TV remote controls set to catch thieves

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The Independent Online
Thefts of televisions, videos and hi-fis could be wiped out in a few years' time following a technological breakthrough.

By the end of this year, British shops should be selling the first electrical equipment equipped with PIN numbers, like those used for cash machine cards and some car stereos. The PIN would have to be entered via the television remote control - otherwise the equipment would not work.

Japanese companies are also understood to be working on technology for future digital televisions and videos, which would mean that they could be disabled remotely over the airwaves. A signal could be sent that would identify one particular item and destroy internal components - once stolen, it would never work again.

Police chiefs believe the development of consumer electrical goods which have their own PIN numbers, and can be automatically disabled, will dramatically reduce burglaries.

"It could totally end the theft of televisions, finish it off," Ian Johnston, assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, told the Association of Chief Police Officers' annual conference in Cardiff. "We know from intelligent research - and often from our own bitter personal experience - that consumer electrical goods, especially hi-fi, TVs and videos, are top of the burglars' list of attractive items."

He estimated that about half of the 160,000 burglaries in London each year involve theft of electrical equipment. Criminals have set up a vast network to resell stolen goods by second hand shops, markets, pubs and car boot sales.

The new products' development follows a meeting a year ago with television, video and hi-fi manufacturers from the United Kingdom, Europe and the Far East. Mr Johnston said that at the meeting, Sir Paul Condon, the Metropolitan Police commissioner, "threw down a challenge to the industry - to create products which, once stolen, would have no value to the thief."

The first of these, a video recorder, is understood to be under development by the Japanese hi-fi giant Aiwa, and the high-street retail chain. Dixons may sell them later this year. "Whether we have them in time for Christmas depends on availability and other factors," said a product manager at Dixons headquarters yesterday. "I don't know whether we will."

The technology for identifying individual items remotely is already quite advanced. Such techniques are used by satellite television channels to disable or enable expired or renewed smart cards used for watching subscription channels.

The original owner of PIN-enabled goods would enter a PIN, along with their postcode. If the television was stolen and a wrong PIN entered, the television would simply display the owner's postcode on the screen. Sets using a four-digit Pin number are likely to start from around pounds 200.

Superintendent Matthew Baggott of the Metropolitan Police, who is also involved in the scheme, said yesterday: "The knock-on effect is that we hope in two or three years time the market for stolen goods will be taken out completely.

"It's pushing the technology forward and it will give us a real chance to knock burglars for six. The idea is that people will not steal the goods because they will be worthless."