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“Invisible Ink” Can Help Deter Metal Theft, Burglaries

Scrap metal is a hot commodity these days. With commodities markets drawing investment from those who still lack confidence in Wall Street, metal prices are soaring, which means incidents of metal theft are, too.

The Department of Energy estimated in 2009 that theft of copper wire – from power lines or abandoned homes and businesses – costs the public $1 billion annually, and in Britain, thieves are even swiping sections of railroad track so they can pocket the profits. About 30 states have made efforts to stiffen their penalties against the practice in the past several years.

But two companies in the United Kingdom are working at the problem from the preventive end with invisible, indestructible marking substances that companies and individuals can use to mark their belongings.

One is a transparent adhesive designed to be painted onto such at-risk scrap metal, with celluloid microdots that contain a code identifying the owner of the metal and the adhesive company’s phone number. The microdots can be read under a microscope, and the company, SmartWater Technology Ltd., can then determine if the metals have been stolen or are being sold legitimately.

The adhesive is almost impossible to be clean off, though it could be burned off, so it also contains a mix of rare earth metals can survive fire and attempts at removal.

The other substance, a transparent adhesive manufactured by SelectaMark Security Systems, is more consumer-oriented and can be painted on items thieves are likely to target – televisions, GPS systems or smartphones, for example – with the idea that pawnshop owners could check the items if the thief attempts to pawn them. This adhesive, visible only under ultraviolet light, contains tiny dots embedded in a nickel alloy or in polyester that display a code.

For further security, the Selectamark substance includes short stretches of synthetic DNA, which are unique to each batch of adhesive. The DNA codes are stored with customer details in SelectaMark's database, so even a tiny sample of the adhesive can be used to identify the owner of the object.

And while each of these products can help people recover their stolen goods, the knowledge that valuables are marked with the substance can in itself be a deterrent to thieves, similar to neighborhood watch or alarm company signs.

“With the exception of high-quality security cameras, security doesn’t often lend itself to catching the bad guy after they have been successful in committing a crime,” said Robert Siciliano, a security consultant with ADTPulse.com. “Cutting-edge liquid technology could significantly reduce theft from businesses and consumers traditionally seen by criminals as easy targets."

According to SmartWater's statistics, police departments in the U.K. -- 95 percent of whom use the adhesive -- have experienced a 30 percent to 94 percent reduction in burglary while using the technology. The company also cites a 100 percent conviction rate.

Both SmartWater and SelectaMark also sell a spray kit that can be installed near valuables or doors. A sales associate or motion sensor can deploy the spray, inundating the would-be thief with a similar invisible substance. The substance gets into the skin’s pores and creases, making it impossible to remove for days, which allows the police to identify the person as the thief.

A SelectaDNA home kit costs about $80, and SmartWater sells its kits with annual subscriptions that range from $38 for a motorbike to $135 for a five-bedroom home.

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