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iPhone electrocution death linked to third-party USB charger

updated 01:00 am EDT, Fri July 19, 2013

Image of dead woman's charger not an Apple unit, investigation continues

A 23-year-old Chinese woman who was allegedly electrocuted a week ago while answering a call on her charging iPhone 4 was apparently using a third-party charger rather than an actual Apple unit, according to state-run CCTV. The incident is still being investigated by local authorities and Apple, and was originally reported as having involved an iPhone 5. Photos released by CCTV, however, clearly show the dead woman's iPhone was the 2010 iPhone 4, and the charger was not the standard Apple model. Third-party chargers are common, but can be dangerous.

Telecommunications expert Xiang Ligang, interviewed by CCTV, said that "knockoff" chargers are common in China and elsewhere, and usually sell for less than Apple's version of a replacement charger -- often dramatically less. However, Xiang said, the lower cost often hides compromises in safety that can more easily fail. A Google employee named Ken Shirriff proved this last October when he tested real and counterfeit USB iPhone chargers, finding that a number of them took unacceptably dangerous shortcuts. Underwriters' Laboratories also issued a safety warning to consumers in March.

The victim, Ma Ailun, was a former air stewardess for China Souther Airlines who lived in the Xinjiang province. She was due to be married next month, to a pilot with the airline. Early reports suggested that Ma may have answered the iPhone while still wet from a bath, but this hasn't been confirmed.

The world learned of the tragedy when her sister took to the Chinese social network Sina Wiebo to issue a warning to others. Experts said early on that they suspected a faulty charger rather than any problem with the iPhone. Both iPhones and authentic Apple chargers have safeguards in place to prevent any level of electric shock that could be fatal, even when wet.

Xiang also raised the possibility of voltage issues. Hong Kong and China use 220 volts as a standard, while Japan uses a standard of 100 volts. If the charger had been a Japanese copy, it is possible that it broke down and overloaded, he said. Normally, he added, the current from an overloaded charger would overheat the phone, damaging the circuits and rendering the device unusuable.

According to the CCTV report, however, Ma's iPhone was still functional and worked normally despite burn marks on its exterior. The phone, charger and plug were found to all be intact, suggesting no damage occurred to the battery of the device.

The family has said they believe Ma was using the original charger that came with the unit she purchased from an Apple Store in December. The disclosure raises the possibility that Ma purchased her unit from a counterfeit Apple store, a growing problem in China where retailers go to great pains to make their unauthorized reseller stores look as much as possible like an Apple Store. The phone and its accessories have been turned over to police, and the investigation is ongoing.

Apple issued a statement immediately after the incident became known, saying the company "was saddened to learn of this tragic incident and offer our condolences to the Ma family. We will fully investigate and co-operate with authorities in this matter." Ma was rushed to a hospital after the incident but doctors were unsuccessful at reviving her.

By Electronista Staff
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  1. mgpalma

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 09-27-00

    Sad. It only cost half as much...but I might die using it.

    Something to think about.

  1. Wingsy

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 04-14-05

    "...the current from an overloaded charger would overheat the phone, damaging the circuits and rendering the device unusuable."

    Not necessarily. I (we) buy Chinese made switching power supplies in a product we make. Within the power supply we found a small value capacitor connected between the AC line and the ground pin of the low voltage output. (We remove them from all supplies we buy.) If this component were to develop a short it would connect one side of the line to the ground circuit of the device being powered. The only path for this current to follow would be from the case of the device (almost always connected to the device's ground) to earth ground (i.e., through the woman's body), and not through any components of the phone.

  1. Makosuke

    Forum Regular

    Joined: 08-06-01

    Wingsy--yeah, I'm a bit surprised that more people haven't noted that all it would really take is a charger (admittedly, a VERY faulty charger) or major house wiring problem that caused the ground pin of the dock connector to be sitting at 220V and the +5V DC line to either be at the same voltage or within that 5V of it. As long as the phone wasn't on a conductive surface, it wouldn't see anything wrong, but as soon as you touched it, if you were grounded (which could easily happen, particularly if you had your other hand on a metal chair or something), you complete the circuit from its outside case through your heart and die. The phone itself, though, would still be fine.

    A properly grounded neutral with a well-built charger should make such a situation functionally impossible, but a very faulty charger coupled, possibly, with bad wiring could do it easily.

  1. Charles Martin

    MacNN Editor

    Joined: 08-04-01

    Wingsy, Makosuke -- thanks for those insights.

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