Cables are the backbone of most modern technology. From simple ethernet cables keeping office computers online to heavy-duty power cables running hospital equipment, cables are involved with every aspect of technology. Even wireless devices like cell phones and tablets can only work by connecting to other devices like modems and routers that use cables themselves.

With cables being so critical, it is important to think economically when making purchases. However, once prices get too low it should set off a red flag. If something seems too good to be true, it usually is. Where cables are concerned, that can mean counterfeit cables that do not meet industry standards. These cables are unsafe and can damage themselves, the equipment they are connected to, and people unfortunate enough to be handling them.

Identifying Counterfeit Cables

Simply put, a counterfeit cable is any cable that does not meet industry standards. This often means using subpar materials to make the cable. Many counterfeit cables also go the extra step to try to deceive customers with false certification marks.

There are a few common counterfeit cable scams to look out for. At the foremost is cables made using inferior materials. One of the most common is copper-clad aluminum (CCA). Most cables use pure copper lines, with the exception of some coax cables that use copper-clad steel. CCA is no longer considered an industry standard but it is not entirely obsolete. Sometimes it is passed off as a cheap solution for jobs it is not qualified for.

Another common scam is faking certification labels. Many cables are tested to standards set by federally acknowledged facilities. Cables made to these standards will have certification marks. Places making counterfeit cables will put near-identical marks on their cables with one or two minor changes. Since these marks are not 100% the same, they do not provide the same certification coverage. Looking up the certification mark and making sure it is exactly the same is a good way to verify a cable is legitimate.

A real UL-listed mark (left) vs. a fake mark that does not include “LISTED” (right)

Dangers of Counterfeit Cables

There are a number of risks that are created by counterfeit cables. These are all issues that regulated cables are specifically designed to avoid. The problems created by counterfeit cables can range from minor inconveniences to putting lives at risk.

Performance issues are one of the first problems users are likely to notice. Cables made from inferior materials are not going to be able to transmit an electrical signal very well. The insulation materials they use will not work well for keeping the signal contained or blocking outside interference either.

These performance problems lead to the next issue: safety. Cable jackets made from inferior materials are more likely to be damaged, exposing the metal inside. This can lead to someone handling the cable being electrocuted. As bad as that is, the real danger comes from fire. Exposed lines transmitting electricity can start fires.

Even if the jacket does remain intact, cables that are not made from the correct metals can overheat to the point of catching fire. And since the cable jackets are likely also made from improper materials, they probably will not have the fire resistance built into certified cables. Being run through floors, walls, and ceilings, flammable cables can provide fire with an easy path to spread throughout a building.

It should go without saying, but counterfeit cables are not up to code. Many areas have restrictions on cables that can be used, particularly businesses which often have to use plenum cables by law. If someone decides to make an inspection and notices counterfeit cables, the only upside will be that they can be replaced before any real damage occurs.