I find it wryly amusing that the first phone I ever owned with a sealed-in, non-swappable battery -- the iPhone, of course -- was also the first phone with a battery life so short as to warrant the ability to swap the battery. Hence the commercial popularity of battery cases like the various Mophie products. These are particularly handy when travelling, as the need for a phone when navigating foreign climes is greater and access to charging points is less frequent.
That's why, in December 2011, I ordered two Mophie Juice Pack Plus battery cases for the iPhone 4 handsets my wife and I were about to take on a vacation to America. The Mophie models have plenty of fans amongst the TUAW staff, and had received a good review from Macworld's Lex Friedman too, so it seemed like a safe bet. However, unknown to me, the cases were fake, and could potentially have been very dangerous (fortunately, they weren't). I've written the story up to let you know what you should be looking out for and help you to avoid repeating the mistakes I made.
The tale of the fake
In hindsight, I should have guessed right away, but I'd never heard of fake battery packs before so it simply didn't occur to me. I've heard plenty of stories of other types of accessories being riddled with fakes -- notably, Sandisk SD cards are a common target, and I once bought a 2 GB "Sandisk" SD card that turned out to be rebranded 512 MB fake. (There's an excellent in-depth look at fake SD cards by famous hacker-activist Andrew Huang.) But fake battery packs was a new experience for me at the time.
It wasn't the packaging that should have tipped me off. I examined that very closely after uncovering the true nature of the counterfeits and it was absolutely perfect; high quality glossy cardboard, well printed, with a flap on the front held closed with magnets -- impressively elaborate. I suppose that when the counterfeits are sold in a retail setting, consumers can examine the packaging, and thus will be tipped off if the packaging isn't perfect.
It wasn't anything about the transaction, either. These pseudoMophie cases came from Amazon Marketplace, from a "Fulfilled by Amazon" seller, so the order was packed by an Amazon staff member. I paid £34.99 each for the cases. Now, that's cheap -- around half the price of the Apple Store -- but it wasn't too-good-to-be-true cheap; as I recall, there were several other sellers in the £35-40 range, and the cases were around the £40-45 mark from most online sellers. At the time of writing, Amazon stock is £39.99.
No, what should have clued me off was the poor fit the cases made with my phone. If you haven't seen one up close, the Mophie battery cases consist of one large piece you slide the phone into from the top, then a smaller piece that clips over the top and holds the phone in place. This part sits on the phone's power switch, with a small plastic pass-through button so you can turn the phone on and off.
The top part on my two cases made quite loose contact with the main part of the case, meaning it rocked back and forth a little. Not much, but just enough to cause the occasional spurious power button press. With the case on, a few times a day I would pull my phone out of my pocket, press (usually without looking first) the Home button to wake it from sleep, and find myself taking a screenshot of my lock screen instead as the battery case was simultaneously pushing on the power button. I wasn't particularly impressed.
Other than that, the cases worked fine... at first. After we came back from our vacation, we took them off our phones and didn't use them for a few months. Then I had to travel for work, so I got them back out, only to find they'd both Gone A Bit Strange (technical term there). One of them had developed a loosely fitting USB jack, and I had to fiddle with the cord when plugging it in before it would charge up. The other one wouldn't charge the phone correctly, as if it was flat, even though its own little indicator lights claimed it was fully charged.
Plus, I noticed, both of them had somehow accumulated noticeable cosmetic damage, despite being very lightly used. Mophie cases have a kind of soft-touch rubberised coating over a hard plastic shell, and on my pseudoMophies, that coating had worn off in a number of places.
I still didn't think "fake!" though. I just assumed they weren't very good, and tossed them back in a drawer until I eventually got around to emailing a warranty claim to Mophie, several months later. In fact, I remember glancing over the one-star Amazon product reviews and seeing people complaining about all the problems I had -- poorly fitting cases, problems getting the case to charge up, problems getting the case to connect to the phone, excessive cosmetic wear -- and assuming that Mophie's quality control had gone downhill since the glowing reviews were written. Looking back now, a small number of these reviews mention that they were dealing with counterfeits; but at the time, no-one had said anything like that. One seller even pinned the blame on the iPhone 4S being different from the iPhone 4, which I find rather suspicious.
Eventually, my irritation at being sold what I thought was a couple of lemons overcame my reflexive procrastination, and I contacted Mophie customer support. I did the usual dance of filling in my product serial number and describing my problems, but then had an unusual request come back:
"In order to move forward with your replacement, we need to gather some information. First we need a copy of your receipt. Please reply to this email with a scanned copy. If you purchased your item through our website, we can look your order up internally. If you have not already submitted your mophie (sic) order number, please reply to this email with the number.
"We also need a clear picture showing the product label and serial number on the inside of the product."
Slightly baffled -- I'd already provided the serial numbers, so why did Mophie need these pictures? -- I complied, only to receive a terse message back:
"Judging by the serial number, and the label itself, you have two counterfeit devices. As such, we cannot offer you a replacement and urge you to seek a refund through the seller as soon as possible."
At this point I became rather concerned. Poorly made lithium-ion batteries can be quite dangerous, and while there's plenty of no-name battery cells that are perfectly safe the fact I'd been stuffing a blatantly counterfeit product in my trouser pocket was rather worrying. Angry now, I emailed my Amazon seller, but after 48 hours I still hadn't heard anything. I followed up with Amazon itself, and it almost immediately agreed a refund and issued me an RMA to return the cases, saying:-
"This order was purchased from 'REDACTED' and was 'Fulfilled by Amazon'. As we dispatched this item to you directly from an Amazon.co.uk fulfilment centre on behalf of this seller, we can process the return of this item, in exchange for a full refund."
(I have redacted the seller's name as I have no way of knowing if the seller was knowingly selling counterfeits, or itself a victim of an unscrupulous supplier. I have attempted to contact the seller directly for comment, but the details I have are too generic to let me find them, and Amazon would not pass along a message from me. The seller's Amazon Marketplace account appears to be defunct now, although feedback on its profile page indicates it was still trading as recently as November 2012.)
So, how could I have prevented this sorry story from happening in the first place?
I contacted Mophie and Amazon UK's press office for comment on this case and to ask them that question directly. I asked what advice they would give consumers when shopping. Ross Howe, Vice president of Marketing for Mophie, said
"mophie takes counterfeits very seriously. In order to try and combat this problem, we have developed a page that solely address this issue, offering purchasing tips to the consumer. Additionally, our internal legal team works to monitor the selling of mophie products by unauthorized retailers, taking appropriate action if it is determined counterfeit items are being sold."
Howe went on to offer consumers the following advice:
- Purchase at mophie.com or one of its authorized partners. The authorized partners page provides a breakout of all approved retailers globally.
- Customers should avoid the 'too good to be true' deals of eBay and the Amazon Marketplace. Even the stores that are "fulfilled by Amazon" are known to sell low-quality knockoffs.
- Sign up for the brand newsletter to receive the latest information on new products and sales.
Suzi van der Mark replied on behalf of Amazon, and of course was keen to stress that buyers are protected (contrary to Mophie's stance of pushing you to its retail partners):
"Amazon.co.uk does not allow the sale of counterfeit items on its Marketplace platform. Any seller found doing so will be subject to action from Amazon including removal of their account. Occurrences of counterfeit products on Amazon.co.uk Marketplace are rare and we have an established process in place which enables third parties including rights holders to provide us with notice of counterfeit product. We respond rapidly to any such notice. Every customer who orders on Amazon.co.uk is covered by our A-Z guarantee and if they do receive counterfeit goods from a Marketplace seller we will provide a refund. For more information on our A-Z Guarantee please visit this link."
The old adage that "a price that's too good to be true means it probably isn't" applies, of course, as Howe says. But of course a clever seller of counterfeits can easily overcome that by simply pricing their goods just below the genuine ones, which was the case with my purchase. If I'd registered the cases with Mophie as soon as I'd received them, I might have been alerted if the serial numbers hadn't matched up. However, I'm guessing the counterfeiters can use real serial numbers (perhaps duplicated from genuine products), as otherwise my initial attempt to request product support would have failed. Other Amazon commenters mentioned that they had successfully registered their counterfeit case with Mophie, which supports this hypothesis.
The bottom line is that I'm not sure there's anything I could have done upfront to avoid being taken in by this, except perhaps paying top dollar from the Apple store. I was lucky that Amazon stood by me and refunded my money promptly, or I would have been out the cost of the goods. In future, when using "market" style reseller services like eBay or Amazon Marketplate, I'm going to pay rather closer attention to retailer terms & conditions, as well as its reputation for aftersales customer care.
Notably, Amazon (at least in my case) offered considerably more protection that eBay offers, in substance if not in policy. Many people have written about the difficulties of getting a refund for a counterfeit eBay purchase; stories abound of people having a rough time from Paypal's dispute resolution system. Probably most famously, Paypal forced a buyer to destroy an antique violin worth $2500 that may or may not have been fake. The seller was out the $2500 and the violin at the end of the transaction.
Still, it could be worse. Counterfeit products aren't just a headache for consumers, either. At least I didn't buy a job lot of fake military grade processors...