Engraving Property Worth Effort Driver's License Number Etched on Gear Deters Thieves
By Shannon Tompkins / Copyright 2005 Houston Chronicle
An acquaintance had his favorite shotgun stolen in the 1970s. Worn to a nub by a particularly physical day of duck hunting, he was too tired to clean and stow his gear and decided to leave the cased firearm along with all his other waterfowling stuff in the back of his pickup. The truck had a topper on the bed, and he locked the thing. Plus, it was in his driveway. He figured it was safe until morning. He was wrong. When the local police came to make a report on the crime, they asked for descriptions and serial numbers of the property taken. The victim had no idea of the serial number on the shotgun.
More than 20 years later, he received a phone call from police in San Antonio, 200 miles from his home in eastern Harris County. The San Antonio police had his shotgun; it was recovered during investigation of some criminal enterprise. They wanted to get it back to him. "I asked them how they knew it was mine, and how they found me," he said. "They said they'd used the driver's license number they'd found on the gun."
The friend went on to explain that he had used tools at the machine shop his family owned to etch his Texas driver's license number on the gun's magazine and receiver. He had forgotten about it until that phone call more than two decades later.
More victims of theft would get pleasant surprises like that, or they might avoid having property stolen, if they would take the time to do what that acquaintance did, said Sgt. Dennis Slate of the Houston Police Department's burglary and theft division.
Practice Helps Recovery
Using an electric engraver to etch the owner's driver's license number on property "is probably one of the most important tools for recovering stolen property as well as (theft) prevention," Slate said. Slate noted that most people don't record the serial numbers of their property. And even if someone did have the serial numbers for their stolen firearm, outboard motor, all-terrain vehicle or other piece of outdoors gear, it's often tough for law enforcement officers to quickly and effectively check those numbers.
Because serial numbers for items such as boats, ATV and other property are not compatible with the vehicle identification number (VIN) used for motor vehicles (they aren't the same number or numerals and letters), those serial numbers can't be integrated into a nationwide database of stolen property.
When a law enforcement officer encounters a firearm, outboard or even a chain saw or other costly piece of property, there is no easy way to check the serial number to see if the item has been reported stolen. But any patrol officer in any state can easily and quickly check a driver's license number, Slate said. If an officer stops a vehicle carrying an ATV and sees a driver's license number etched on the ATV's fender or engine, the officer can check that number and see if it jibes with the person in possession of the property.
Also, Slate notes, a driver's license number stays with a person, even if that person moves. Using that number, officers can find a person's current address and get stolen property back to them; that's how the San Antonio police found my friend 20-plus years and a half-dozen moves after his shotgun was swiped. The trick, Slate said, is to engrave that driver's license number — no other number, and certainly not a Social Security number — on outdoors gear. And don't put it in just one hidden spot. Engrave the number in an easy-to-see spot, then put it in a not-so-obvious place. That serves two purposes, Slate said. An officer can see the obvious driver's license number at a glance and check it.
Also, having property obviously marked creates problems for thieves, Slate said. Most thieves steal stuff to sell. A lot of them try to sell that stolen property to pawn shops, which are not keen on taking items marked with driver's license numbers. And if a number has been erased or otherwise obscured, that's pretty much a giveaway that something's not kosher. Police regularly check pawnshops and run checks on items marked with driver's license numbers, Slate said. If those items come back as stolen, the pawnshop owner is out the money he paid for the item, and the thief who pawned it is more easily run to ground.
If a thief sees something is marked, he's less likely to take it because he knows it'll be harder to sell and could get him caught. And if the equipment is stolen, having it marked could help prevent further thefts.
Creatures of Habit
Thieves have a habit of striking a location more than once, Slate said. If they break into a boat stall and get an outboard, they know the owner will replace it with a new one, he said. And that can be stolen, too. "If they had previously broken in and took an item that was marked and did not notice it was marked until they got home, they now know the owner of the location marks his/her property and (thieves) usually avoid hitting that place again," Slate said. Electric engraving tools can be purchased for as little as $25, with the best models going for less than $100.
Engraving a driver's license number on an item takes a couple of minutes. It's worth the effort — even if it sometimes takes 20 years to prove that point.
Shannon Tompkins Jan. 7, 2005