Protect Your Instrument – Theft Prevention

Posted By Colin Froggatt on Jul 22, 2017 |

Musicians invest  more than  money into their instruments.  There is often a long search before  finding  the instrument that suits us, and through all our struggles together, a bond is formed through  physical and emotional investment in a working relationship.  As with all investments we  take precautions to protect them from loss.  Insurance is  wise , but only compensates us for the loss of the  tangible financial aspect of our  instrument.  The problem for musicians is how to secure their intangible assets.  There are two aspects to this problem.  Instruments are stolen, and stolen property is seldom recovered, so we need to discourage theft, and encourage return if stolen.

Criminologists tell us that three  factors must be present for a crime to be committed.  A motivated offender, A high level of opportunity, and a low level of deterrence .  To defeat  the motivated offender we need to reduce the level of opportunity and  to increase the level of deterrence, which is where property marking systems work so well.  Thieves are discouraged from entering buildings or removing property which advertises itself as being security marked.  Such property, if stolen, would be harder to sell and of lesser value.  This deterrent effect seems strong even when the level of opportunity is high.

In 2001,according to the UK Home Office Crime Reduction Unit,  only about 9% of stolen property was  returned to  owners.  A Police spokesman estimates that this figure is now  about 14%, but Police Property Store Managers face a difficult task, with limited storage for increasing quantities of generally untraceable property.  None of this can be retained beyond  twelve months, and the average storage is about  three months.  Security marking systems which positively identify owners, would make it  easier for the Police to return our property as well as aiding in  prosecutions for theft.

As  experts in crime fighting and prevention, and  the most likely agents for the return of our stolen property, the views of the Police on security marking systems must be regarded as authoritative .   “Secured By Design” is a crime prevention initiative by ACPO (the  UK Association of Chief Police Officers), which “focuses on crime prevention at the design, layout and construction stages, and acts as an accreditation body for security marking systems, and while there are many  , only three  systems are currently accredited in the U.K.  It is these  which are described below.   Many of these companies and much of the technology is new and therefore attracting a lot of interest and competition.  I suspect that in a year or two the market will have rationalised into a smaller number of strongly differentiated market leaders.  In the meantime, it is obviously wise to adopt the recommendations of the experts and  to choose a system in whose use, the Police are trained and which they are equipped to detect.   All the systems described are available worldwide, although other systems may have local preference.  It is always wise to check with your local Crime Prevention specialists to ensure that your chosen  system  is supported by your local Police.

All these materials are packaged in small bottles with applicators, rather like mascara bottles, and the quantities dealt with are small.  Tiny dabs are sufficient, usually in undisturbed areas such as inside the pegbox or underneath the fingerboard, so there is little risk of contamination.  If the skin is marked or spillage occurs, the material can be removed with soap and water, although once dry it is not transferable and cannot cause contamination.  Some companies recommend the use of gloves.


This may be familiar as a product supplied by a leading  musical instrument insurance company.   It consists of a chemical trace product,  whose chemical formulation is unique to each customer, combined with a fluorescent marker and a permanent adhesive, so that when applied to rough or porous surfaces, it is difficult to remove all traces.  This can subsequently be detected with ultraviolet light,  although it is necessary to have the sample analysed by Smartwater, who store information on a secure database.  Customers are not charged for this service.   Warning signs and labels are used to advertise  the  presence of security marking.  Smartwater is PH neutral and is described on its Safety Data Sheet as a Non-hazardous water based polymer emulsion containing low level additives.   There is UK nationwide support from the company’s Police Liaison Team who are all highly qualified former Police officers.  There  is also a 3-part crime prevention strategy named S.A.S.  meaning- Standardise, Advertise, Sustain, which aims  for a single operating procedure to identify suspected stolen property, with formal training programmes, thereby removing confusion and making consistent checking of property easier.  The advertising includes T.V. Radio, Press, posters in custody suites, street signs and warning signs in houses, all aimed  at potential thieves.  This strategy is sustained by using Smartwater in Police covert operations, which gain publicity and demoralise thieves, installation of U.V. equipment in custody suites with posters for prisoners.  Also U.V. searchlights to be used in conjunction with search warrants, routine checks at car boot sales, second hand dealers etc.  The Police are also equipped with U.V. key fobs and searchlights.  Smartwater is paid for by annual subscription equivalent to £4.99 per month.


This material makes use of the almost infinite numerical permutations possible when a strand of DNA is sequenced.  In this case the DNA comes from a calf’s thymus, but no biological material is used in the product, only the numerical sequences which result.  This information (or synthetic DNA) which is unique to each customer is encoded into  a water based adhesive which contains a fluorescent marker and thousands of microdots imprinted with the free phone number of the database and the customers unique number.  The presence of SelectaDNA is indicated by U.V. light and the microdots can be read under X100 magnification, positively identifying the owner and linking suspects with crimes.  As with Smartwater, the material may  be regarded as an adhesive with low level additives.  In this case, a water based acrylic-urethane coating, described as non-hazardous and stable.  According to Chris Taylor of Selectamark, “it has been tested by an independent  Forensic lab….on motorbikes for durability in all weather conditions”.   There is also a strong emphasis on deterrence with SelectaDNA being supported by labelling, warning signs, advertising, and active checking for marking by Police .  There is a one-off charge of £49.00 in the U.K. and analysis is free if carried out by the Police or £100. For commercial purposes.  This can take 2 to 3 days.  The technology behind this product is highly secure and is used in approximately 60% of ATM machines in Europe to protect banknotes.


This is the youngest of the three products, although it is already proving to be a useful deterrent and an efficient tool for reuniting crime victims with stolen property.   The basis of this material is  an adhesive containing a fluorescent compound Tinopal OB, which glows red under ultraviolet light alerting Police to the presence  of  coded microparticles, which  links  to a secure database on which the owner is registered .  These microparticles are of a resin type material with 5 coloured layers.  Each particle is about 50 microns in size, 1/20th the diameter of a human hair.  There are millions of encrypted combinations making a code that cannot be cracked or duplicated.  It can however  be read by Police using handheld scanners, so that there is no need for a laboratory or specialist skills to identify the code.   According to Clive Smith of Enigma Tag “ The unique element about Enigma Tag is its ability to literally be read on the spot, and at no additional cost to the Police… In a world where less than 12% of consumers fill in or register their purchases we needed a quick easy idiot proof product that was simple to use and register.”  This makes it  cost effective  and enables property to be returned to owners quickly.  As with all these products it is important to place marks where they will be difficult to remove ,and unobtrusive.  There is also some advantage to marking in more than one location.  The cost of EnigmaTag is £29.99 in the U.K.  All materials are non hazardous and stable, although the UV marker if constantly exposed to direct sunlight can deteriorate after about 7-10 years.  This is probably also  true for the other marking systems.

All of these products are effective and have minimal impact on our instruments.  Using any of them would greatly decrease the risk of loss and increase the possibility of recovery.  However, if you really cannot bear the thought of dabbing even tiny amounts of unremovable glue on to your instrument,  remember that thieves are mainly attracted to untraceable goods, unlike violins which they cannot differentiate or value easily.