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Uh-oh! Fake 32GB flash drives flood market

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If something seems too good to be true, goes the old saying, it IS too good to be true. The new high-end in USB flash drives, the 32GB version, with enough capacity to back up most typical users’ entire data build-up, typically retails at anywhere from $75 to$150 in the USA, and around R1 000 to R2 000 in South Africa. But now you can pick one up for R350 ($40) or less, depending how close you get to the source. One small problem: while they look, feel and present themselves to your computer as 32GB drives, they are in fact 1GB drives, partitioned to mimic 32GB drives in every respect except how much data it can hold. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK reveals the secret behind the fake 32GB drives flooding the market, and describes the Uh-oh moment.

Across the skyline of southern Johannesburg, the golden mine dumps of the past are vanishing as new extraction methods remove every last gram of gold from the sand. In their place, new gold mines are rising alongside the highways, in the form of vast warehouse cities.

They carry names like China Trading Centre, China Mart and Dragon City, and contain numerous cubicle-sized shops, all stocked floor to ceiling with merchandise brought in from China. Cheap toys, cheap clothes, cheap ornaments, cheap hunting knives, cheap gadgets: in short, cheap anything that can be mass manufactured and easily distributed.

It is no surprise, then, to find in some of these stores hi-tech at absurdly low prices. Such was the case with a Kingston 32GB Data Traveler 100 USB flash drive, purchased for just R350 ($40) from one of these stores. Compared to the going rate in South Africa of five times that price, and double that price from online stores in the UK and USA, it seemed like a bargain. Gadget had also received reports of the same drives selling at just a little more than that price in Hong Kong, and had placed an order. The ‚direct import‚ offered the same branding and specifications, but in a slightly different package

The supposed Kingston 32GB flash drive bought in South Africa

Because of its capacity, the 32Gb drive is the first of the convenient, fit-anywhere flash drives that can be used to back up most computer users’ entire data output. This means that, with a few of these drives, full backups can be conducted regularly, cycling through the drives, especially when one is on the move with a laptop computer and doesn’t have access to a large backup storage device or online backup.

The all-new, all-cheap Kingston 32GB Data Traveler 100 seemed the ideal candidate for this purpose. For the test drive, both samples were plugged into the standard USB ports of both a laptop and a PC. In each, both drives were immediately recognised, both showing a capacity of around 32GB. Clicking on properties, the ‚local‚ purchase showed a capacity of 31.7GB, while the direct ‚import‚ showed a capacity of 31.2GB. A strange discrepancy, but seemingly no cause for alarm.

The supposed Kingston 32GB flash drive bought in Hong Kong

The first candidate for backup was an Outlook folder containing 7.5GB of data, distributed across 10 files. The activity window quickly advised that the files were being transferred, and that it would take 48 minutes (and just over an hour on the PC).

The transfer speeded up as it went along, again no cause for alarm, as some files transfer faster than others on any backup or storage device, and these fluctuations do affect the indicated time remaining for a backup.

All seemed to go as expected, even down to a standard error warning as a result of forgetting to shut down Outlook before doing the backup (‚The process cannot access the file because another process has locked a portion of the file‚ ). Some Outlook files cannot be copied if the program is in use, and we’ve slipped up often enough on that one to expect the message. With Outlook shut down, the backup resumed at an even faster pace, finally completing in a total of about 20 minutes.

All seemed fine, and the files were all reflected when the drive was connected to a different machine. Next came a folder of music files purchased from a digital music store in recent months. A total of 142 files, amounting to 330MB, seemed barely a test, but it would be useful to see how fast a large number of files would transfer. The answer: around 45 seconds.

When the folders on the drive were examined, they were all shown to contain the exact files transferred. So far so big. Then we tried to play the music files, in standard MP3 format, off the flash drive.

‚The file you are attempting to play has an extension that does not match the file format. Playing the file may result in unexpected behaviour.‚

I’d say.

The drive was inserted in a separate computer (who knows? Maybe Microsoft had cancelled the license for Windows Media Player on the first machine) and … not a single copied file could be found in the new subfolder that had been created. Instead, it contained one cryptic file called something like ‚U-U-‚. Let’s call it the Uh-oh moment. Calling up the properties of the Uh-oh file, it had zero bytes. Nothing. Empty. The Outlook files, while all still reflecting, were unusable.

This process repeated itself in different ways, with different sets of data, different combinations of folders, and different file sizes. The files copied fine, until the accumulated transfer size reached the 1GB mark. Then some folders either went blank, as in the Uh-oh moment, or showed sub-folders that had not existed in the original ‚ but were repeated over and over inside each other in a close approximation of an infinite loop, but one containing infinite emptiness.

The secret of the universe may well be contained in this infinity of uselessness, but what it really does reveal is the secret behind the amazing low prices: these are in fact 1GB drives, but re-engineered to appear as 32GB drives. A blog called, somewhat straightforwardly, The Fake 32 GB’s, explains that: ‚What they have done is assembled the controller and memory chip and have created a firmware which shows non-existent sectors. Every time you paste something larger than the actual capacity the data is written into these virtual sectors and is lost.‚

The blog also explains how to reclaim your cheap, crippled 32GB drive as an expensive, working 1GB drive.

A normal 1GB drive can be had for well under R100 (less than $9), so why do the fakes cost as much as R400 to R500 ($50-$60)? It’s part of the scam: by being priced at what people were paying for 8GB drives just a couple of years ago, the 32GB fakes do not arouse immediate suspicion.

Naturally, you will feel cheated. But you need not feel alone. The drives are flooding physical marketplaces, especially in China, India and Indonesia, as well as online auction sites like eBay, as revealed in this blog post. And now they have arrived in South Africa.

One of the unintended consequences is that legitimate distributors and retailers of 32GB flash drives have been all but frozen out of the market in some regions, as their potential customers believe they are overpricing the merchandise.

Kingston appears to be ignoring the fake drive scam, possibly in the hope it will go away. There is no mention of the scam on the Kingston web site or those of its regional offices in the most affected countries. This non-strategy ‚ or possibly sheer ignorance ‚ will prove to be immensely damaging to the organisation’s image and its profits. Kingston is the target of the scamsters precisely because of its high reputation, and the company seems to be relying on this reputation to keep its brand intact.

At the time the fake drives first began appearing on the market, the big news from Kingston was that they had just announced a 64GB flash drive. There is no doubt that, once that model is shipping to mainstream outlets, the packaging on the fake drives will also be upgraded to 64GB ‚ once again harming Kingston’s reputation at the same time as slowing down sales of the authentic product.

From a crisis management point of view, the very least that should be expect from Kingston is a guide to telling the fakes from the real thing (Microsoft has provided the model for this approach for years). Instead, it is left to bloggers to protect both Kingston and its customers.

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