How to Avoid Counterfeit Cables

BY: Shane Weaver

rules of the internet

Everyone's always looking to save money. And we can wholeheartedly sympathize. But looking for the lowest price isn't always the best way to save, and could end up costing you pretty dearly in the long run.

We all love the Internet, but it turns out that, shockingly, not everyone on the internet has your best interests at heart. That's basically Rule No. 1 of cyberspace. Surprisingly, some people out there in the world wide web are spiders who wish to ensnare you, and are just trying to make a quick buck. Thus, pricing that seems too good to be true is often exactly that. If someone is offering a product at a price that's drastically lower than its competitors, it's worth considering what the reasons might be.

One reason could be counterfeiting. Fake goods are a huge industry, and a huge pain in the butt for consumers, but the internet makes it even easier for fraudsters to sell you phony baloney products. It's a fact of life in virtually all industries, but more and more counterfeit goods are rearing their ugly heads in the cabling arena in particular. So it's important to know how to spot a fake.

counterfeits are not the same thing

What’s So Bad About Counterfeit Stuff?

“Hey,” you might say, “what's the big deal anyway? Who cares if it's fake, as long as it's cheap and it works.” Well, you answered your own question (that we pretended you asked). Often, counterfeit goods are cheaply produced, and pale in comparison to the real deal. When it comes to, say, a counterfeit DVD, the worst case scenario is that your movie quality suffers and maybe you see the back of a bunch of peoples' heads who were in front of the guy who filmed the bootleg with his smartphone camera.

But if you buy a counterfeit cable, the ramifications could be much worse. At the very least, your cable may not be made of the advertised materials, and that affects performance. If you purchase a “copper” cable and it turns out what you're getting is copper-plated aluminum, you may have some ‘splainin’ to do if you install that in a customer's set up. Or, perhaps those “gold” connectors turn out to be gold flashing that quickly wears off. Either way, your cable won't act like it's supposed to.

Beyond that, there's the issue of safety. Many phony cables skimp on important safety features, and are found to have less fireproofing on their jackets than the real McCoy. And guess what that means when a fire breaks out?

how to spot a real UL mark

Look for the UL Listing. But...

First, the good news: there are agencies that are devoted to making sure the products you use are up to snuff. OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) maintains a list of Nationally Recognized Testing Laboratories (NRTLs) that it trusts to test product standards. By far the most popular of these in the Electrical industry, and the one you’re most likely to spy on most of our products, is Underwriters Laboratories (UL). For over 100 years, UL has been rigorously testing cables for safety so the rest of us breathe easier. A product only receives their coveted UL Rating of Approval if it meets their high standards. UL is constantly testing and re-testing to make sure that the materials and manufacture of the goods it rates are up to snuff.

The bad news: just like your cables, and money, and art, and everything else valuable in the world, the UL mark can also be falsified. So it's not only important to look for the UL Listing on your product, but also make sure said listing is genuine.

The first step of course is to check for the UL mark (or a mark from one of the other NRTLs on OSHA's list) on the product. Since UL is the most common of these, that's the mark we're focusing on with this particular article. If it's not there, it's a safe bet that your goods are at best not up to the standards they should be, and at worst straight-up knock-offs. Once you've located the rating, there are steps to take to make sure it's genuine.

UL marks come in many forms: it might be a label, or it may be die-stamped, silk-screened or molded into a product. Whichever the method of application, there are FOUR design elements that need to be verified to make sure the UL listing is legit:

  • The UL trademark: the letters “UL” arranged diagonally (descending left to right) within a circle, with a small ® symbol directly below the U. If the “UL” letters are level with each other, side by side, then you're looking at a phony symbol.
  • The word “listed” printed either below or beside the circle in all capital letters: LISTED.
  • A 4-character alphanumeric control number, or a 4 to 6-digit issue number. In the case of the issue number, it may or may not be preceded by the phrase “Issue No.” as well as 1 or 2 letters.
  • A product identity phrase that concisely names what the product is.

If any of these elements are missing or does not match the configurations listed above, the UL mark is about as real as Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy and Snuffalupagus (sorry kids! But that's what you get for reading such a boring article. Go read about Pokey Man or whatever the youngsters are into these days. Us old fogeys gotta talk about our cables).

don't get fooled by fake UL products

Common Tricks of UL Scammers

So as we've discussed, you should steer clear of products whose UL marks are missing the four main elements we outlined earlier. In addition, keep an eye out for the following red flags, which can also be telling signs of a bogus UL listing:

  • Products whose packaging makes reference to UL, but lacks a company name, trademark, trade name, or other UL-authorized designations. It should go without saying, but you'll probably want to avoid things like totally unmarked boxes or otherwise sketchy packaging.
  • The use of words like approved or pending in place of classified or listed. Nice try, scammers, but neither “approved” nor “pending” are sanctioned or used by Underwriters Laboratories, Inc.
  • “UL marked” product packages containing a large number of spelling and grammatical errors.
  • The lack of appropriate product documentation, including instructions for use, manuals, safety warnings, and information on proper care and maintenance.
  • Products whose packaging lacks a toll-free customer service number, company address, website, or other corporate contact information.


shady, cheap electronics store

Be a Smart Shopper

It can be frustratingly hard to steer clear of shoddy items with phony UL listings, as even major, trusted retailers have been forced to issue recalls over such product. So it definitely pays to educate yourself on how to spot bogus marks. Though it's not always the case, as evidenced by the previous link, you can typically reduce the likelihood that you end up with an inadequate knock-off by taking care where you shop. Watch out for the following:

  • Deep-discount stores. If you come across a product that looks okay but is missing crucial information like a product name, brand, or certification marks, it's probably not worth the time it takes to think about whether you should take the chance on it.
  • Flea markets, street vendors, or other “temporary” sources that don't accept product returns, and whose credibility can't be confirmed. Instead, stick with reputable retail establishments who allow returns and have a history of customer satisfaction. The trunk of someone's car, no matter how fancy the automobile may be, is typically NOT a reputable business locale.
  • A product whose price seems too good to be true. If an electrical product is being sold for significantly less than seemingly comparable items, there's usually a reason – and that reason is often cheap materials and sub-par manufacturing. Spend a few extra dollars and you will save in the long run.
Underwriters Laboratory Man: keeping your cables from catching on fire for the past 100 years

How UL is Fighting the Good Fight

UL isn't about to let counterfeiters drag its good name through the mud without a fight. They're taking steps to crack down on fakers, with a zero tolerance policy for manufacturers who counterfeit UL listings, and comprehensive training programs to educate retailers, manufacturers and consumers about the hazards of counterfeiting and how to identify real and fake UL marks.
But to you, the consumer, the most important breakthrough is the introduction of UL's holographic mark, which is intended for those items most likely to be bootlegged and, as of 2010, is required on the smallest container unit. This new mark is more difficult to mimic, and includes the following safety measures:

  • A gold background that is quickly and easily identifiable to consumers, retailers, distributors, law enforcement, and Customs officials.
  • Color-shifting ink.
  • Micro-printing, wavy lines, and a pattern of floating UL symbols (one of which is surrounded by a burst detail).

So now you know that smart shopping involves more than just finding the lowest price. To learn about all of UL's marks and see examples of them, check out “UL's Listing and Classification Marks” by Underwriters Laboratories, Inc.