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Finding Stolen Vehicles

Written by Tim Dees

Some cops seem to have a knack for it, but finding stolen vehicles is, for most of us, a matter of luck. Something catches an officer’s eye, and he runs a randomly selected plate over the radio or MDT, and one more car gets recovered. Watching for that one particular car is that much more difficult, especially considering that most officers already have a lot on their plates, anyway.

Imagine trying to watch for a particular vehicle to go by on the freeways of Los Angeles, where 22,000 cars can pass by you in an hour. A new system in experimental use by the Los Angeles Police Department can handle all that and more, and watch in both directions at the same time.

This new product, called simply the License Plate Reading (LPR) system, is a product of Elsag, an Italian company that has formed a partnership with Remington Arms in the US. The partnership is called Remington Elsag Law Enforcement Systems. The system consists of micro digital cameras that mount into the existing light bar system of a patrol car, and a trunk-mounted processing unit.

There is also a portable option where the cameras attach to the roof of the car with magnetic clips. The cameras scan vehicles moving in both directions past the cameras. Software within the unit locates the license plate of each vehicle, translates it into machine-readable form, and compares each license plate number against a hot list of vehicles of interest.

License plate numbers can be placed on the hot list for whatever reason the user desires—stolen vehicles, vehicles used in crimes, or those belonging to parking scofflaws. The system will work in stationary or in moving mode, in all types of weather, and even at night using infrared flash technology. If a license plate matching one on the hot list is identified, the system sends an alarm to the user.

The system can run unattended, if desired, transmitting alarms to a base station and downloading updates to the database. The system will also work in a “collection” mode, where license plates scanned by the cameras are recorded to a database.

In a mobile application, LPR is optimized to work at a patrol speed of 35 miles per hour. As a fixed system, LPR can recognize 95% of the license plates moving past the cameras at up to 75 miles per hour. The systems aren’t cheap, at about $20,000 to $30,000 per copy, but large jurisdictions may be able to get assistance with funding from auto insurance companies and tow services, both of which profit from the quick recovery of stolen vehicles.

In Europe, where the technology is used widely, police use LPR not only to locate stolen vehicles, but also to locate persons wanted on traffic warrants and tax evasion violations.

The Ohio State Highway Patrol ran a four-month test in 2004, using LPR to scan vehicles on the Ohio Turnpike. Troopers recovered 24 stolen vehicles worth $221,000, and arrested 23 suspects, which represented a 50% increase in recovery and arrest rates.

Communities that are under pressure to account for traffic stops made on the basis of “profiles” can profit from a system like this, as it removes the issue of bias from the equation. LPR doesn’t alert officers on the basis of race, make or customization of vehicle, or the area of town where it operates. If a license plate that it recognizes shows up on its hot list, the operator is alerted, plain and simple.

During the 2004 Christmas season, LAPD officers used the system to scan cars parked in the lot of a busy shopping mall. The system alerted officers to a Pontiac that had been reported stolen. The car contained a 21-year-old woman, who was taken into custody. While officers were still on scene, a second woman, laden with packages, approached the car. She was also arrested, after it was learned that the merchandise in her possession was stolen and the women were part of a larger shoplifting operation.

Digital PhishNet

“Phishing” (pronounced like “fishing”) is a time-honored practice of Internet delinquents who seek to covertly acquire confidential information, usually for criminal purposes. The typical method is to send the unwary mark an e-mail message that appears to be from a legitimate institution, such as a bank or a retail operation.

The message often contains a warning that the mark’s account has been compromised, and that they should log in to the institution’s web site to verify and update their account information. A convenient hyperlink is provided for their use.

When the victim clicks on this hyperlink, they are not taken to the web site of the legitimate bank or merchant, but rather to a phony site that has been made to look like that of the bank or merchant. The user dutifully logs in, using their user name and password, and may be asked to supply other sensitive information, such as their social security number, account number, date of birth, and so on.

All of this is recorded by the crooks who use that information to gain access to the victim’s accounts or commit some other act of identity theft.

This is an extremely cost-effective way to gather information. Sending out a mass e-mailing costs next to nothing, and all it takes is a couple of people to take the bait in order to reap a profit. The web sites are often located on servers in foreign countries, making it difficult to serve legal process on them to pursue an investigation.

Software solutions are available and as are other precautions that users can take to avoid being scammed by a phishing site, but one of the more practical resources for both law enforcement and institutions is DigitalPhishNet.org, a joint initiative between industry and law enforcement. Membership is screened and is restricted to persons and organizations actively involved in reducing phishing attacks. More information can be had by logging on to their web site.

Tim Dees is a former police officer who writes and consults about applications of technology in law enforcement. He can be reached at (509) 585-6704 or by e-mail at tim@timdees.com. Photos are courtesy of Remington Arms and Tim Dees.


Published in Law and Order, Mar 2005

Rating : Not Yet Rated


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