Tech Q&A: Detective Rich Milburn (ret.) of SIRAS P.I.
SIRAS P.I. is used by agencies as large as the NYPD and FBI, as well as rural jurisdictions throughout the nation
In 2006, SIRAS was approached by the Mesa, (Ariz.) Police Department to assist them in tracking products to help determine if they had been stolen (and from where) to help determine ownership – a key piece of information in prosecuting property crime. As a result of this collaboration, SIRAS Product Information was developed. This technology allows law enforcement professionals to conduct real-time serial number searches — free of charge — of a database that contains the serial numbers and sales histories of more than ten million products.
The technology is an outgrowth of SIRAS’s POS Electronic Registration Program, a system used by many consumer electronics retailers and manufacturers that creates a unique identifier for products at the point of sale, thus creating a sales history for every product registered. Originally, it was designed to help retailers and manufacturers validate the eligibility of product returns — helping them manage their return and warranty policies. The database where this information is stored has been registering products for more than 10 years.
SIRAS employs the combination of a product’s UPC number with its serial number to establish a unique “fingerprint” for each individual product. When a product’s unique identifier is scanned, either manually or via RFID, the information is transmitted to SIRAS’ database, where it is stored with the retailer’s transaction information. To protect the privacy of the consumer, SIRAS logs transaction data without recording any customer information.
Currently, SIRAS works with manufacturers and retailers of major consumer electronics products, lawn and garden equipment, and an increasing number of other products. The company has plans to expand to more product categories moving forward — any product that is or can be serialized can be tracked using SIRAS’s Electronic Registration technology.
How did SIRAS P.I. become a law enforcement tool? To find out, PoliceOne recently caught up with Rich Milburn, who served as a detective specializing in property crimes, pawnshops, and retail crime during his time with the Mesa Police Department. Milburn now works for SIRAS and travels extensively to help get departments up to speed on the technology. What follows is a summary of that discussion.
PoliceOne: How do police officers and departments access the information in the SIRAS database?
Rich Milburn: Once the department/agency is registered and secure login info/passwords provided, users can access through the company’s online portal or via a toll-free number to an automated Voice Response Unit (VRU). Officers then input (or speak) a serial number and they receive a complete sales history of the product.
P1: How many departments are using SIRAS P.I. at present? What departments are about to come online?
Milburn: Currently, more than 1700 federal, state, and local police agencies nationwide are registered to use SIRAS P.I. and we are aggressively expanding that number. The broader our reach, the more valuable this tool will be. SIRAS P.I. has proven an effective resource for detectives investigating property crimes, identity theft, and organized retail crimes, among others.
SIRAS P.I. is used throughout the nation by departments as large as the NYPD and departments in Los Angeles county, as well as rural jurisdictions in the Midwest and the deep South. Federal agencies including the FBI, Secret Service, and the US Postal Inspection Service use it. All agencies, regardless of size, are eligible to use SIRAS P.I.
P1: How many cases of burglary and/or theft have been closed as a result of SIRAS P.I.?
Milburn: That’s a difficult question to answer accurately, as the only way we have to know is anecdotal information shared with us by police agencies. We want to know about them as they occur, as the more cases we know about, the more we awareness we can generate. We also know these officers are often too busy to let us know.
However, we do know of several cases from Florida to California where SIRAS’s information was used to close the evidence loop against the perps and help deliver convictions. Product recoveries and case values have ranged from low figures to many millions of dollars in complex product switching and identity theft cases.
P1: How have bad guys tried to defeat the SIRAS P.I. system?
Milburn: Common methods so far have included falsified purchase receipts, swapping products in packaging, and ticket-switching. Fortunately, these acts are often detected, and help compound the severity of the crimes during prosecution. Because the SIRAS retains the entire history of an item, there is often a valuable electronic trail tying these acts together.
We’ve found that simply by activating products on the SIRAS Electronic Registration program that theft rates are reduced, so we can infer that thieves (both retailer employees and outside persons) are aware of the program in validating returns – eliminating the quick cash opportunity at the return counter for stolen goods.
What we haven’t yet found, however, is that these retail criminals understand that the database has been made available to law enforcement and retailer loss prevention professionals on a national scale, and that even products purchased (albeit with fraudulent tender) can be tracked and the linked to the transaction – and the transaction linked to the criminal act.
P1: What’s next on the horizon for this technology?
Milburn: The next step for SIRAS’s technology is to increase its base of participating retailers and to expand the number of product categories implementing it.
P1: What question have I failed to ask you that I should have asked?
Milburn: One question yet to be asked is why does SIRAS provide this service for free?
SIRAS offers this service to law enforcement for free for several reasons. First is because it is the right thing to do. While it does cost SIRAS money make this information available, the agencies involved in investigating these crimes and rooting out the perpetrators of these crimes are facing fewer resources because of reduced budgets. Providing this for free is one way we can support their efforts.
It also allows us to provide an important value added service to our participating retail partners. We’ve already seen that the system has facilitated the return of recovered merchandise to the retailer from which it was stolen.
But our efforts are not completely philanthropic. We also know that the more successful SIRAS P.I. is, the more we can us promote the effectiveness of the entire SIRAS POS Electronic Registration program in order to encourage more retailers and manufacturers to sign on.
P1: How can law enforcement sign up?
Milburn: Anyone interested can contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
P1: Thanks Rich. Good luck, and keep us posted on what’s new with SIRAS in the future.