back to article Fake fuse: Bloke admits selling counterfeit chips for use in B-1 bomber, other US military gear

Rogelio Vasquez, the owner of California-based PRB Logics Corporation, has pleaded guilty to selling fake branded semiconductor chips from China, some of which made their way into US military systems. The 44-year-old resident of Orange County, Cali, accepted four charges in a thirty-count indictment: one count of trafficking …

  1. Duncan Macdonald Silver badge

    IC marking

    With most ICs having just a basic printed label on them, replacing high grade military spec components (certified to work from -50C to +100C or better) with commercial ones (rated for -20C to +70C) is easy. The only way to avoid this is to NOT buy from middlemen that are not certified by the manufacturer of the products. (Recycled ICs should be detectable by close inspection as the soldering and desoldering operations will leave traces on the IC contacts.)

    As with aircraft parts, military parts that need the ability to work in extreme environments should be tracked from the manufacturer through to the final assembly. This of course had the unfortunate effect of raising the price horribly (10x versus commercial equivalents is not uncommon).

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: IC marking

      The problem is finding the replacement parts for old electronics. I haven't dealt with military, but I used to deal with electronics in Nuke plants. In the nuke world, if the original board has a Texas Instruments XYZ123 part, you have to replace it with a Texas Instruments XYZ123 part, even if the XYZ123 went obsolete in 1992 and was replaced with a XYZ456 that they insist is an exact replacement part. I suspect military applications have similar rules.

      The extreme environmental specs is only one concern, the bigger concern is unintended consequences of "minor" deviations from the original design, even if the new part has "better" specs.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: IC marking

        I make laptop holders for cop cars/ambulances etc.

        I have to provide paperwork that shows the inside leg measurement for the person who made the lunch at the place that did the anodizing - but you are allowed to buy ICs for nuclear bombers from "Honest Abe's discount chip market and pawn shop" ?

        1. Spazturtle Silver badge

          Re: IC marking

          Yes because politicians have mandated it and refuse to approve upgrades.

          Why do you think the military wants the Trident missile electronics upgrade to go ahead so badly despite the fact that it won't improve performance or add any new features?

        2. Archtech Silver badge

          Re: IC marking

          How many generals, senators and representatives have you bribed, er taken to lunch recently?

          There's your problem.

        3. Carpet Deal 'em
          Black Helicopters

          Re: IC marking

          Sometimes that's literally the only way: Uncle Sam was caught buying replacement parts for the VAX machines controlling the nuclear arsenal on eBay because they'd run out of spares and the production line had been closed for some time(they've since replaced the physical minicomputers with emulators).

      2. Chairman of the Bored Silver badge

        Re: IC marking

        "I suspect military applications have similar rules." Yes, absolutely. And remember that much of the B-1B traces its heritage back to the 70s. Surely most of the avionics and payload equipment has been upgraded over the years but I'd not be surprised in the least to find cards over a decade old.

        Not all counterfeits are easy to detect. Some of these guys will sand off markings, blacktop, then laser etch really good markings. Sometimes the only way to tell is use acoustic microscopes, x-rays, curve tracers, and even decapping to catch a fake. But there is no how, no way you can do that level of effort everywhere.

        Keep your friends close, your supply chain closer, and keep a weather eye on the gray market guy who seems to always have a good supply of obsolete chips

        1. David Pearce

          Re: IC marking

          Often these parts are the real thing, but have not been through the screening and QA, so even xray and decapping won't expose them. The issue is that they are not PROVED to work in the military environment

        2. DropBear Silver badge

          Re: IC marking

          Spotting counterfeits is one thing, but in this case these were supposed to be USED chips. Whether that means previously socketed or soldered, I cannot possibly imagine how one could fail spotting that, short of not looking too closely at the chips at all in the first place of course.

          1. Chairman of the Bored Silver badge

            Re: IC marking

            Easy to spot used chips? Not necessarily. For some packages like ceramic DIP with gold pins used in ZIF sockets, its tough to mitigate scratches on the package and leads. Its very hard to remove solder from gold plated pins without losing the plating. Re-use can be easily detected and hard to mask.

            But a plastic package with tinned leads? If the bad guy bead blasts or sands off the top, blacktops, re-etches, straightens and tins the leads... he's good to go for nearly all casual inspections.

            Sure, one can do trace metal checks of pins, look at every chip under a microscope for sanding marks, inspect pins under the microscope, scrape and acetone every chip to look for blacktop, and so forth but that takes a lot of time money most firms are totally unwilling to spend... unless one already suspects a problem.

            Heck, I'm actually trained in this, slightly paranoid, and anal retentive in my lab habits. Even then I'm maybe 20-50pct effective spotting the known fakes in training when using only basic tools and chemicals.

            This is a multi billion dollar problem. If you or your firm are US or Canadian and you've got concerns I strongly recommend you join the Government-Industry Data Exchange Program (GIDEP). Great training, and an even better event and device database.

        3. W.S.Gosset Bronze badge

          Re: IC marking

          If you wanna go bullshit, go BIG.

          cf. Capita, PWC, IBM, etc.

  2. elDog Silver badge

    So is this somehow worse than selling a complete weaponry system that doesn't work?

    Not suggesting that the unwanted F35 would be a candidate, but...

    When financial gain makes the rules that govern what is sold and bought then there will be the normal amount of deception and thievery.

    Rarely does common-weal or patriotism dictate how a company treats its customer. In this case the customer is the US gov.

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: So is this somehow worse than selling a complete weaponry system that doesn't work?

      In what way does the F35 not work ?

      For the congressman - it transfers money from peasants to hard working voters in my congressional district.

      For the treasury it transfers money from any ally dumb enough to buy it to the treasury

      It provides a steady commission for arms salesmen and supports many others in the hookers and blow industries.

      It makes red necks at hand-egg games scream Amerciaaaaaaa when they fly over and so forget they are watching a crap sport

      It makes ex-fighter pilots in congress go all "teen girl at Justin Beiber concert" wen they see it and so approve funding even if it isn't built in their district

      For no-good peacenik commie do-gooders, they can be assured it is extremely unlikely that this expensive delicate gadget would be used anywhere that would put it in danger. And even if it was is unlikely to be able to take off and do any damage.

      1. Wellyboot Silver badge

        Re: So is this somehow worse than selling a complete weaponry system that doesn't work?

        First 5 points, no argument, standard US procedure.

        You might want to ask the Israeli's about that last bit though.

        All modern combat aircraft are 'hangar queens' until everybody in the maintenance chain gets up to speed. In the late 70s the F15 was getting similar bricks thrown at it and here we are 40 years later with a serious USAF proposal to replace the existing F15C&D fleet with new F15X as the backbone fighter.

      2. Dave Hilling

        Re: So is this somehow worse than selling a complete weaponry system that doesn't work?

        I spent 20 years in the USAF working on multiple different aircraft. They all have problems they all have teething pains even F-16s have 20-30 models all with improvements etc over the old A/B model lawn darts. The proof is in the pudding though 20:1 kill ratios in exercises, planes that have excellent handling, power, and technology far above anything else even the F-22 in many areas, this plane is a monster. Yes, it needs refinement and fixes. All planes do, but everything I have heard pilots and other say tell me I wouldn't want to be on the other end of this plane in combat in anything less than an F-22 and mayyyybe the newest tranche's of EF to even have a chance.

  3. jeff_w87

    Treason

    This guy endangered US and potentially NATO military readiness as well as the lives of the men and women who serve in all allied countries where these fraudulent devices were potentially deployed. He should be tried for treason and put away for life.

    1. Old Used Programmer

      Re: Treason

      In the US, treason has a very specific definition. It's the only crime written into the US Constitution. I don't think this case has the required conditions for that charge.

    2. Jamtea

      Re: Treason

      Easy there buddy, no need for the nuclear option straight away. There are plenty of civil servants who do far more negligent and wilfully bad things on the daily who would get away with a slap on the wrist.

  4. david 12 Bronze badge

    Counterfeit because they're recycled?

    E-waste partly to blame? Is this a new an interesting meaning of "counterfeit"? Or is there some part of the story that is missing?

    1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

      Counterfeit because they were remarked to pass as new chips.

      You know, like it was written in the article.

      1. Mage Silver badge

        Re: were remarked to pass as new chips

        So not actually counterfeit, they are made by the claimed companies. It's the usage status that is false?

        A very strange use of Counterfeit as they are not replica chips.

        1. Archtech Silver badge

          Re: were remarked to pass as new chips

          Bad luck Mage - many readers on The Reg are determined to believe what they believe, and if reality conflicts with their beliefs... too bad for reality. (And language).

          1. W.S.Gosset Bronze badge
            FAIL

            Re: were remarked to pass as new chips

            Bad luck Archtech, reality trumps insistence on revisionism of reality. And people who get snotty claiming virtue by pretending to know better --in this case: language-- REALLY annoy me.

            Your comment reads VERY accurately, however, if you exchange the third-person for the first-person.

            .

            Oxford English Dictionary:

            Counterfeit: adj. & sb.

            A: disguised

            B: Made in imitation of something else, 'imitation'; spurious, sham, base; of writings: Forged

            C:

            1. A false or spurious imitation

            2. One who pretends to be another; a pretender, an imposter

            verb

            1. To make an imitation of, imitate (with intent to deceive)

            2. To disguise, falsify

            3. To put on (with intent to deceive) the appearance of; to feign, simulate

            4. To pretend to be; to personate

            5. To feign, practise deceit

            6. To take, receive, or have the appearance of; to imitate, resemble, be like.

            .

            In the context of their requirements, these were counterfeit chips.

      2. david 12 Bronze badge

        Sorry, which dictionary are you using? Is this a new and different meaning? Are customs and excise going to start raiding second hand shops that sell used Prado, Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Hermes? Or is it a traditional meaning I've never heard of, and the police already confiscate second hand fashion goods?

        Or perhaps part of the story wasn't fully explained.

    2. pɹɐʍoɔ snoɯʎuouɐ

      Re: Counterfeit because they're recycled?

      Is this a new an interesting meaning of "counterfeit"?

      its the same meaning of counterfeit as damaged iPhone screens that have had the damaged glass removed and replaced to the same spec as the original screen, in many cases its done by the same suppliers to apple, but get stolen by ICE because they have an apple logo on them and are not being delivered to apple.

    3. Antron Argaiv Silver badge
      Pirate

      Re: Counterfeit because they're recycled?

      There was a video circulating, I'm too lazy to look for it, made by some component manufacturers' industry group, which showed hidden camera footage of a Chinese recycling operation.

      EDIT: JeffyPoooh has one version, below

      From e-waste computers being stripped of their PCBs, to people with blowtorches removing active and passive components from said PCBs, to tables of people cleaning them up, to automated re-reeling of said components and their sale in electronics street markets. All very professionally done, you couldn't tell the re-reeled 0.1uF 0603 caps from new.

      Now, even considering the self-interested source of the video, I find it entirely plausible that this goes on, knowing how the Chinese value industry, entrepreneurship and money. I'm not faulting them, they and their families and employees have to eat, too, and this is as good a way as any.

      But those really cheap components, or those hard-to-find parts that you buy at a hair-raising price from the reseller of that sort of thing, are highly suspect. Huge profit margin, no reputation to protect and Internet sales to customers so desperate as not to ask too many questions, make it a very attractive play.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I found actual evidence that

    Used memory cards with potentially secret (no idea, got pulled from the Internet after I reported it) data on them got sold online with inadequate wiping.

    The ones I found here were sold as "faulty/untested" so one would expect that these were the ones that failed testing.

    Seems that a lot of them got included with cheap phones and MP3 players as the assumption was that they would immediately be filled with music and not read.

    Yes I still have a copy around here somewhere, had some very interesting data from a very large organization rhyming with Sasser.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: I found actual evidence that

      AC> Yes I still have a copy around here somewhere, had some very interesting data...

      "Pink Librarians"?

      "Rear Entry Vols 1 through 40" ?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: I found actual evidence that

        Its on CDR somewhere here 2561Chksum

        I made a copy just in case, alas the other two drives it was on had entropy related failures.

        Still interesting as it refers to raw data files which until now were not public domain.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: I found actual evidence that

      It does depend on where from. A friend once worked at a secure data destruction company, they had a contract to regularly visit a facility to destroy their equipment at the end of life cycles, dismantle the drives, crush the chips and the disk platters were smashed into sand sized particles. This was all whilst being watched in a facility they weren't allowed to leave before they were searched.

      However it's also a facility where the staff used flashdrives to move some data around and their loss rate, talking to one of the military techies was several flashdrives a month. The systems were rock solid when used as intended, but lazy meat in the system bypassed the systems for ease of use and created massive holes in data security.

  6. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    Unhappy

    No that's not "Upcycling"

    That's out and out fraud.

    It's like low rent "waste disposal" companies that will get rid of your very complex chemical sludge for cents on the $.

    How did you think they do it?

    1. Jemma Silver badge

      Re: No that's not "Upcycling"

      Star in an episode of Quincy and "amortise the costs"?

      Mines the one with the Ford LTD keys in the pocket.

      1. Symon Silver badge
        Boffin

        Re: No that's not "Upcycling"

        Never underestimate the power of Quincy, M.E.!

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orphan_Drug_Act_of_1983#Legislation

    2. Richard Jones 1
      Unhappy

      Re: No that's not "Upcycling"

      Years ago I briefly worked with a company making complex chemicals for specific cleaning and finishing uses. Every now and again we received a complaint that the products were substandard. We would test the returned soup and find it had been worked to death, but of course we ended up holding the sludge; so it became our disposal problem. We all knew the name of the game; the customer was being inspected by those who could close them down and this was back in the 1960s. I am betting on a certainty it is far worse now.

    3. Archtech Silver badge

      Re: No that's not "Upcycling"

      Fraud - yes, absolutely.

      "Counterfeiting" - no.

      counterfeit

      n adjective made in exact imitation of something valuable with the intention to deceive or defraud. Øarchaic pretended; sham.

      n noun a forgery.

      n verb imitate fraudulently. Øliterary resemble closely.

      DERIVATIVES

      counterfeiter noun

      ORIGIN

      Middle English (as verb): from Anglo-Norman French countrefeter, from Old French contrefait, contrefaire, from Latin contra- 'in opposition' + facere 'make'.

      1. Francis Boyle Silver badge

        Re: No that's not "Upcycling"

        I'd agree if this was a simple case of passing off used as new, but this guy had his suppliers re-mark the old chips to appear new. There's your " made in exact imitation of something valuable".

        1. W.S.Gosset Bronze badge

          Re: No that's not "Upcycling"

          Spot on.

          See above for a more-correct definition which makes your own observation even more embarrassing.

  7. Archtech Silver badge

    That's the free market for you, rewarding enterprise

    "From July 2009 through around May 2016, according to the indictment, Vasquez acquired old, used or discarded chips that had been altered to appear as new from sources in China, and then proceeded to sell those integrated circuits (ICs) to subcontractors who resold them to customers in the US, including defense contractors".

    It's the free enterprise system in action, folks - don'tcha love it? The government buys from the lowest bidder (among those with intimate Pentagon and Congressional friends, of course). Then the lowest bidder buys from the lowest bidder...

    The good news about this is that the damn missiles and bombers are more likely to do nothing at all than fry us accidentally. It's a small price to pay for all the wonderful consumer goods we enjoy daily.

  8. Chairman of the Bored Silver badge

    There is a human cost, too.

    Whether you want to call it upcycling, counterfeiting, whatever... the process through which electronic waste gets reprocessed into "new" bogus chips n tat is absolutely filthy. Poor communities in Asia and Africa get poisoned trying to make a few meager bucks off our hazardous waste.

    Real people, dying slowly

    EU has at least paid some lip service to reducing volumes of electronic waste. US? Not so much.

    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=i4GZA9kEOV4

  9. thexfile

    Cheapest supplier.

  10. JeffyPoooh Silver badge
    Pint

    Counterfeit Electronic Components Process

    An example video of the process:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5vN_7NJ4qYA

    I've seen another video (can't find it right now), where the harvested chips were cleaned, their leads repaired and retinned (appearing like new), and then painted black and remarked as higher grade chips with fresh date codes.

    Several decades ago, it was not uncommon to find namebrand (e.g. TI, National, etc) ICs with silver paint on top and marked with black lettering. Once upon a time, after I cleaned (with solvent to remove flux) a freshly assembled circuit card assembly, I happened to notice that all the chips were now the more common all-black. I tried again with a 2nd example while closely watching the component side, and I saw the silver paint disolving revealing an alternate manufacturer underneath. The circuit card assembly went from about 5% silver ICs to 0% silver ICs with a solvent wash. Weird. Yes, issue raised and dealt with at the time.

    1. Chairman of the Bored Silver badge
      Pint

      Re: Counterfeit Electronic Components Process

      Silver paint! I remember those on 74- and 4000-series logic chips and low end op-amps. Especially those sold though Radio Shack and equivalents in the early 80's. Your hair must be gray like mine, right?

      Now I've got to rummage in my junk chips drawer, I'm sure I can find one and give it a little acetone. Or in my case these days equal parts acetone, methanol, and kerosene.

      Check out: https://www.aeri.com/counterfeit-electronic-component-detection/

      1. W.S.Gosset Bronze badge

        Re: Counterfeit Electronic Components Process

        > a little acetone. Or in my case these days equal parts acetone, methanol, and kerosene.

        That's interesting. Why the change?

    2. W.S.Gosset Bronze badge

      Re: Counterfeit Electronic Components Process

      Welcome to China

  11. Simon B-52

    Doing the Maths

    Here's and equation for you folks:

    <Highly secret> + <very expensive> + <politicians> = <every-level-clusterf*ck>

    M'kay?

  12. Mike 16 Silver badge

    Doesn't have to be a dodgy middleman

    I dimly recall a story from the 1970s wherein a mid-tier semi manufacturer shipped a bunch of empty packages (no die inside) to the U.S. navy. Their contract had strict penalties for not delivering a specified number of units per month, but no penalty for units that failed incoming test.

    1. mosw

      move fast and break things

      Rather like the current attitude towards software and services. Get it out the door and wait for the crashes and security fails to figure out how to make it work.

      They were just ahead of their time.

  13. dmacleo

    ex airline mtx records and stores dept here

    its unfathomable how this would happen. spent many years dealing with parts certifications on civilian aircraft (FAR121 carrier) and this is just bad.

    spent even more years in records section of airline VERIFYING parts paperwork (certification under FAA/EASE), proper paperwork for the mtx done on the aircraft and proper inspections done after the replacement.

    this should not have happened.

    1. Francis Boyle Silver badge

      It's the assumption that heavy penalties will deter crime

      In most cases it works, but there's always someone prepared to take the risk.

  14. Stevie Silver badge

    Bah!

    Root cause?

    Low bid.

    1. W.S.Gosset Bronze badge

      Re: Bah!

      Root root cause?

      Parasitism.

  15. martinusher Silver badge

    It may be a side effect of procurement policy

    Since this is a only a tiny contract by military standards it may be one of those that's offered for tender to small businesses owned by minorities, women and so on. (Yes, there is such a program.) This might explain how some random non-mainstream vendor could supply recycled parts 'as new'. He probably supplied some long obsolete parts for equipment that's decades old.

    This business of certification meeting reality exists in the medical field. It takes a long time to certify a piece of medical equipment even if that equipment is not an implant or other device that could harm someone if it failed. Once your product is certified then absolutely no changes are allowed. This gets very detailed -- for example, when the company I work at replaced one of its old production lines with a new line with vastly improved assembly and automatic soldering equipment it still had to keep the old line in operation for the certified product until product made by the new line could be re-certified. This may seem to be a bit over the top but then we had a situation where an older Xilinx part started to fail in some units due to temperature and it appeared to be not a change in the part as such but the part's fabrication being moved from one country to another. (Nothing's actually made in the US of A, BTW.)

    1. SMITCH79

      Re: It may be a side effect of procurement policy

      "This business of certification meeting reality exists in the medical field. It takes a long time to certify a piece of medical equipment even if that equipment is not an implant or other device that could harm someone if it failed"

      You would like to think that. Unfortunately that's not how certification of medical implants works these days. I can't remember exactly but I watched a doc. about a doctor who had problems after a hip replacement.

      After having the hip extracted he discovered it had fallen apart (chrome on plastic if memory serves) and the chrome was leaking into his bloodstream giving him severe mental problems. He had been found in a hotel going mad (a la robert downey junior without the cocaine) and it was only his own medical experience that prompted him to investigate his hip.

      After this he investigated the certification procedure and discovered that new medical devices can be "fasttracked" if they carry out the same function (or share a similiar design) to items that have been previously certified. They actually had footage of a certification commitee meeting which was an eye opener. (Basically rubber stamping devices they knew to be problematic)

      Thats before you get to the problem of those doing the certifying being paid by the manufacturers.

      e.g. One of the professors that certified "mesh" impants as safe for use in the UK was paid £100,000 by the company who made the devices. Of course he claimed there was no conflict of interest.

      1. W.S.Gosset Bronze badge

        Re: It may be a side effect of procurement policy

        I agree with both of you

        > This may seem to be a bit over the top

        > new medical devices can be "fasttracked" if they carry out the same function (or share a similiar design) to items that have been previously certified

        This fast-tracking is entirely sensible. IF AND ONLY IF there are ONLY Good Actors.

        Problem: it only takes one Bad Actor to really screw people.

        Or, as pointed out by OP MartinUsher, even one Neutral Actor, doing things differently without realising -- even just by climatic etc differences.

        Factor in Parasites (eg, the "professor") taking advantage of The System to get a free ride.

        And over time, and after seeing this same syndrome over and over and over and... , you start to very reluctantly acknowledge that these uber-anal requirements serve a very real purpose. That despite the hair-tearing frustration and fury at stupidities, are in fact and in sum a nett positive. Relative to their NOT being there. Kinda like Churchill's observation that democracy is the very worst of all possible systems, except for all the others. Or the adversarial judicial system's catastrophic failures, yet being an order of magnitude better than the alternatives.

        "It's shit. But it's a HELL of a lot LESS shit than anything else we've found."

  16. IceC0ld Bronze badge
    Devil

    T - his

    I - diot

    T - hought

    S - hafting

    U - SA

    P - aid

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Chromium poisoning

    Really interesting, can you share the details?

    Getting worried now as relates to current health problems.

    1. SMITCH79

      Re: Chromium poisoning

      Had a look, the documentary was called "The Bleeding Edge" and I saw it on Netflix (its still there). Mainly covers the cert process in the US. Doctors story was specifically about his hip. Cheers

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