According to the Beloit College Mindset list for the '06 class entering college, it's been at least 20 years since cash registers in major stores actually "rang" up a sale. Today, instead of a drawer bell ringing, registers across the United States have upgraded to a less audible and more covert point-of-sale climax: since the turn of the century, a company has been helping businesses track certain products through a serial-number scanning trail to combat fraud involving retail products.
Now that company is offering law enforcement free access to the nine-plus years of accumulated product lifecycle information through a new database service called SIRAS P.I.Tracking product
Originally developed for Nintendo in the '90s to track gaming system sales and prevent fraudulent returns, the SIRAS database has evolved into a helpful tool for various entities throughout the vertical product lifecycle. Peter Junger, president of SIRAS, a wholly owned subsidiary of Nintendo of America Inc., says the database has been collecting transaction information on products — mostly electronics, but also appliances, sporting goods and various others — since at least 1999. But the database also contains some transactions from well before then, when Nintendo was originally tracking products for its own records. In the SIRAS database, hundreds of millions of merchandise item histories mingle from companies like Sony Computer Entertainment America Inc., Philip, Panasonic, and retail chains like Toys "R" Us, Circuit City and Best Buy, to name a few. The system tracks items through the sales lifecycle, keeping a comprehensive history on the item to help law enforcement officials identify stolen merchandise, report suspicious items and catch thieves.
"Right now … all of the major retailers make use of it to some extent," Junger explains. "For instance, you have some retailers who pretty much register all of their items ... like Wal-Mart and Target. And some other retailers only perhaps … make use of it for their video game category or only those items which are prone to high theft."
Det. Richard Milburn is all too familiar with the challenges in recouping lifted items. Milburn has been with the Mesa (Arizona) Police Department for 20 years, and has spent the last 10 as a detective in the recovered property pawn unit where he often comes across stolen merchandise, which he says is most frequently high-priced electronics.
"Property crime investigators [are] so frustrated because the demand to solve these crimes is so high, and their solving rate ... is very low," says Milburn, who is also the seven-year president of the Arizona Pawn/Property Recovery Law Enforcement Personnel Association Inc. (APPRLEPAI), an investigative pawn property crime group.Expanding the swimming pool
The service that SIRAS offers, SIRAS Product Information (P.I.), is available free to law enforcement. Through the database, law enforcement can determine the status of an item and deduct meaningful information from general transaction data.
For example, Junger, who has been with Nintendo for 14 years, explains that officers working with pawn shops can locate original point-of-sale data on items with unique serial numbers. Should an officer find three brand-new television sets in a shop and run the serial numbers in the database, either via phone or the Internet, and find the TVs were sold at the same store at the same time only hours before having been logged at the resale shop, detectives can deduce there may be something fishy taking place: Why would someone purchase three brand-new TVs and immediately take them to a resale shop? Milburn says reselling, like in the aforementioned scenario, can be linked to a criminal act, such as use of stolen credit cards to purchase merchandise, or could foreshadow a fraudulent stolen credit card report, where the purchaser is actually the card holder, but liquidates the property and reports it stolen to credit card companies.