Sniffing out the serial trail

     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...

     However, SIRAS P.I. assists law enforcement in other ways, too. Milburn says in many recovered property cases, the information missing is where the property should be. Using an item's serial number, SIRAS P.I. can show an officer the last transaction logged for the product. For example, if a DVD player is scanned in at Wal-Mart, but does not have a point-of-sale transaction, investigators may wonder how it got out of the store. Officers could then follow-up at the Wal-Mart location with more questions.

     "SIRAS gives us another avenue of tracking products," Milburn says. "One of the biggest challenges we have is most victims don't know all of what they're missing. [SIRAS] adds an avenue to track whether this item has been sold or ... whereabouts it should be. You can tell by looking at it that the item is probably stolen, because it's brand new and in a pawn shop or in the storage locker, depending on the circumstances. How do you find where it belongs? Well, SIRAS gives you an avenue to help do that."

     Milburn likens SIRAS P.I. to the stolen property records in the FBI's National Crime Information Center (NCIC). Much like NCIC, SIRAS information can't solve cases on its own; but it can give investigators additional leads or avenues to follow if they hit a wall.

     "NCIC is a very useful tool, but it's a very, very small swimming pool of the ocean of stolen stuff that's out there because people can't identify it," Milburn says. "SIRAS helps expand that swimming pool. A detective cannot just base the information straight out of SIRAS or NCIC as their whole case. It's a tool just like your squad car, just like your pen." However, unlike squad cars and pens, the SIRAS service is free to law enforcement and authorized retail security officials. All that is required to access the database is a computer with Internet access or a cellular phone.

     Because SIRAS P.I. is an extension of SIRAS, the data collected has already been paid for by retailers and manufacturers who use the service to track merchandise. Junger says SIRAS bears the cost of developing and maintaining the system, and its clients — retailers, suppliers and manufacturers — benefit when law enforcement is able to mine serial number data to report, track down and recover stolen items. Thus, making the database available to law enforcement is advantageous for all parties, and SIRAS expects to get more business because of it.

     Dustin Ares, senior account manager for asset protection at SIRAS, says law enforcement has been responding positively to the technology.

     "We often hear that we are filling a void that's been there an awfully long time," Ares says. "The common theme I hear is that SIRAS actually creates a stronger victim and gives them some sort of thread to follow to define not only the victim, but what charges to press in the case."

     Mesa PD piloted the technology for several months beginning in 2007, and the searchable database has already helped track suspicious items. Milburn explains an instance where an individual was selling brand-new gaming products — still in the box — for much less than they were worth to local Mesa pawn shops. Three transactions in the area took place curiously quickly. Through SIRAS P.I. Milburn and his team were able to identify that the products had been purchased at a neighborhood Best Buy. Working backward, Milburn checked with Best Buy and pulled up the transactions corresponding to the products. He was able to determine the credit card holder who purchased the gaming products was the same individual who was pawning them. Milburn explains that in that instance, the man pawning the new merchandise was likely using his credit card to get easy cash, but the incident proved the value of SIRAS as an avenue to trace a product's history quickly. Milburn was also able to document that the card holder, purchaser and pawner were the same man, so should he attempt a fraudulent report claiming his card had been stolen, he would easily be caught. Junger says SIRAS has finished its pilot with Mesa and has added 84 agencies around the country and four in Canada.

     Both Milburn and Junger stress that SIRAS P.I. is not a panacea for property crime challenges. SIRAS is happy to extend its data for law enforcement use, which benefits the manufacturing, retail and law enforcement communities, but it cannot replace an investigator's work.

Preventing hoodwinks
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