Should you fear your USB cable? (2023)

Cables seem simple. Just plug them into the matching ports, and let the electrons flow. If you think of them as dumb copper wires, they seem completely interchangeable.

Maybe not. As two people found out in recent months, the wrong cable could potentially fry your laptop.

Benson Leung, a Google engineer, and Dieter Bohn, executive editor at The Verge, wound up frying their notebooks after plugging in USB cables they bought at Amazon. Leung's laptop, a Chromebook Pixel, wouldn't boot afterward. Bohn told me his notebook, a MacBook Air, no longer has working USB ports.

Should you fear your USB cable? (1)

The two incidents only have one thing in common: both men were using a USB Type-A-to-USB Type-C cable like the one you can see at right. It's designed to connect a device with the old full-size USB jack that comes standard on most computers (Type-A) to the fancy new reversible Type-C one. (Type-C is reversible, smaller, can charge devices faster and can deliver far more data.)

The cables looked like the obvious culprit. The thought was that in the excitement and confusion around the new USB-C standard, cable manufacturers got sloppy, cut corners, and these two computers (and owners) paid the price. At least, that's what reporters seemed to think at the time. In a widely shared editorial for The Verge, Bohn took both the USB-C standard and Amazon to task for failing to create a safe buying environment.

But after speaking to a variety of USB experts over the past couple of weeks, I'm not quite sure whether USB-C is to blame. Do you in fact need to fear your USB cable? The answer is a bit more complicated than you might think.

Unprecedented

When have you ever heard of a cable frying a computer? Not a charger, not a power surge, but just a simple wire?

(Video) Your USB-C Cable probably SUCKS! Sooo is that Bad?

Chris Apland, who ran the Monoprice cable business for five years, says he's never heard of such a thing. "I've seen cables with little to no shielding, soldering that looked like it was pretty much done by a kid in elementary school," Apland recalls. "I've seen cables instantly spark and melt." But though Monoprice ships 1.6 million cables a month -- inexpensive ones, too -- he couldn't recall a single instance of a bad cable frying a computer.

Should you fear your USB cable? (2)

Neither could John Drengenberg, the longtime director of consumer safety at Underwriters Laboratories (UL) or Brad Saunders, the chairman of the USB-IF coalition that develops the USB standards to begin with, or Lee Atkinson, an HP engineer who's been working on USB ports since they were a brand-new idea. Atkinson had a one-word answer: "Never."

Clearly, this sort of damage is rare; perhaps even new. Maybe this sort of thing never happened until USB Type-C came along. Or maybe there was something wrong with these two laptops.

Letting the smoke out

You should probably know that Benson Leung isn't just a Google engineer -- he's also a crusader for the USB-C standard. Over the past several months, he's reviewed over 100 different USB-C adapters on Amazon in his own free time. He dissects the cables to see if they meet the official USB spec, and leaves 1- and 2-star reviews for manufacturers who failed. He's rejected more than half of them so far.

And thanks to Leung's newfound expertise about the quality of USB-C cables, we have a pretty good idea why a bad one could potentially damage a laptop.

Should you fear your USB cable? (3)

While these cables are dumb, they aren't completely brainless. Each USB-A-to-USB-C cable is supposed to have a resistor inside that limits the amount of power that, say, a fast-charging USB-C phone can draw. That's important because most of today's USB ports were designed before USB-C came along.

While some full-size USB ports, particularly those on phone chargers, can output 2, even 2.4 amps, there's no guarantee that any old USB port will provide even a full amp of power. But a fast-charging USB-C phone can draw 3 amps. So when you connect your USB-C-equipped Nexus 6P phone to a MacBook Air port designed to only provide 1.1 amps at most and use a cable without the right resistor, the phone can pull too much power, create a voltage drop inside the computer, and potentially destroy internal components.

(Video) I got hacked by an iPhone Cable.

That's what probably happened to Dieter Bohn, who connected those exact two devices together with one of the very first cables that Leung had warned against: an Orzly cable that used a 10k ohm resistor instead of the 56k ohm resistor that the USB spec demands. (These resistors don't actually meter the flow of electricity, they just tell the phone how much energy is safe to pull. Orzly has already revised their cables to use the right resistor.)

Browsing through Leung's Amazon reviews, the wrong resistor is far and away the most common reason a cable fails. But you also don't see a lot of people complaining about toasted electronics.

Should you fear your USB cable? (4)

I did find two distinct instances of people reporting melted USB ports on their phones, which is definitely worrying, and some fear that the cables get too warm. But most of the other 1-star Amazon reviews I've seen merely complain that their phone doesn't charge or charges slowly. That's the same issue that led Apple to recall the USB-C cables that came with its 12-inch MacBook, but we haven't heard of those melting down. Apple didn't respond to a request for comment.

It's also important to know that a resistor wasn't responsible for Leung's own fried laptop. According to the Google engineer, that cable was completely miswired.

The cutoff switch

Here's where the experts disagree. Aren't laptops designed to protect against damage like this?

Dell says their laptops are. Jason Lee, the company's lead engineer on XPS notebooks, says that not only are Dell's USB ports protected against voltage drops and short circuits, but they will also automatically restart themselves as soon as they cool down. No need to restart your computer.

And HP's Atkinson says such protections aren't just limited to Dell; they're standard practice for the computer industry. "With everything I've ever seen -- and we've been shipping USB-A since 1997 -- if there's a short circuit, the port just shuts off. That's existed forever." Atkinson points out that even with previous versions of USB, a cable could get damaged, and the industry adopted overcurrent and overvoltage protection circuits to keep the computers safe.

(Video) Do all of your cables need THIS?

Today, "If you threw molten metal into the connector itself, it'd essentially just shut down," he says.

Should you fear your USB cable? (5)

But Saunders, chairman of the USB-IF standards body, says he's not aware of any protection against a completely miswired cable like the one that struck down Leung's Chromebook Pixel. "That was something that the circuits of his notebook can't protect against," he says.

And UL -- one of the organizations " throwing the molten metal," as it were -- doesn't seem to think that these protection circuits are truly an industry standard.

"If all of them did, that would be one thing," UL's Drengenberg tells me. If there were a single shared safety standard, he explains, he'd be able to tell me how it works -- but because there are a variety of proprietary ways that manufacturers meet the UL's requirements, he can't say any more.

By the way, the UL doesn't fail a computer if it gets damaged during the short-circuit test. "As long as the computer didn't create a shock or fire hazard, that would be a successful completion," Drengenberg says.

I'd wanted to ask Google engineer Benson Leung whether his Chromebook Pixel had those protection circuits, but he directed me to Google's PR team. Google didn't respond to repeated requests for comment.

The invisible hand

Unless you trust HP and Dell -- and own their computers -- we're no closer to knowing whether a bad cable could fry your PC. And it's worrying that the only sure way to avoid a bad cable is to read one Google engineer's reviews. I've always found it infuriating that the industry groups that create standards like USB have no power to keep companies from producing bad products and selling them as good ones -- though the scope of such an industry-wide quality assurance infrastructure is hard to imagine, financially or logistically.

(Video) DON'T buy this USB Stick.

Indeed, the USB-IF only has legal control over its logo and certification marks, which unscrupulous companies out of legal reach are using anyhow.

But that doesn't mean you're likely to encounter a USB cable that can damage your laptop. In fact, it's less and less likely every day.

Should you fear your USB cable? (6)

We're already seeing the initial wave of fear inspire a pushback against bad cables at Amazon. Even if Amazon does nothing to weed out the bad apples in its vast marketplace, Leung and those he's inspired are voting down the ones that don't meet the spec. I've seen cable manufacturers and resellers chat with Leung on his Google+ page about how they can make sure they adhere to the requirements. I've seen bad cables get pulled from Amazon and get replaced with new ones that clearly advertise the 56k ohm resistor.

These companies want to sell cables. They don't want customers to return them, or gain a bad reputation for frying laptops. Same goes for the retailers that carry them, too. While Amazon wouldn't respond to repeated requests for comment, Target and Monoprice tell me they only carry cables that have been certified by the USB-IF.

With any luck, it'll be pretty hard for anyone to damage their computer with a bad cable before long. And if you're in the market for a USB-C to USB-A cable yourself, I happen to know someone who's made a pretty good list.

Thanks, Benson Leung.

FAQs

How do I know if my USB cable is safe? ›

If you aren't sure if a cable works, check if it's USB-IF certified - this is the best way of knowing if a cable is valid beforehand! The full list is available here and is updated regularly: USB Type-C Cable Certifications.

Are USB cables safe? ›

Is it safe to plug any USB device into a laptop, tablet or wall socket? In most cases this should be acceptable. Plugging USB devices into “smart” products such as laptops and tablets which monitor and control the output should, in theory, be safer than the use of wall sockets.

Can you get hacked by a USB cable? ›

Yes, a malicious USB cable can hack your phone. The compromised cable can be controlled remotely by a hacker and used to steal your data, and even take control of the device.

How many times can a USB be plugged and unplugged? ›

Under normal circumstances, a standard Type-C/micro USB port can be inserted into or removed from a USB port for more than 10,000 times. For example, if you insert or remove your data cable three times a day, it would last for more than 9 years.

Can a USB have a virus? ›

Yes. Anything connected to your computer that is writable, including a thumb drive, can be infected with a virus or other malware. These types of media are capable of spreading the virus to alternative drives.

How do I know if a USB has a virus? ›

With the USB drive plugged in, open My Computer. Right-click on the USB icon, then left-click Scan for viruses from the drop-down menu.

Can someone hack your phone through USB cable? ›

A USB cable or charger lead could be used to hack your device. When a phone is connected to another device with a USB cable — to a laptop, for example — data can be sent via the USB. That means, in theory, a computer infected with malware or viruses could automatically infect your phone if you connect the two.

Does USB break easily? ›

Myth #1: The USB connectors on flash drive are fragile.

Connectors on USBs are made of metal and resists damage or bending. The rest of the USB drive, however, is not. So while it is possible to break or damage the connectors, it's more likely you'll damage the other components, many of which are made of plastic.

Can a USB damage a phone? ›

USB Chargers Can Overheat

This is especially true if you're using an old or poor quality, cheap charger. Charging your phone then becomes a stressful process for both the charger and the phone, which can cause the phone to overheat, thus damaging your phone's battery.

Are USB devices a threat? ›

Not only may USB devices carry malware and spread infection as soon as they connect to a network, but they can also be booby-trapped and take over keyboards, all while running in the background and without the user recognizing it.

Can a USB cable steal data? ›

As shown in the demonstration, the cable can record the keystrokes of an unsuspecting victim and wirelessly send private data to hackers that can reportedly be over a mile away. It does this with a hidden chip, found in the USB cable's plastic shell, that creates a Wi-Fi hotspot that hackers can remotely connect to.

Can a USB become infected? ›

Attackers can use USB drives to infect other computers with malware that can detect when the USB drive is plugged into a computer. The malware then downloads malicious code onto the drive. When the USB drive is plugged into another computer, the malware infects that computer.

What is the lifespan of a USB? ›

USB flash drives can withstand between 10,000 to 100,000 write/erase cycles, depending on the memory technology used. When the limit is reached, some portion of the memory may not function properly, leading to lost of data and corruption.

Does unplugging USB damage? ›

Abrupt unplug of USB drive can damage the circuits of your USB Drive and as well as of the USB ports of your System. Thus, causing your USB Drive and USB ports of your system to malfunction.

What happens if you leave a device plugged in even after it is charged 100 %? *? ›

The correct option is Option C It can overheat. When a device is plugged in after it is 100% charged it can overheat and may blast or the battery life is affected.

How do you safely connect a USB? ›

Insert the flash drive into a USB port on your computer. You should find a USB port on the front, back, or side of your computer (the location may vary depending on whether you have a desktop or a laptop). Depending on how your computer is set up, a dialog box may appear. If it does, select Open folder to view files.

How can I clean the virus in USB? ›

How To Remove The Shortcut Virus From A USB
  1. Use the Command Prompt. In your Windows search box, type in CMD to access Command Prompt. ...
  2. Use Anti-Malware Program. You can connect your infected drive to a computer that has the full protection of an anti-virus program, such Smadav, or AVG Security. ...
  3. Clean Your Computer.
23 Nov 2017

What causes virus in USB? ›

USB used with infected system

At times there are systems that are already infected with the USB drive shortcut virus. If you connect the USB with any such systems the chances are that it will get infected. The files in the USB drive will be hidden and the virus will then spread to the other systems as well.

How do I scan my USB for viruses? ›

Click Windows Security and then click the Open Windows Security button to launch the app. Open Virus & threat protection > Scan options, then select Custom scan. Click the Scan now button, and then navigate to the removable or external drive you want to scan.

What are signs that your phone is hacked? ›

How to Know If Someone is Hacking Your Phone
  • Your phone loses charge quickly. Malware and fraudulent apps sometimes use malicious code that tends to drain a lot of power.
  • Your phone runs abnormally slowly. ...
  • You notice strange activity on your other online accounts. ...
  • You notice unfamiliar calls or texts in your logs.

What can phone hackers see? ›

Hackers can use keyloggers and other tracking software to capture your phone's keystrokes and record what you type, such as search entries, login credentials, passwords, credit card details, and other sensitive information.

Can hackers see you through your phone camera? ›

YES, your phone camera can be easily hacked. Hackers can use your smartphone's camera to hack your device and spy on you and get access to your phone without your knowledge!

How can I protect my USB from damage? ›

The followings are 6 helpful tips for you to protect your flash drive from damage due to careless handling.
  1. Beware of the Spark When Inserting USB Flash Drive. ...
  2. Remove USB Flash Drive Carefully. ...
  3. Don't Drop the USB Flash Drive. ...
  4. Safeguard USB Flash Drive from Heavy Load. ...
  5. Cap USB Flash Drive off When Not in Use.
18 Feb 2017

How can I prevent my USB from being damaged? ›

Enable or Disable Usb Ports Through Device Manager

Right-click on the “Start” button on the taskbar and select “Device Manager”. Expand USB Controllers. Right-click on all entries, one after another, and click “Disable Device”. Click “Yes” when you see a confirmation dialog.

How do I protect my USB cable from breaking? ›

Purchase cable protectors made out of rubber or another flexible material. Twist or slip the protectors onto the ends of the wire where it meets the connectors to prevent the wire from breaking due to tension and bending. These types of protectors look like thick rubber spirals and come in a variety of colors.

Are cheap USB-C cables safe? ›

Say you go to Amazon and buy any pack of cheap USB-C cables, you could end up with a wire that can destroy your new Macbook Pro. This is what happen to Benson Leung, a Google Engineer who's Chromebook Pixel was destroyed, “On my Pixel, both USB Type-C ports stopped responding immediately.

Can USB cables overheat? ›

When dust, dirt or other debris becomes trapped in a USB Type-C cable connector, it creates a resistive fault from the power line to ground, which can cause a dangerous temperature rise without increasing the current.

What is a USB killing device? ›

A USB Killer is USB drive that has been modified to deliver an electrical surge that can damage or destroy hardware when the altered thumb drive is inserted into a computer's USB port. The modified drive essentially commands the computer's on-board capacitors to rapidly charge and discharge repeatedly.

Why should I block my USB? ›

The Need for USB Port Blocking

Once they plug a compromised flash drive into a company computer, ransomware can bypass existing security systems and gain direct endpoint access.

What are USB attacks? ›

Refers to an attack where threat actors use a USB drive to spread malware. In a targeted attack, infected USB drives are deliberately dropped in public locations, such as parking lots, to entice victims to picking it up and opening it using their computers.

Can you be hacked by a charger? ›

It's called "juice jacking," where a cyber thief can either hack into the charging system or download malware or a virus that is then downloaded through the USB port onto your phone while it's charging.

Can OMG cable hack iPhone? ›

O.MG Elite can perform attacks and read data that's passed through the cable, say between iPhone and Mac, or almost any other combination of devices as it comes in Lightning to USB-A, Lightning to USB-C, C to C, and microUSB versions.

Should I let someone borrow my charger? ›

It's like borrowing underwear, and you don't do this. Hackers have learned how to implant malware in charging cables and remotely hijack mobile devices or computers. The technology itself is compact and inexpensive. It can be easily used both for attacks against random people as well as for targeted attacks.

Can USB cause fire? ›

The metal around the cord can become electrically charged if it contacts the USB wall charger plug prongs while charging, thus posing shock and fire hazards.

How do I know if my USB is dying? ›

To tell if a USB flash drive or USB hard drive is dead, you can go to "This PC" > "Manage" > "Disk Management" and check its status. Generally, you will find the dead USB drive in one of the following situations: The USB drive is not showing up in Windows at all.

Is a USB OK for long term storage? ›

Memory cards and USB drives are NOT designed for long term storage. You should always backup your data on to another device. The data will normally stay valid for a period of up to 10 years if stored under normal conditions. The data cells inside carry a charge which can dissipate over time.

How often do USB cables fail? ›

Any cable over time will lose effectiveness and get worn out. The standard USB has a general minimum lifetime of 1,500 cycles of inserting and removing. Micro-USB and USB-C have a rated minimum lifetime of 10,000 cycles.

Should I eject USB? ›

“Safely removing” your USB drive by ejecting it first ensures that all of the data you've transferred is properly written on the drive. Doing so will guarantee that you do not lose vital data in the process of transfer.

What can destroy a USB? ›

Use a hammer, pliers, or a large shredder to individually crush/shred the chips inside the USB's case. With the data deleted and overwritten; and the physical device broken or in pieces, your old data should be beyond recovery.

Can I just unplug my USB? ›

When you use external storage devices like USB flash drives, you should safely remove them before unplugging them. If you just unplug a device, you run the risk of unplugging while an application is still using it. This could result in some of your files being lost or damaged.

Is it okay to charge your phone 3 times a day? ›

Frequently charging the phone can harm the battery's life. Also, it is recommended that you charge the device from 0-80% and then unplug the charger. Moreover, it is better if you wait until your phone's battery level drops to 10% or below and then plug it in for charing.

Is it OK to leave the phone charging overnight? ›

Unfortunately, leaving your phone charging for hours at a time while you sleep isn't great for your battery and could cause its performance to decline before you're ready to trade in your phone. Discover why charging your phone overnight is bad, and how often you should be charging your phone instead.

Why you shouldn't charge your phone overnight? ›

Batteries decay from the moment you start using your new phone. This means they gradually lose their ability to hold a charge. By charging your phone overnight, you're increasing the amount of time it spends with the charger. As a result, it degrades the capacity much sooner.

How do I test a USB cable? ›

Just plug one end of a cable into the USB-A port and the other end into the micro USB-B port. Either two or four LEDs will light up, signifying whether the data wires are present. The USB cable tester is powered by a CR2032 battery, so no external power is needed.

How can you make sure you use a USB stick safely? ›

How to Store Data Securely on a USB Flash Drive
  1. Buy an Encrypted USB. Encryption secures sensitive information by making it accessible only to those with a decryption key. ...
  2. Use USB Encryption Software. ...
  3. Have a Backup. ...
  4. Delete Data After Use. ...
  5. Install Anti-Virus Protection. ...
  6. Keep Software Up to Date. ...
  7. Use Alternative Storage Methods.
17 Aug 2022

How do I make sure my charger is safe? ›

How Do You Know a Phone Charger Is Safe?
  1. Use a genuine charger.
  2. Check for genuine packaging.
  3. Look for quality control marks and safety guidelines.
  4. Check the plug pins are in good condition.
  5. Check the weight.
  6. Look for faults in the cable.
  7. Keep the charger and cable dry.
6 Dec 2018

How do you check if USB is not write protected? ›

  1. Check the USB Stick for Viruses. ...
  2. Check the USB Drive Body. ...
  3. Check to Make Sure the USB Stick Isn't Full. ...
  4. Remove Individual Files With Write Protection. ...
  5. DiskPart Command Prompt Utility. ...
  6. Clear Write Protection Error in Windows Registry. ...
  7. Format the USB Drive. ...
  8. Turn Off BitLocker or Remove Encryption.
31 Aug 2022

DO USB cables wear out? ›

Android, Apple, it doesn't matter: Yes, any charger cord can wear out and lose effectiveness over time.

What causes a USB to malfunction? ›

This issue can be caused if any of the following situations exist: The currently loaded USB driver has become unstable or corrupt. Your PC requires an update for issues that may conflict with a USB external hard drive and Windows. Windows may be missing other important updates hardware or software issues.

How do I know if my USB is broken? ›

To scan for hardware changes, follow these steps:
  1. Click Start, and then click Run. ...
  2. Type devmgmt. ...
  3. In Device Manager, click your computer so that it is highlighted.
  4. Click Action, and then click Scan for hardware changes.
  5. Check the USB device to see whether it is working.

What happens if you don't Safely Eject USB? ›

When you unplug your USB hard drive without ejecting safely, your data may be compromised because it could still be in the process of writing it into the drive. Meaning that your file may not be saved to the drive or could end up being corrupted.

How often do USB drives fail? ›

Average values vary widely. Most devices can withstand between 10,000 and 100,000 cycles. Low-quality products may last fewer than 10,000 cycles, while cutting-edge drives made using the latest technologies can reach one million or more.

Are cheap chargers safe? ›

Cheap chargers may seem like a good deal because they sometimes look very similar to a genuine Android or Apple charger. A lot of people believe the myth that a cheap charger will help their budget in the long run. However, it may be the exact opposite because cheap chargers often fail to meet security requirements.

What is the safest way to charge your phone? ›

  1. Ideally, you should turn your device off while charging. But, more realistically, just leave it idle while charging.
  2. As you might expect, heat is a battery's enemy. ...
  3. Charging the phone from a power bank on the beach in a deckchair is a worst-case scenario for battery health.
14 Oct 2022

Are non Apple chargers safe? ›

Using a non-Apple charger is very unlikely to ruin your battery. And in the case of the iPhone and iPad, third-party chargers are very common. The Mac is slightly different, and particularly for those MacBooks with MagSafe connectors, it's best to use an Apple charger.

WHO removes write protection from USB? ›

Method 1. Remove Write Protection with Physical Lock Switch
  1. Locate and turn the physical switch ON to OFF on your USB or SD card.
  2. Connect the unlocked USB or SD card to your computer. Check if the write-protected state disappears.
22 Sept 2022

Can write protection be removed? ›

To remove write protection on Windows 11, right-click the file and select Properties > clear the Read-only box.

Which software can remove write protection from USB? ›

EaseUS Partition Master gives you a direct solution to remove write protection from your write-protected USB, USB external disk or SD card in simple clicks.

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