Every year more than 12 000 recovered but unidentified vehicles, worth around R1-billion, are destroyed by the South African Police Service (SAPS).
These stolen vehicles could have been returned to their legal owners, had it been possible to identify them, says Business Against Crime South Africa (BACSA) violent organised crime workgroup project manager Fouché Burgers.
“Traditionally, a vehicle is identified through its vehicle identification number (VIN), and/or chassis number. However, given the illicit market for stolen vehicles and parts, this number is easily filed off and changed. This allows stolen or hijacked vehicles to be relicensed under a new identity, or the parts to be sold, or the vehicle to be exported,” explains Burgers.
“Currently 50% of stolen and hijacked vehicles are relicensed in the country, [ending up] back on our roads, 30% are chopped up and sold for parts, and 20% are exported to neighbouring countries.”
However, now there is a new technology available on the market that could change this picture, notes Burgers.
Microdot technology sees around 10 000 to 15 000 one millimetre by one millimetre dots being applied, using an ultraviolet adhesive, to a vehicle on 88 different spots. These microdots – think of it as DNA – carry a microscopic 17-digit laser-etched VIN or personal identification number to identify the vehicle and, by implication, its owner, This number is visible only under a ultraviolet light and by using a magnifying lens.
The beauty of this technology, explains Burgers, is that car thieves are never able to remove all 10 000 dots.
“They can remove 9 999 dots, but we only need one to remain to legally identify that vehicle as stolen.”
Some vehicle manufacturers in South Africa are already applying microdots to their vehicles as a matter of standard procedure. Nissan South Africa, for example, apply it to all its vehicles leaving the Rosslyn plant, near Pretoria.
BACSA violent organised crime project manager Lorinda Nel explains that microdots are different from tracking devices in that the latter are used to recover a vehicle. In contrast to this, microdots are used to identify vehicles once they are stolen. This creates evidence of theft. Also, should one microdot fall from a vehicle in a chop shop, for example, it could link those premises to stolen vehicles.
BUT DOES IT REALLY WORK?
Is it really impossible to remove all 10 000 dots?
The proof is in the pudding, says Burgers, which is why BACSA, the SAPS and South Africa's four microdot suppliers earlier this week tested the technology at a military base outside Kroonstad, in the Free State.
A Nissan Almera was loaded with 20 kg of high explosives and detonated at 7 800 metres a second, with a resultant heat of around 3 000 ˚C.
“All we needed was one microdot to survive the blast,” says Burgers.
Luckily, more than one showed its mettle, with microdots from all four suppliers found to be still intact after the explosion.
“[The] test proves without doubt the resilience and value of this technology in the fight against crime.
“What the test has confirmed is that once a vehicle is wholly marked with the microdot technology, the unique identity of that vehicle is practically unchangeable,” explains Burgers.
“As the indelible fingerprint of a vehicle and all its parts, the microdotting of vehicles helps to close down the loopholes which allowed criminals and syndicates to previously conceal a vehicle's identity.”
Burgers says he would like to see all vehicles in South Africa, new and used, being microdotted.
However, currently, only around 400 000 vehicles carry microdots, out of a roughly 8,5-million vehicle parc.