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Microdots to be used in fight against car crime

18 December 2006

Tiny microdots about to be deployed in nationwide fight against growing tide of organised car crime

Tiny micro dots, like those used by spies in World War Two and the Cold War, are about to be deployed nationwide to help fight organised car crime which sees about 20 vehicles permanently disappear every day in New Zealand.

Latest police annual crime figures show 24,089 cars were stolen in 2005, up 15.5% on the previous year. Only 20%, or 4832 of these theft cases were resolved by Police. In New Plymouth, home of the Minister of Transport Security Harry Duynhoven, responsible for his Ministry's vehicle security work, vehicle taking, conversion and theft went up 28.8% last year.

Car theft is now the nation's second biggest reported crime, costing about $130 million a year and driving up insurance premiums.

About one in every four of the cars stolen, about 8000 a year, is never seen again.

They have been what police call "ringed" by professional car thieves. They are broken into parts for resale.

In a vehicle crime fighting strategy published by Counties Manukau District Commander and Commissioner Ted Cox this year, police say the organised car crime professionals are driven by potentially large financial gains.

The report says the theft, disguise and discrete disposal of large numbers of motor vehicles "requires high levels of organisation and sophistication."

Car ringing is run by gangs and also "practised inside legitimate business premises and on private premises by a wide cross section of the community. In all cases the driving indicator is money and the activator is the low risk of being detected by the police."

Police districts have been preparing local strategies to fight car crime.

Now a new national one is expected to be implemented, but the timing is not known.

It will implement a national vehicle crime reduction strategy announced by then Justice Minister Phil Goff on January 12, 2005.

Among a raft of measures, the Cabinet decided to introduce whole of vehicle marking (WOVM). Mr Goff said then he expected it to be in place in 18 months.

Twenty three months later, there is some concern now that the country is missing out on major benefits of cutting vehicle theft while officials take time to complete their work.

The Ministry of Transport's vehicle security division has been working on preparing the standards for the WOVM system which will be implemented after publication of a gazette notice.

WOVM will see cars sprayed with thousands of tiny microdots, like those used by spies in the last world war and cold war, each carrying the unique vehicle identification number (VIN) of each car.

As Mr Goff said in 2005:

"Professional car crime usually involves taking a Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) from a deregistered car and putting it on a stolen vehicle of similar make, to give it a supposedly legitimate identity for re-sale.

"WOVM involves placing the VIN on all parts of a car – mostly commonly by applying several thousand microdots that are only visible through a mini viewer and are almost impossible to remove. This makes it extremely hard to change the car's identity, and significantly increases the risk of detection for an offender trying to sell stolen vehicles or car parts.

"This has proven a strong deterrent to professional criminals in countries where it has been introduced. For example, since their September 2001 introduction in Australia, the theft rate of marked BMWs and Holdens has been 60 per cent and 73 per cent less respectively than the unmarked equivalents.

"According to Subaru New Zealand, the marked Subaru range has not seen one theft here since its March 2003 introduction."

On Subarus in Australia, the unrecovered theft rate initially fell four years ago by 93% and has stayed much that way since.

The Managing Director of DataDot Technology (DDT) in New Zealand, David Lumsden, says the tiny micro-dots will help deal a major body blow to organised car crime here.

DataDot's microdots, called DataDotDNA, employ a patented adhesive and because there are over 7,000 per vehicle it is almost impossible to detect them all.

DataDot Technology plans to set up a new robotic process to apply its DataDotDNA product to cars in New Zealand, and at car assembly plants overseas.

Mr Lumsden says, on a 10 year vehicle life, the cost of microdot protection will be less than $5 a year. This accurate estimate is based on spraying over 7,000 dots to each vehicle at import centres, and will be reduced further when DataDot deploys its robotic application process, now undergoing final feasibility tests in Australia. The robots will spray a car in just 40 seconds, further reducing application costs.

"The country will enjoy a massive pay back in terms of lower theft rates, which will flow on to lower insurance premiums. One of the major benefits will be more effective policing and a reduction in police time spent trying to trace recovered car parts."

He cites a recent case cracked by Constable Phil Savill, of Howick, Auckland. DataDotDNA helped him trace the owner of parts taken from a stolen near-new Holden HSV, worth more than $50,000. The tiny micro-dots, as small as 1mm in diameter, helped him build a successful case against a man involved in car "rebirthing". Thirteen cars were found in various stages of dismantling.

Constable Savill says: "I was faced with a boot lid, four seats and a set of wheels that may have belonged to the same stolen car, but with no apparent way of proving it.

"Without the dots, there is no way I could have proved the parts were from a stolen car, much less returned the items to the owner."

Proving some of the parts were from the stolen Holden helped him achieve the conviction and jailing of the professional car thief.

Meantime, he says police have "rooms full of car parts and other stolen items which we cannot return to their rightful owners because there is no unique marking on them. With microdots, those items would have been back with their owners within a day."

Mr Lumsden says organised car crime rings in Australia have also been stealing cars to help fund terrorist groups in the Middle East. Cases are now going through the Australian courts.

Australasian Police Ministers, including New Zealand's Annette King, discussed WOVM as an anti-terrorism weapon at their November meeting in Australia this year. They endorsed the principle of WOVM and recommended the Transport Ministers' Council implement the endorsement.

Mr Lumsden says the European Union, South Africa, Taiwan, and other countries are now also investigating the compulsory introduction of WOVM.

New Zealand was in a position to lead the world in the adoption of WOVM standards, already highly developed by Australia's national Vehicle Theft Reduction Council.

The exact start date for WOVM here has not yet been announced. Mr Lumsden says Mr Duynhoven has told his company that significant work has been undertaken by the Ministry of Transport to scope the compliance and certification issues and costs involved with WOVM.

"We would hope that work is all completed very soon. Cost effectiveness modeling done in other countries shows the tiny dots will achieve a national payback within a little as about three years."

Already motorcycle and boat owners here are being offered insurance premium reductions of up to 10% and are having excesses waived when they make claims, if their property is protected by DataDotDNA.

Federated Farmers in November also launched a campaign to have a million dots applied to farm property nationwide in a bid to deter rural crime, which sees six in every 10 farmers call for police help over a five year period, 29% of them plagued by equipment theft, three out of every 10 twice or more.

"For victims of car crime and the police, the day when organised car crime gangs meet the microdot can't come soon enough," Mr Lumsden says.


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