get with it. Again, note differences in read speed.
If your operating system does not actively report MB/sec on read and write operations, you will need to use third party software. For example, on Mac, try Disk Speed Test by Blackmagicdesign. It does a decent job at reporting read / write speeds, as shown below:
Just make sure to give it sufficient time to test sequential write speeds, since memory cards don’t do well with random write operations. If you are using a PC, CrystalDiskMark is a wonderful piece of software to test read / write speeds on any storage media.
If you are worried about your memory card reporting larger than its real capacity, the next test using the free H2Testw tool is going to identify such cards. Please note that the test is going to take time – the tool must go through each sector as it writes data, then it has to re-read and verify all that information. So if you have a large capacity memory card that is very slow, it could take hours to complete. Please note that if you are planning to perform this test, you can completely skip the speed tests above, as the tool actively reports read and write speeds of the memory card.
In my opinion, H2Testw is the best memory card testing tool out there. It is designed specifically to identify fake memory cards that over-report their total storage. While the tool is designed to work for Windows, you can also run a similar tool called “F3” on MacOS (F3X is the GUI version). Unfortunately, after downloading it on a Mac, I couldn’t get F3X to run on the latest MacOs Mojave, so I ended up compiling F3, which is a command-prompt version of the software (for those who do not know how to compile software on a Mac, I recommend to just find a Windows PC or run Windows on a virtualized environment and use H2Testw instead).
Once you download and install H2Testw, run it, then pick the right storage media volume and click the “Write + Verify” button:
The software will fire up another window, which will perform all read and write operations. After everything is complete, the software will report on its findings:
If the memory card you are using is fake, it will report errors and show how much actual data was written and read from the card. In the case above, I used a genuine 16 GB SanDisk Extreme Pro memory card that I retired a while ago and as you can see, the software not only showed zero errors, but also reported an average read and write speed of 70 MB/sec. If you perform a similar test and you see errors, you are dealing with a fake or a failing memory card!
The last test is the most important and it will surely reveal any problems you might have on any of your memory cards. Before you put your memory cards to use, I would highly recommend to run this software!
5. Memory Card Buying Tips
Let’s sum up the article with the below memory card buying tips:
- Replace memory cards once every few years to reduce potential failure.
- Do not buy used or refurbished memory cards.
- Be careful about cheap memory cards. Often times, if the price seems too good to be true, it usually is. When there is a good discount on memory cards, it should typically come from the manufacturer and apply to most retailers that are authorized resellers. If you see a massive discount that is only listed on one website, it might be a scam. “One-day” specials with a particular seller like Amazon typically show up on their front page as “today’s deals” and those can usually be trusted.
- Order from trusted sources such as B&H Photo Video and Adorama. When buying from a reseller such as Amazon, NewEgg, Walmart, etc., always make sure that the memory card is sold and shipped by the same company.
- Always make sure to buy from an authorized seller.
- Always inspect and test each memory card to make sure that it is genuine.
- If you bought a counterfeit product from an authorized seller, do your best to contact both the seller and the manufacturer and let them know about what happened. This way, they can try to identify the source of the problem and hopefully stop others from getting a fake product. Always make sure to specify that the product is fake when returning it and asking for a refund or exchange.
If you would like to find out more about memory cards, please check out my Understanding Memory Cards
I hope this article helps in identifying fake memory cards and testing them. If you have any questions or concerns, please let me know in the comments section below!