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...

     In addition to deception and scheming by criminals in the retail and pawn industries, SIRAS has also helped whittle out some bad employees. Junger describes an incident where a retail employee had committed two retail deceptions, including a brick-in-the-box-type of return and serial number tampering. SIRAS P.I. was contacted when an old DVD model showed up at the manufacturer, returned by the retail store, in a new model's box. After working backward through the serial number's log, SIRAS was able to determine the new DVD player had been sold, and the serial number record had been accessed three times over a period of days. On the third access, the item was returned to the store for a full refund. SIRAS uncovered that an employee who was familiar with SIRAS's serial tracking had bought the new player, used a hair dryer to remove the new serial number and attach it to an old player, and returned that player for the full amount. Because the store had video surveillance and SIRAS had the dates and times of access, sale and return, the shady employee was found and fired. In this instance, even though the employee knew SIRAS was tracking products, he was still unable to hoodwink it.

     In addition to fraudulent returns, in certain situations SIRAS can also guard against counterfeit receipts, sweetheart returns (where a clerk and consumer are in cahoots to commit myriad retail fraud), identify product renting (when consumers purchase a product, such as a power tool for specific use and return it when finished), brick-in-the-box returns and counterfeit serial numbers or tampering.

     Junger says because storage is cheap, SIRAS hosts data from Nintendo's records going back to 1993, and from other companies beginning in 1999, and has no intention to purge it.

EBay and other challenges

     SIRAS has currently been in use by law enforcement for approximately 11 months, and the company is working to correct some limitations. One element of the database that SIRAS is coordinating with law enforcement is a renovation in the language used to code products.

     "We're not in [law enforcement], so we need to rely on industry professionals who do this for a living to tell us what kind of language is meaningful and useful to a detective," Junger explains.

     "We're refining those things and also we're working with retailers on the same type of terminology [because] 'stolen' is a pretty serious term. Most retailers prefer that they use the word 'missing.' "

     Another challenge in property recovery is online shopping and auctions. Most pawn shops throughout the nation are required to report an item's identifying information, such as serial numbers, but online auction houses are not. Junger says until companies such as eBay, a widely popular online shopping and auction host, voluntarily capture serial numbers or are mandated to do so accurately, SIRAS assists retailers in undercover stings where the retailer or SIRAS purchases suspicious items online and, once received, investigates the product serial number for suspicious activity. For example, if an eBay member has 10 auctions for brand-new MP3 players.

     "We actually go online and buy certain items so we can get the serial number and information from the owner, and then we investigate and work together with our manufacturer clients, retailer investigators and law enforcement," Junger says. He says this is especially relevant with expensive and popular electronics such as iPods and video game systems.

     "You have to ask yourself: Why would someone have 10 iPods that they want to sell brand new?"

     There is massive potential for data growth as more police officers, retailers and manufacturers get involved. Each day, more transactions are logged and stored by SIRAS, which could lead investigators down a previously undiscovered or unsubstantiated path. "SIRAS is a tool that, as it gets more successful, I just think it's going to be very strong," Milburn says.

     In the future, Junger hopes to help track product life cycles of virtually anything with a unique ID number. Recently, Junger has been in contact with insurance, credit card and power tool companies that have expressed interest in the product-tracking service.

     Overall, SIRAS could connect all entities of the process to make it a closed-loop system, simultaneously saving the retail and credit industries money by preventing fraudulent transactions as well as giving law enforcement a tool to help solve more crimes.

     With cash registers silently ringing up product info into SIRAS, the database can continue to help law enforcement wring fraudsters out of the retail equation. And wouldn't it be a relief if a couple decades down the road, Beloit College's Mindset List were reflecting on that?

     Editor's note: To get registered for SIRAS P.I., e-mail or call (425) 497-3300.

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