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Israeli technology tracks down the loot

Posted By Tania Hershman On March 26, 2006 @ 9:28 am In | No Comments

Swift-Find has partnered with UK auctioneers Gorringes. ‘This is the first time anyone has tried to provide a cross-category, global, online, real-time solution,’ says CEO Benny Arbel.How do you know that the iPod you are bidding on from eBay isn’t stolen? Or that the goods your pawn shop or auction house is buying aren’t hot? Israeli-developed Swift-Find is here to help with its newly-launched searchable online registry which the company aims to turn into the Google of stolen, lost and found items.

“This is for anyone dealing with anything second-hand,” explains Benny Arbel, CEO of Swift-Find, which is headquartered in London, with research and development in Tel Aviv. “Anyone can check in real time if something is lost or stolen. This is the first time anyone has tried to provide a cross-category, global, online, real-time solution. We provide three services: register it, report it, search it.”

Until today, private individuals or pawnbrokers don’t have anywhere but the police to turn to if they suspected an item may be stolen or simply want to do a routine check. If an auction house wants to make sure a painting or sculpture has been obtained legally, someone has to trawl manually through the CD of stolen artworks compiled by Interpol, for example, looking for a match. Such lists have only text descriptions of items, not graphics, which makes the task much harder. “This is very important,” emphasizes Arbel, because two professionals might describe the same item in different words.

But a picture is worth a thousand of those words, and Swift-Find’s online registry is the first in this field to utilize advanced image search and recognition technology. “We are the exclusive licensee of technology developed by LTU Technologies for visual matching,” Arbel told ISRAEL21C. The technology developed by LTU, which is based in Paris and Washington DC, is routinely used in digital forensic analysis by law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Now, together with Swift-Find, the technology which can recognize an item even if it was photographed from another angle in different lighting conditions – is helping to crack down on theft.

The first step has to happen before any criminal activity has occurred. “We learned very quickly that it’s not enough to wait for things to get stolen,” says Arbel. “People have to register.” Registering your valuables is free, and Swift-Find, which was established two years ago with funding from the Zaidman family, owners of a chain of pawnbrokers and jewellers in the UK, and the Ofer family of New York-based art collectors, is making it as easy as possible. There are three points at which a person will be encouraged to create an entry in Swift-Find’s online: point of sale, point of insurance or point of production.

For example, Swift-Find has partnered with UK auctioneers Gorringes. When someone wins an item at one of their auctions, they provide the buyer with a Swift-Find card with a unique username and password. The buyer enters the Swift-Find website and accesses the ready-prepared listing for the item they have won. Or if you buy a ring from UK online jewelry retailers Geraldonline, another Swift-Find partner, your email receipt will inform you that the item has been pre-registered with Swift-Find. Swift-Find is also partnering with insurance companies to encourage buyers to register valuables at the same time as insuring them. If a registered item is then lost or stolen, the person who registered it enters the listing and changes its status. “With the click of a button you can alert the secondary markets,” says Arbel.

Registration is free, but since Swift-Find is not providing this service out of a selfless desire to curb crime, searching the registry – which was launched as a beta version six months ago but is now fully commercial – costs money. The fees depend upon the number of searches: individual users can pay per search, around $5, or buy a package of ten or twenty searches, etc. A business such as an auction house which can send Swift-Find its entire catalogue to be checked – can pay a monthly fee depending on the estimated number of searches it will need. Swift-Find is poised to announce partnerships with online auction houses, too, where users will be able to click on a button on the screen before they bid to check out the item they are interested in. “If the item has a serial number, they will get a Yes or No answer,” explains Arbel. “If it doesn’t have a serial number, they will get a green symbol indicating that it is not in the database, or a yellow one indicating that there is something that resembles the item.”

One of the aims of the database, as well as thwarting trafficking in stolen goods, is to help prevent fraud. “Insurers are very concerned about people inflating claims,” says Arbel. If an item was pre-registered, then the insurance company knows exactly which kind of video camera was stolen the $500 model, not the $1500 one. Also, finance companies who sell goods under a hire purchase agreement, where the buyer pays over a large number of installments, sometimes discover that the buyer has tried to pawn or sell the item before all the payments have been made, which is illegal. Now a pawn shop can find out whether the seller really owns the item they are trying to pawn.

However, Arbel takes pains to stress that the online registry is not necessarily evidence that someone owns a particular item. “If you have registered something, it does not prove anything except that you have registered it,” he says. Anyone is free to register an item that they don’t own: the system cannot prevent that. And the owner of an item can change the price of the item in the system, but this will lower the credibility rating that the system assigns to everyone who registers. For those concerned about hackers attacking the database to find valuable goods to steal, registration is anonymous, by username and password only, with the option to add personal details such as name and address, but this is not obligatory.

Swift-Find is using its system for non-commercial purposes too: to help Holocaust survivors, their families and others find art and antiques that were looted during the Second World War. There are over 100,000 works of art seized by the Nazis that have not yet been claimed, and many people and institutions are searching for lost items. “This is a particularly sensitive and painful area for the art and antique market,” says Arbel. A month ago Swift-Find launched the beta version of its Swift-Find Looted Art Project database, which currently has over 20,000 items, and can be searched for free by museums, claimants and government agencies. “Claimants can upload an old photo [of the art that was looted],” explains Arbel, “and even if the lighting or the angle of the photograph is different, the system’s image recognition can match it with a work of art that is unclaimed, or that turns up on the market.” The Looted Art Project will be officially launched in the UK House of Lords in June.

Swift-Find, which employs twenty people in its offices in Tel Aviv and London, and has sales offices in Milan and Los Angeles, was established with several million dollars in funding from the Ofer and Zaidman families, and recently raised more funding from two venture capital funds, but more details were not available at the time of press. To help learn how the markets work, the company brought in several notable names from the world of stolen goods, including Dick Ellis, the former head of the UK’s Scotland Yard Art and Antique Squad and former general manager of Christie’s Fine Art Security Services, and Shauna Isaac, now director of the Swift-Find Looted Art Project, who was content director of an international database for Nazi era looted art for the Central Registry of Information on Looted Cultural Property 1933-1945.

Swift-Find’s registry is only in its infancy, and as yet there have been no major success stories, but it is early days. Already 420,000 items have been registered as missing, stolen or looted, and the system has turned up some “likely matches” for auction houses, but that is where Swift-Find’s role ends. “We don’t go into the recovery, all we do is provide data,” says Arbel. As well as encouraging more people to sign up to the registry, Swift-Find, which chose London as its headquarters because of its reputation in the art world, as well as due to the fact that the main company funders are British, is looking to strengthen its presence in the US over the next few months. Arbel anticipates that the American consumer will readily sign up to the registry. “In the US people are more comfortable storing things on the Net,” says Arbel, “eCommerce is bigger in the US.”

Swift-Find is also planning some spin-off sites focusing on different sectors, such as website for lost or stolen bicycles, for example. These types of site will be local rather than global, because, as Arbel points out, “if your bicycle was stolen in London, it’s probably still in London.”


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