You’re browsing Amazon or eBay, and you see a great deal: A 2-terabyte (TB) USB thumb drive for about $40. Is it a great bargain — or a dangerous scam?
If you’ve read the headline of this article, you know the answer. However, we’ll make it as clear as possible: As of March 2022, most 2TB USB drives are scams. Currently, internet retailers are flooded with fake flash drives, and consumers need to take precautions when ordering storage media online.
Are 1TB and 2TB flash drives real?
Yes and no. While some reputable manufacturers offer USB flash drives with high capacities of 1TB or more, they’re not inexpensive. For example, Kingston’s DataTraveler Max 1TB drive costs about $180 (with free shipping). The 1TB SanDisk Ultra® Dual Drive Luxe USB Type-C™ Flash Drive is slightly less expensive at $114.
But neither manufacturer offers a 2TB USB flash drive for general audiences, and for good reason: High-capacity flash media is difficult to produce reliably, and most consumers don’t need to store a tremendous amount of data on a USB stick. External hard drives and solid-state drives are much better tools for transferring large amounts of data.
Over the past year, we’ve received dozens of “2TB” flash drives from consumers. In every instance, the devices fraudulently advertised their capacities.
What’s inside a 2TB USB flash drive?
With a quick search, we found 2TB flash drives listed for under $40 on Walmart, Amazon, Newegg, and eBay. To reiterate, reputable flash media manufacturers do not sell 1TB flash drives for less than $100.
We disassembled several of these storage devices (and we’re using the term “storage devices” liberally) in our laboratory. Here’s what we found.
Unsurprisingly, the drive was inexpensively made (and easy to disassemble). The NAND flash chip was generic and had no markings to indicate a capacity.
The drive’s controller is a Chipsbank CBM2199E AP35981. We believe that the “manufacturer” made modifications using widely available utilities to modify the perceived size of the flash media.
Of course, we wanted to know how the scam actually worked.
Hex editors are widely used in data recovery and computer forensics applications. When accessing the flash drive with WinHex, the total capacity seemed to exceed 1.9 terabytes. When we looked closely at the firmware, however, we found this device truly had only 32 gigabytes of storage space.
If you purchase a 2TB flash drive for $20-40, here’s what you can expect:
- Most devices include a small flash chip (from 8GB to 32GB) with minor modifications to a small amount of writable space located on the beginning of the drive.
- When accessing the drive, most operating systems will see a 2TB volume (or a 1TB volume, depending on the manufacturer’s claims). However, the actual capacity of the device is much smaller.
- If the user tries to write a larger file to the flash media, the drive will appear to function normally — but obviously, it cannot write to the sectors that don’t exist. Larger files will appear usable after the “transfer,” but when the drive is unplugged from the computer, the data will disappear.
- Because the drive is operating as intended, the user will not receive any error notifications when transferring files that exceed the drive’s actual capacity.
- Many brands offering 2TB flash drives offer some type of warranty. However, they don’t provide a warranty against data loss (and since the storage devices are functionally useless, getting a replacement drive won’t solve the consumer’s problem).
Avoid scams when buying USB flash drives
- Purchase storage media from reputable manufacturers. Look for companies that have an established history of technical achievements. Datarecovery.com does not recommend specific manufacturers, but with some quick research, you can easily determine whether a company is trustworthy.
- Don’t trust the user reviews. Scammers can manipulate ratings, even on trusted websites like Amazon and eBay. We found one “2TB” USB drive with 161 ratings. In many cases, the reviews reference a completely unrelated product.
- Never buy used data storage devices. Flash media has a limited lifespan, and used devices have fewer remaining read/write cycles. Read more about how flash media storage works.
- Avoid “too good to be true” deals. Cheap storage media is just that — cheap — and your data is valuable. While you might pay more for brand-name storage from a trusted retailer, you’ll pay less in the long run.
Finally, keep at least two backups of all important files. If a storage device fails, Datarecovery.com can help — but by developing a strong backup strategy, you can avoid a data loss disaster.