How to Identify Counterfeit Ink

Photograph: Edward Gajdel
Like fake watches, fake sneakers, and fake Picasso drawings, counterfeit ink is designed to look like the real thing--in this case, ink sold by big-name printer manufacturers such as HP, Canon, or Epson. At best it is inferior to the real McCoy, producing lower-quality images. At worst, it jams and leaks, damaging your printer.

Don't confuse counterfeit ink with off-brand or discount ink, which is made to spec by honest companies and can be a viable, inexpensive alternative to brand-name ink. But whereas discount ink makers are looking for happy, long-term customers, counterfeiters are looking for hit-and-run profits. Protect your printer and your wallet by following these simple precautions.

Mind the Vendor

Buy ink only from retailers you trust. Anonymous online deals may be enticing, but what can you do if some seller you don't know sends you a fake ink cartridge? Reputable retail stores are sometimes duped into selling counterfeits, but at least you'll have some recourse if the ink you receive turns out to be fake.

Examine the Packaging

For years, printer companies have been adding seals--holographic or otherwise--to verify the authenticity of the products they sell. Tilt the box and see whether the security seal behaves in the way the manufacturer says it should. Many major printer sellers, such as HP, offer help on their Websites in identifying their genuine packaging.

Examine the Cartridge

Original vendor products never have ink splashed on the exterior of the cartridge or inside the box. There should be no black toner dust or damage to the cartridge either. Original products have pull-tab tape seals--sometimes several--across the ink ports.

Watch for Substandard Quality and Quantity

Fake cartridges often leak, clog, and print in inaccurate colors or distorted text. Keep an eye on the quality of your printer's output. If it looks bad, especially out of the box, contact the manufacture about the potential counterfeit. The printer industry has a major financial stake in keeping fake cartridges off the street, so you can expect prompt customer service. Also, keep track of the number of pages you print per cartridge: Any sharp decline in page count with a new cartridge is a sign that something is amiss.

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