Feb. 14, 2011 at 3:31 PM ET
Thieves may be finding it more difficult to pawn off stolen goods, thanks to new technologies that can put invisible marks on everything from copper wire to flat-screen TVs. Two British companies at the forefront of the technology, Selectamark Security Systems and SmartWater Technology, were recently profiled by PhysOrg.com and The Economist.
The companies liken the technology to uniquely identifiable synthetic DNA that is permanently attached to goods. The microscopic markings can help scrap dealers, pawn shops and cops determine if the loot under consideration is stolen — and, if so, from where.
Microdots and adhesive
SelectaMark's technology is called SelectaDNA. It's a nearly impossible-to-remove transparent adhesive embedded with nickel alloy or polyester microdots (see image above) that contain a unique code and phone number. The information glows in ultraviolet light and can be read under a microscope.
Each batch of adhesive also has a unique marking. The code is stored along with customer details in a database. That way, even a tiny bit of adhesive can be used to identify the rightful owner of the object. A "home kit" costs about $80 (50 British pounds)
Rare earth combo
SmartWater's concept is similar: a transparent adhesive with celluloid microdots imprinted with a code that identifies the owner and the company's telephone number. This too is legible under a microscope.
In addition, SmartWater adds a unique combination of 30 rare-earth materials to the adhesive that can be used to identify an object even if the adhesive coating has been burned off, according to reports. This combo is a bit harder to decode, but a suspect batch of wire, for example, can be sent to SmartWater for lab analysis. The system is sold on an annual subscription basis, at a cost ranging from $38 (24 British pounds) for a scooter to $135 (84 pounds) for a five-bedroom home.
Both companies also sell spray-can kits that can be placed over a door or cash register, for example, and could be triggered by a motion detector or a shop owner. The spray leaves an identifiable marking on the thief's skin and clothing that lasts for days.
"The spray lodges in pores and creases in the skin, as well as nostrils, available to the swab of a curious police officer and branding the thief as effectively as his own DNA would, had he been careless enough to leave any at the scene of the crime," The Economist notes.
These technologies join other high-tech anti-theft devices such as the unique fingerprints for product tracking made by Nintendo subsidiary Siras.com in Redmond, Wash., which clamps down on warranty fraud.
More stories about anti-theft technologies:
John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by hitting the "like" button on the Cosmic Log Facebook page or following msnbc.com's science editor, Alan Boyle, on Twitter (@b0yle).