Tuesday, 25 November 2014 00:00

Industry Looks to Plant DNA to Solve Scrap Metal Theft

Mitchell Miller, director of communications at Applied DNA Sciences


The thievery of aluminum, copper, and other scrap metals continues to haunt all corners of the international auto industry, despite a steady decline in prices since its peak in 2008 (nearly $500 a ton).  

Michael Cavanaugh, owner of J&D Auto Salvage in West Warwick, RI, is all too familiar with scrap metal scandals.

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“We used to have a list on a pad, and we could pick and choose which cars we were going to get, and which ones we’d send to the town over. Our truck would always come back with three to four cars a day. It never came back empty,” said Cavanaugh. “Now, for the past year, year-and-a-half, we’re lucky if we get three to four cars a week. It’s slim pickins’ now that everything has been scrapped.”

Cavanaugh blames unlicensed scrap metal yards for his decline in business. He said that he and his wife have contacted the Rhode Island Department of Business Regulation about the issue.

“I have emails going back to 2009,” said Cavanaugh. “The position that deals with these types of issues was left unfilled for 10 months, so the department said they would keep my complaints in a folder until they hired someone, but even when they did, I never heard back.”

“I understand [Cavanaugh's] frustration that there are unlicensed people out there. That’s why, give us more tips,” said Maria D’Alessandro – the Deputy Director of Securities, Commercial Licensing, and Racing and Athletics at the Rhode Island DBR- in an article written by wpri.com reporter Tim White. “We are acting on these tips.”

Autobody News contacted the DBR for comment, but never heard back.

Cavanaugh has noticed a change outside his auto salvage yard as well.

“When you used to drive through a neighborhood, there would be junk cars in everyone’s yard,” he said. “Now there’s not a car to be found- your car breaks down on the side of the highway, after no more than a day somebody comes and grabs it for scrap.”

Body shops have also felt the pain of scrap metal theft. Travis Dowling of Great Plains Auto Body in Nebraska said their shop on Emmet Street has been robbed three times.

“The burglars sliced through cables, torched the key hole on one side of the building, and then cut the pad locks on the containers where the scrap metal is kept,” said Dowling. “Luckily, they stole the older scraps- aluminum hoods, containers and condensers – and not the newer ones that are worth more.”

After the third break-in, Dowling contacted authorities, and the property now has constant police surveillance after hours and on weekends.

“It’s time-consuming and costly to have to replace the locks, chains, and make 12 new keys for the employees,” he added.

Also in Nebraska, a man was arrested for stealing wheel rims from Ron’s Body Shop and scrap metal from Precise Fabrication and T.O. Haas Tired Company back in 2012. Rhory M. Ivy became a suspect after police found a receipt from Beatrice Scrap yard stating that he brought in 2,800 lbs of scrap metal, which is worth about $554, according to reports by the Beatrice Daily Sun. Authorities were then able to trace the scrap metal back to the three locations.

At a body shop in Elizabeth, N.J., five male burglars tied up patrons and employees before pursuing catalytic converters and cash in April 2014. No injuries were reported, according to ABC Eyewitness News, New York.

Unassuming vehicle owners have also experienced the aftershock of these crimes. Five catalytic converters were cut off of vehicles parked in Silver Lake, Los Angeles during a span of one week in June 2014, according to an article by eastsiderla.com. Police stated that on average, there is about one catalytic converter theft per week.  A Silver Lake resident reported that his Honda Element sounded like a “jet engine” when he turned it on in the morning after parking in the street. Sure enough, the catalytic converter had been severed off.  

“Cat-Clamps” have become a popular solution, since most car alarms do not react to this type of intrusion because windows or doors are not being accessed.

Another alternative to stopping scrap metal theft has “taken off” in the UK and other parts of Europe, and is making its way to America’s shores.

Applied DNA Sciences, a biotech company in Stony Brook, NY, has found a way to synthesize plant DNA into, well, anything, and then track the object from there.

SigNature DNA in visible light vs. UV light

Mitchell Miller, director of communications at Applied DNA Sciences


“There are so many applications, it’s almost a problem,” said Tony Benson, managing director of ADNAS, who is based in London. “You dream it and it's there, I don’t think we've found anything we can't apply it to, it's that flexible.”

The product, called SigNature DNA, has a complex characteristic, which allows for the endless possibilities.

“The fluorophore within the product or liquid glows bright red under UV light, but cannot be seen at all under normal conditions,” said Benson. “Law enforcement is aware of this, so when they scan an item with a UV light and it turns red, they know it is one of our products and from there we can track where it came from and who stole it.”

The product was initially developed to combat the rising number of armored car attacks in England. In 2006, there were 1,006 attacks on armored cars driving to and from banks with cash. The first deterrent – an ink spray that was released when the robber opened a cash box – didn’t stop them, according to Benson.

“They would just wash the ink off the cash,” he said. “But once the plant DNA was synthesized into the cash boxes in 2008, attacks dropped by 75 percent – close to 100 criminals have been put away with a combined sentence of 500 years, thanks to DNA technology.”

Today, car dealerships, body shops, insurers, vehicle manufactures, boat owners, electrical and railroad companies, and even homeowners in Europe use DNA technology to target scrap metal theft.

“A car dealer can use the kit we sell on the interior of their car, like in the leather seats for example, or on the underbody,” added Benson And the improvement is monumental. “We have seen an 85 percent reduction in crime in areas where we’ve applied the DNA to copper and other scrap metals,” said Benson.

Benson feels that getting the word out about this product will help prevent crime from happening in the first place, which is the ultimate goal.

“Criminals understand DNA, they all watch CSI, and they know they'd be in trouble if they got caught with that, so it's a fantastic deterrence.”

Another popular product created by Applied DNA Sciences is SmokeCloak® DNA.

“As soon as someone enters a building after hours, the fog triggers, and fills the whole place,” said Benson. “You can’t see your hand in front of you. It’s like you’re at a pop concert.”

“I’ve experienced it – and you literally don’t know where you are – it’s like you’re in a plane upside down,” added Mitchell Miller, director of communications at ADNAS.

The fog is filled with: you guessed it, DNA molecules that stick to the trespassers’ clothes, hair, and skin, and can fill warehouses that are 200,000 sq ft or bigger.

“Europeans understand it and get what it does, and it’s starting to get traction in the US,” added Benson. “In fact, it could be bigger in the US – the main thing is, it works – people love it, insurers love it, car dealerships love it.”

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