The anti-shoplifting alarms you encounter in retail stores use radio frequency identification (RFID) technology. The science behind RFID technology – radio waves – was developed back in the 19th century, but RFID applies this technology in a novel way. Entrance and exit points at retailers are equipped with radio frequency transmitters and receivers, and merchandise items contain embedded or attached radio frequency tags.
RFID tags come in many forms, from the ones you see stuck onto plastic shrink-wrap to “soft” tags stuck to inside pages of books in bookstores and libraries. When someone walks through the exit without having paid for an item, radio waves from the transmitter in the door gate are picked up by the antenna on the RFID tag, which is usually deactivated during the checkout process.
This causes the label to transmit a new radio signal at a specific frequency. The receiver in the door gate picks up that signal and sounds the alarm. One of the strong selling points of RFID tags is that they identify the article to which they’re attached via digitally encoded identifier. The simplest RFID tags have no power source, but work by responding to incoming radio waves from the transmitter. More advanced “active” tags contain tiny batteries that allow them to send and receive signals over longer distances.
Limitations of Traditional RFID Designs
Traditional RFID designs are well-suited for packaged or wrapped items, where an RFID tag can easily be stuck onto the product itself or its packaging. But they’re not ideal for things like clothing because of their size and stiffness. New RFID designs, however, may solve this problem and could become a staple of luxury clothing retailers in the near future.
A company in the UK called Advanced E-Textiles has developed microelectronic RFID tags that are thread-sized, and thus better sized and suited to clothing and other “soft” goods. These tiny RFID tags can be sewn right into a garment by the manufacturer, and are undetectable to the consumer.
“Smart Textiles” Could Become Luxury Good Anti-Theft Device
Suppose someone steals, say, a luxury Burberry trench coat embedded with one of the new thread-sized microelectronic RFID tags. Finding and removing that tiny RFID device is now infinitely more challenging than peeling an obvious RFID “chip” off the packaging of, say, a Blu-Ray DVD. A more advanced theft operation stealing a cargo crate would have much more work to do before making the stolen items sellable on the black market.
The tiny RFID devices could eventually be seen as status symbols. After purchasing a luxury garment second-hand, a person could, perhaps, take the garment to a retailer that carries that brand and have it scanned. No RFID would mean that the item was most likely fake.
Advantages of Newer RFID Designs
RFID tags are becoming smaller, more advanced, and more affordable, allowing retailers to increase the accuracy of inventory accounting, automate reordering, and discourage theft. There are starting to be products for the consumer market that people can place on valuables like smartphones, luggage, keys, or other items that sound an alarm when the item is separated from a personal Bluetooth-enabled item. And as advanced RFID technology becomes more affordable to non-luxury retailers, discouragement of shoplifting could make it easier for retailers to keep a lid on prices.
Using Technology to Reduce Vulnerability to Theft
The uses of technology to create better anti-theft devices continue to multiply every year. At the same time, however, thieves often find ways around technologies, so the day may never arrive when personal possessions are completely safe. But people are pulling together to make a difference. Today, there are even bicycle registration apps that help crowdsource the location of stolen bikes once they are reported missing.
If you have been the victim of theft, we encourage you to post your stolen item on Stolen911.com to create a digital fingerprint of your property and increase your chances of recovering it. Today, more individuals, pawn shops, and police officers are using search engines as an easy way to learn whether stolen property has come into their possession. List here, and let’s maximize the chances of your getting your property back!