'Connecting the dots to reduce crime:' how a Cold War-era spy trick could help police solve thefts

Staff writer

Smaller than the period at the end of this sentence, a technology with pre-World War II roots has come back to the fore in the fight against opportunistic crime in Virginia.

Tuesday morning, the York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office announced they’d partnered with Protech DNA, a Miami company, and the Paul Clegg Agency of Farmers Insurance to provide traceable, serialized microdots to put on possessions to anyone who wants them.

“It’s another way for people to have records of their belongings,” Clegg said.

As an insurance agent, Clegg said he sees claims during natural disasters, storms and crimes. Personal property manifests help people file claims with their insurance companies and get all the money they’re owed. The Protech DNA microdots are another tool to help with that.

The microdots are tiny pieces of nickel chemically etched with a unique number, and they’re smaller than an individual piece of glitter, according to Protech DNA president Shawn Andreas.

The Protech DNA microdots are just the latest iteration of technology best known for its use in professional skullduggery during the Cold War.

Microdots were often used to relay messages between spies or intelligence assets.

Now they’re used to track personal property in a clandestine manner — Protech DNA provided the sheriff’s office with special lighting equipment to identify the near-invisible microdots and special cameras and lenses to read them, Andreas said.

Those who sign up for the program can catalog their possessions with the microdots in a cloud-based database in case they’re ever stolen or destroyed.

Protech DNA cross-references items reported as stolen with pawn shop transactions across the country, Andreas said. That’s all done with the hope that stolen or lost belongings will find their way back to their owners.

The company offers the first packet of microdots for about $6 after shipping and handling, Andreas said. About $1.50 of that will go to the sheriff’s office to offset the cost of equipment if and when it breaks. Additional packets of the microdots will cost about $13 after an insurance rebate.

More than 500 people have already signed up for the program in York County alone, Sheriff Danny Diggs said. The sheriff’s office is the first in the state to offer the microdots as a criminal deterrent.

When people sign up, they’ll receive a package about the size of a ketchup packet filled with more than 4,000 microdots suspended in adhesive, Andreas said.

With a cotton swab in hand, Andreas showed how a thin layer of the microdots could be placed on as many as 100 personal possessions.

One packet of the microdots can be applied to just about anything — car engines, boats, guns, jewelry and anything else that will remain cooler than 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit, Andreas said.

The best part, Andreas said, is more than 5,000 law enforcement agencies across the country have implemented the system to track possessions, increasing the chance something lost or stolen could be returned.

“It’s connecting the dots to reduce crime,” Andreas said.

For more information, call the York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office at 757-890-3630 or visit bit.ly/protechdna.

Roberts can be reached at 757-604-1329, by email at srobertsjr@vagazette.com and on Twitter @SPRobertsJr.

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