Don’t fall prey to black-market printer supplies

August 9, 20183 Minute Read

Printer supplies, like ink cartridges, may fit in the palm of your hand, but that doesn’t mean they’re not a big business. For some crooks, they’re profitable enough to risk going to jail for.

Consider Richard Rimbaugh, the convicted criminal mastermind behind “Operation Sticky Fingers,” a 20-year, 28-state campaign to rip off electronics and software from big box retailers in the United States. A more apt name might have been “Operation Inky Fingers,” as a proportion of its profit came from stealing ink cartridges and selling them at a discount. Believe it or not, shady ink cartridge deals are a reality.

Crack down on fake printer supplies

Thieves and counterfeiters are eager to take a slice of the ink-and-toner pie. Criminal operations like these, combined with counterfeiting rings, channel millions in fake or stolen printer consumables each year. Now, though, printer manufacturers are cracking down on the problem. In Dubai, for instance, HP worked with officials to shutter two internationally active suppliers of fake consumables, seizing 1,200 counterfeit toner cartridges in the process.

There’s another type of company that won’t make printer manufacturers’ Christmas card lists this year: the third-party consumables manufacturer. These differ from counterfeit operations in that they’re not fraudulent. They are, however, an attempt to persuade you to purchase subpar materials for your printers. These vendors offer unbranded or alternative brand inks and toners, typically at a lower cost than brand name versions. They will either refill your ink cartridges for you using their own sourced inks, sell you the ink to do it yourself, or sell you the whole cartridge.

The battle between printer manufacturers and third-party cartridge vendors has raged for years. In 2017, things came to a head when a case came to the US Supreme Court to stop third-party vendors from selling cartridge refills. It claimed refilling cartridges violated patents, but the Supreme Court disagreed, to the joy of ink-slopping third-party printer supply companies everywhere.

Remember: You get what you pay for

While tempting, you shouldn’t rush out and buy third-party cartridges when your office printer is running low—there’s always a downside to buying cheap. The quality of these solutions is often questionable. In a 2017 survey, Consumer Reports said 37 percent of people had tried third-party cartridges, over a third of which said the quality did not match the official brand name offering.

Consumer Reports’ testers also found that some cartridges failed to print a test page, triggered warnings from the printers, or clogged the printheads. Results were inconsistent, even across samples from the same third-party vendors. In other words, you get what you pay for. A reliable brand name vendor dedicates time and effort to developing ink chemistry and ensuring their cartridges perform optimally under the high heat and pressure conditions in printers.

Always account for workplace sustainability

If you’re environmentally minded, you may be tempted to get a third-party refill to avoid creating more garbage. But many manufacturers are prioritizing both quality and printer recycling in today’s sustainability-focused world. HP, for example, runs a printer recycling program that allows you to drop off or mail in your inkjet or toner cartridges. Plus, many HP-manufactured ink cartridges contain recycled materials.

Committing to brand-name cartridges also brings other benefits, such as HP’s Instant Ink program. Like a good sommelier who always knows when glasses are getting empty, it keeps you constantly refilled by sending new ink in the mail before you run out.

You don’t need to choose between saving the planet and saving your printheads. By picking a print vendor with a robust printer recycling program, you can hit two birds with one stone. Or you could risk choosing a third-party vendor, but playing Russian roulette with a printer cartridge can be awfully messy.

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