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Intel combats chip forgery

The chip giant posts a program to thwart "remarkers," those who disguise slower chips so they can be sold as newer, more expensive processors.

Intel is stepping up its efforts to combat chip "remarking"--or the practice of fraudulently disguising slower chips so they can be sold as newer, more expensive processors--although the changes will make it more difficult for home users to goose the speeds on their own chips through "overclocking."

The chip giant today posted a free software utility to its Web site that, when downloaded, will tell consumers both the actual speed of their processor and the speed it was intended to run at when it left the factories of Intel.

If a mismatch occurs, consumers will realize they have been taken and should contact their dealer for a refund, said Dave Brown, a product manager at Intel. Intel also said that it is increasing its efforts to educate law enforcement agencies to crack down on remarking rings.

While remarking is not pervasive, it is a major irritant in the computing world, especially to consumers who get swindled. Remarkers essentially take older, slower chips and change the external identifying features, packaging, and some of the circuitry so that they can be sold as faster, more expensive processors, said Brown. Remarked chips not only run slower than expected, they can have other problems too, due to the overclocking that comes with remarking.

In a related effort, the company also admitted it has added "deterrents" to the silicon of the Pentium III and Pentium III Xeon that will make it more difficult to overclock, or increase the megahertz, of a processor. While this will deter remarking, computer hobbyists are sure to raise a stink about it.

Overclocking has become something of a cult sport among enthusiasts, who trade tips on select Web sites and persistently dog Intel about its anti-overclocking efforts.

The practice of remarking has become quite sophisticated, Brown said. Twenty years ago, remarkers might have just covered up Intel identification tags with a sticker. Today, remarkers are known to grind official identification numbers off of chips, buy their own laser equipment to insert imitative markings that Intel would apply to its more expensive chips, and even pour molds for imitation chip packaging.

Typically, dealers do not even know they are selling remarked chips as the processors enter the commercial mainstream early on in the commercial chain of events and are shuttled around quickly. "In one instance, the chips changed hands 18 times in 36 hours," he said, "Once it leaves Intel's hands, this stuff crosses many palms."

Remarkers appear to work often with the criminal groups that pull strong-arm robberies of chip warehouses. In a raid last year in Orange County, California, law enforcement agencies raided a theft/chip remarking group that was spread out over 17 locations. Two of the locations were full-fledged factories.

"There is some level of organization, The right hand seems to know what the left hand is doing," said Brown. "Taiwan is a hot bed [of remarking]. So is the West Coast of the United States, because you don't have to pass through customs."

Intel has been training law enforcement agencies, added Brown. Last year, the company helped train 1,000 law enforcement officials in methods for detecting chip remarking. 130 sting operations took place in 1998.

Telltale signs
How can consumers protect themselves? A number of the remarked chips contain telltale signs of sloppiness. The hologram that is seen on the surface of the Pentium II or III case can be tilted.

In one 300-MHz Pentium II remarked to pass for a 450-MHz Pentium III shown by Intel to reporters, the space between the "u" and "m" of "Pentium" was larger than the spaces between the other letters. Opening up the case, one could see that an additional silicon chip with dangling wires had been sloppily glued to the processor daughter card. The additional chip, not part of standard Pentium IIs or IIIs, existed to artificially boost the system bus.

Still, most of the giveaway features would likely only be noticed by an Intel employee or a remarker, said Brown. In fact, Intel does not reveal all of the telltale details because it would only teach remarkers how to defeat the system. As a result, Brown and others suggest buying from authorized dealers and avoiding "too good to be true" bargains.

Chips bought in the original retail package are less likely to be suspect than chips not in the official box. Buying a name brand computer over a fourth or fifth tier manufacturer can reduced the risk as well.

Overclocking a tough sport
The overclocking deterrents are part and parcel of the efforts to combat remarking, said Craig Johnson, a strategic product planner at the company. "While remarking is a crime, overclocking is not," he conceded. Nonetheless, the company is cracking down on the practice.

While preventing overclocking has a legitimate business aim, overclocking fans are sure to object. At the recent Pentium III preview, many complained that Intel was moving to clamp down on overclocking as a way to force users to upgrade their computers.

One of the favorite chips to overclock is a version of the 300-MHz Celeron chip. The processor, which costs less than $100, can be cranked up to 450 MHz, say enthusiasts.