Technology: the strong arm of the law?

It’s a long time since the metal trade made the news with such regularity. From the tap-rooms in local pubs all the way up to the Houses of Parliament, the discussion around metal theft has never been so vociferous. Metal theft has become a national issue and Jason Fazackerley discusses how technology is leading the fight to combat it.

Metal theft is quite an unusual topic in that it impacts such diverse sections of the population. From the lead off church roofs, heating pipes from factories and schools, train tracks, sculptures….the list goes on. My local newspaper has reports of metal theft every day. The national press are also on the case and many MPs are lobbying hard for something to be done. Not least, it is a very high priority for the police, especially transport police, and the Environment Agency.

The British Transport Police says that metal worth over £13 million has been stolen from the railways over the last three years. That equates to a staggering 6,000 incidents. But the real cost is not the theft, it’s the impact of the theft, which some estimate to be in the £billions per annum.

A combination of material demand and a country on its uppers can perhaps explain the situation we find ourselves in. Material demand ensures a reasonable price and continued rising unemployment causes a small section of the population to create their own economy, whilst risking imprisonment, and sometimes their lives, in the process.

Some parts of the media take a perspective that I find difficult to understand, not just around metal theft, but around many acts of crime; they have to apportion blame, but it is not on the perpetrator of the crime but another person or company or organisation. So, it’s not the thief who is pilloried. It’s not the magistrates who often allow the punishment to be outweighed by the rewards of the crime. No, it is the British metal traders who are to blame – one and all! Whilst much of society tars them all with the same brush, good work is being done to reduce the demand for stolen material.

Whilst the media enjoys the public interest in what they have to say on the topic, and the leaders of our country legislate, many companies have made steps to put their houses in order. Unfortunately, the supply-chain is difficult to trace, especially down to specific batches of material. You may know that you purchased x tonnes of a certain grade on a certain day, but you cannot point out where it is in your yard, or identify who you sold it on to as the materials are generally not tracked at a batch level. It is often weighed, tipped and piled onto a bigger pile of the same grade. Steps taken often fall into one of two categories; Identification capture/logging or Payment tracking.

ID Capture can come in many forms, and an approach might be to implement several, thus reducing the possibility of avoidance. Firstly, Number Plate Recognition (NPR) is becoming fairly common practice. When integrated with an advanced solution (such as enwis) this would not only log the vehicle registration number but potentially identify the vehicle owner and possibly the related contract information, thus increasing the speed to process orders at the weighbridge. The cost of such a system can vary, but £5,000 to £10,000 per weighbridge would be an average.  Some companies have cameras mounted above weighbridges to capture an image of the incoming material, and others have handheld cameras in the yard but these are often only used for contamination evidence rather than to identify each material load.

A spate of hold-ups has resulted in many companies installing CCTV in and around weighbridge offices. In fact, some companies have security staff on-site during opening hours as the threat is so great. If you are considering CCTV, don’t just think of the deterrent aspect as new laws may state that you have to have a photo of each seller’s face of sufficient quality to be able to recognise them clearly and easily. But think on, if we are about to go cashless systems then the hold-ups should cease overnight, so think about using your security systems tactically.

Of course, faces are only recognisable if you know the person. The trial Operation Tornado in the North East of England states that further ID is provided such as a photo driving license, passport and an up to date and addressed utility bill. These documents need to be copied, stored and be easily accessible for future reference. The Police will demand sight of this evidence and expect it to be provided in a timely manner. The solution to this requirement needs to take into account the speed at which some weighbridge operations work. If the process is too slow then your customers may go elsewhere, or, to add insult to injury, you may be prosecuted for causing trucks to queue, blocking the Queen’s highway. The optimal solutions involve scanning the visually checked documentation, probably whilst the vehicle unloads. The scanned image needs to be stored, best using a portal with good search facilities such as Microsoft SharePoint. You may need to make sure that the information is accessible from multiple locations depending on the size and shape of your organisation, so a good bandwidth on the wide-area network will be necessary. 

If you are already running a software solution at your weighbridge it would be best to integrate the imaging solution with it, allowing links between your transaction processing system and the imaging system. Be careful in choosing the right software and the required equipment – scanners can be very cheap, but for a reason. This does not mean that you invest a scanner that works to very high definition, in fact the contrary is true as this would result in very large files that would take too long to transfer over a network (if it is slow) as well as consume disk space quickly. No, the image of these documents needs to be fairly low in resolution – just good enough, and in grey-scale, not colour. The key aspect though is that the scanner needs to be robust, easy to use and quick to scan.

So, we have a plan to capture ID so that transactions can be linked to an identified source. This will act as a deterrent to those wanting to off-load their ill-gotten gains. The next big step, which will become law very soon, if the growing number of highly energised legislators get their way, is to remove cash from the whole transaction. This creates many issues – to paraphrase a well-known US politician, we have the known unknowns, such as how do we define cash? What payment methods will be allowed? etc. But then there are the unknown unknowns! Rushing in ill-thought out rules could cripple a very important part of our economy and let’s not forget that recycling is one of the key activities in reducing an environmental Armageddon. Dealing with the payment methods we have several options. Let’s assume that when we talk cashless payments this includes the exclusion of any other form of untraceable payment such as Marks & Spencer vouchers or beer tokens. That leaves us with bank transfers (BACS, Chaps etc.), payment onto debit/credit cards, printed cheques, or PayPal (other web-based payment services are available).

Most efficiently run companies will already have in place the ability to make electronic payments using clearing services such as BACS, so you would have thought that this would be an easy option. If you are dealing with a small number of regular customers then this would work, but if you have a high number of new customers at your weighbridge this can become a problem as each payment requires you to set up an account in the system before the transfer can take place. Recyclers that currently process hundreds of cash payments per day need to expedite them quickly to avoid bottlenecks.

What many in the industry are looking for is a debit card style process where the transaction is performed quickly at the weighbridge, just as if you were making a normal purchase, and the funds then appear in the customer’s account on the same day. Currently, merchants can transfer funds onto a credit or debit card but this has always been as part of a refund process i.e. you purchased goods on a card, returned them to the store and had the refund put onto the same card. The transaction we are talking about is not a refund, and as we go to press the debit/credit card companies are giving mixed signals on whether they want to handle these one-way transactions. The seller of the material is still looking to get immediate benefit and will expect to be able to get the cash from the nearest ATM, so the funds need to go into their account almost in an instant. The Post Office seem to offer the nearest solution with their pre-loaded Travel Cards. Anyone can make on-line payments onto them, the cash is available from ATM’s very quickly and, as it is a pre-loaded card rather than a credit card, they are accessible to almost anyone, regardless of credit history.

What’s clear is that we have a moving target, but we can be making some preparations in advance, and technical solutions exist if you know where to go.

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