Forensic water: silver bullet for business theft?


Metal thieves costs businesses £380m a year, but here’s a smart way to catch them

Copper cables

East London businesses that lost their broadband and telephone services last summer for the best part of a day could be forgiven for a moment of Schadenfreude this month: the three thieves responsible for the outages were convicted of stealing BT cables.

The 18-month prison sentence handed down to the ringleader at Snaresbrook Crown Court, and two suspended prison sentences for his accomplices, are the first BT has managed to secure through using SmartWater, a forensic marker.

SmartWater has gained most commercial traction in the utility and transport sectors because huge demand in the Far East has rocketed the value of scrap metal, leading to an epidemic in metal and cable thefts.

In the UK alone, the Police Review estimated metal theft was costing British businesses £380m per year in 2008. SmartWater claims this cost has now nearly doubled alongside sharp increases in scrap metal prices.

“We’ve got some very clever technology, but the main thing we want to do is to deter thefts in the first place”

Phil Cleary, managing director, SmartWater

The result is more than the unwelcome cost of replacement, though. As East London businesses found out last summer, the theft can bring down telecommunications systems for several hours. It can also lead to major train delays.

Hence BT turned to the technology in London in the hope that the first conviction, now achieved, would deter criminals from stealing more cable and leaving businesses incommunicado – and leaving the vulnerable with no way of phoning emergency services.

Although the sentences at Snaresbrook Crown Court were the first for BT in the country, the SmartWater technology claims to have already secured more than a thousand convictions.

Recent high-profile cases include a gang of smash-and-grab jewellery robbers who made their getaway on mopeds, and a violent gang of cash van thieves from London whose ringleader recently got put away for 18 years.

How does it work?

SmartWater was created by former policeman Phil Cleary and his chemist brother, Mike. Phil knew only too well how the burden of proof meant it is very hard for the police to prove an item has been stolen and they are often forced to hand back items to suspected thieves.

So, he and his brother created SmartWater. Each bottle contains a fluid in to which a combination of up to 30 metals is added in tiny, varying quantities. The billion combinations this makes possible gives each container its own invisible “finger print” that is then registered to the owner.

When police recover an item that’s been splashed with SmartWater, they use a UV lamp to confirm the water is on the object. Forensic examination proves ownership.

It means that a gang of thieves cannot lie about where the metal came from, as they tried to do with the East London BT case. Instead, police were able to trace the cable and secure a conviction.

In addition to the bottles of water that can be applied to items, the company has also developed sprays which are set off to cover an intruder or thief. This can be used to prove the thief was at a scene at a particular time.

The sprays are being used in London, and across the country, to mark anyone breaking into cabling ducts.

Global growth, via Fulham, Bexley and Harrow

The main revenue for the technology is coming from transport, cash in transit and utilities companies. But managing director Phil Cleary reveals the strategy is a little more subtle.

To be most effective, the technology has to be feared by criminals. So the company, through a trust, is distributing SmartWater to crime-prone estates in London and the rest of the country to build up its reputation.

“We’ve got some very clever technology, but the main thing we want to do is to deter thefts in the first place,” he says.

“So we hand out the bottles with a police force to estates where crime is a problem and then people put up our stickers. We then mount covert operations to get a conviction and then that sends out a very strong message.

In the UK alone, the Police Review estimated metal theft was costing British businesses £380m per year in 2008

“In the areas we’ve handed out SmartWater, we’ve interviewed local thieves and nine in 10 are aware of it. They rate it a higher risk to them than CCTV or police patrols. Three in four say they’d abandon a robbery if they saw our signs.

“That’s exactly the result we want. The signs deter the activity and because criminals are respectful of our technology, we’re doing very well with the big transport and utility companies. We’re getting lots of enquiries from international police forces and utilities companies. We’re in the process of setting up in North and South America, as well as mainland Europe.”

One such experiment where SmartWater was handed out was the Munster Road area of Fulham. Local police officers credited the technology with nearly halving burglaries in the area.

Most recently, the trust issued SmartWater to 500 homes in the London Borough of Bexley which led, officers have confirmed, to a 75 per cent reduction in burglaries. Of 13 burglaries that were committed in the area during the first nine months of the project, only two were in houses bearing the SmartWater signs, and nothing was taken from either property.

Harrow Council has recently passed plans to roll out bottles to 85,000 homes which, SmartWater believes, will lead to further projects in London with local councils.