An invisible coating has become the latest weapon in the war against metal thieves who have targeted utilities, transportation and communications facilities as well as hospitals and churches throughout the UK.
SmartWater, by SmartWater Technology Ltd., is a sophisticated forensic marking liquid that is unique to a particular location. The paint is designed to "tag" metal thieves after they touch it. The paint stays on the skin for 60 days and helps police trace the thief, as well as any stolen materials, back to the scene of the crime, the company says.
The company calls SmartWater almost impossible to remove and says it has been independently tested to withstand burning. It is also resistant to direct exposure to sunlight and is unaffected by bleaching and other household chemicals, according to the company.
The company coordinates the product’s use with police and other crime agencies, making it “one of the most powerful criminal deterrents available,” the company says.
UK communications giant BT announced Monday that it was joining SmartWater’s growing list of clients. The company’s Metal Theft Taskforce said SmartWater would be used to coat cable, along with tools and other equipment. Trap devices that can spray thieves directly will also be deployed.
“From now on, any criminal who targets the BT network risks being invisibly ‘tagged’ with SmartWater, meaning that the police can trace them, and any stolen cable or equipment, back to the scene of the crime,” said Bernie Auguste, head of security for BT Openreach.
BT said attacks on its networks had increased by 9% last year, costing the company millions of pounds.
Other clients of SmartWater, founded in 1996, include British Airways, G4S, Woolworths, Comet, Waitrose, Scottish Power and United Utilities.
In May, Network Rail announced that it would use SmartWater as well. Theft of railway cables has become a significant cause of disruption to train services.
The thefts are being driven soaring prices worldwide in the price of copper, lead and other non-ferrous metals. Beyond the property loss, sites have been damaged, and phone and power lines have been cut, causing service outages.
Gangs posing as engineers, contractors or road crews have been targeting copper cables, railcar connections, telephone wires, lead from roofs, and other materials. They frequently attack underground infrastructure through manholes.
Metal theft costs UK firms is about 770 million euros (nearly $1 billion US) per year, according to reports. The problem has become so severe that UK authorities established a National Metal Theft Crime Unit in 2009, run by the Association of Chief Police Officers and British Transport Police and jointly funded by the Home Office and the Energy Networks Association.
"On the railways, we have seen significant delays and cancellations as a result of thieves cutting and taking signalling and power cables from the side of the track," said DCC Paul Crowther, a senior official with the unit.