Like a latter-day Fagin, east Londoner Ali Lwanga was always careful to keep a distance from his crimes. For a series of cashbox heists across the capital, Lwanga hired and coached children, some as young as 14, to rush the security guards, grab the box and make their getaway, while he watched from a little way off. His haul was $200,000 in just a few months, and Lwanga thought his only problem was laundering the cash. In fact, the police were already on to him; they just couldn't prove it. Until, that is, he was picked up with banknotes and clothing that under ultraviolet (UV) light glowed green with splashes of SmartWater, a forensic marking liquid sprayed by a device fitted to four of the cashboxes. In September Lwanga was sentenced to eight years in prison.
Property-marking systems are fairly common, but few are robust enough to link a suspect to both the booty and the crime scene. Indelible but normally invisible, SmartWater can be painted onto valuable items or rigged as a spray to tag thieves or intruders. And because each bottle contains a unique permutation of up to 30 chemical compounds, any trace of it can be incontrovertibly matched to an ownership database as well as to the time and place of a recorded crime.
Lwanga is the biggest catch among the 500 or so court convictions SmartWater says it has secured so far a fairly modest number for a company that has been around since 1995. But that's not counting those who simply come clean when the UV light finds them out, says former police detective Phil Cleary, SmartWater's co-founder and ceo. In any case, he says: "We are not a thief-catching company or a property-recovery company; we're selling a deterrent."
That's a line Britain's police forces, 95% of which are now equipped to scan suspects for traces of SmartWater, are buying. Cleary insists, however, that the technology is only a small part of what makes SmartWater work to reduce crime. "It's a policing strategy and a brand-development strategy," he says, brandishing a hefty blue file that lays out the step-by-step program police and allied agencies must adopt in order to achieve the 40% to 50% drop in burglary rates SmartWater says it can attain.
Step one is to target an area where homes, schools or other premises suffer high burglary rates. Next, residents are given marking kits, paid for either by the company or out of government funds. Windows and street furniture in the area are then plastered with the SmartWater logo and the local media are roped in to help wage psychological warfare on local villains typically, police will rig out a bait car with a spray to secure a headline conviction and make it known they will routinely scan suspects arrested for any reason. Last December, police in Peterborough sent greeting cards to convicted thieves to let them know that their next crime could leave them "glowing like a Christmas tree."
In all, 400,000 homes and 50,000 small businesses in the U.K. have used SmartWater. But having built its "umbrella" of technology, police enforcement and brand awareness on a not-for-profit basis, the Telford, western England, company is now courting larger firms for tailored approaches that it says will double its 2008 turnover to more than $9 million. While home coding kits retail at only $90, commercial coverage, which comes with a license to badge a company's products and premises with the SmartWater logo, can range from $4,000 up to six figures a year. Big-name clients include insurers Allianz, several high street retailers, and utility giants like Scottish Power and United Utilities, which use it to protect their stockyards.
In SmartWater's first foray outside Britain, police in Tallahassee, Florida conducted an 11-month field trial that resulted in a 33% drop in thefts. Project coordinator Greg Frost of the Tallahassee police was guardedly impressed, but wonders if other social factors were at work. "We were more actively engaged with the local crime-watch associations, for example," he says. "Maybe the neighbors were more effective at looking out for each other."
Yet simple faith in neighborliness was insufficient even for the Church of England, whose insurers Ecclesiastical have now issued SmartWater kits to 16,500 churches. Last year churches were stripped of $18 million-worth of lead roofing, lightning rods and even bells. "If thieves know about it and they do already they will think twice about targeting churches," says Ecclesiastical spokesman Chris Pitt. That's the kind of thinking SmartWater is convinced more secular enterprises will embrace.