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Stop, Thief! – Online Tools Help Mitigate the Theft of Musical Instruments

Dan Daley • Last Word • June 14, 2017

The Hawaiian music duo Hapa has been the contemporary face of the islands’ traditional music culture for two decades.

So when co-founder Barry Flanagan’s unique guitar went missing in March, stolen from the trunk of his car, it made the local news. That kind of attention can help keep it out of the pawnshops and alert local MI retailers to keep an eye out for it, but most instrument thefts don’t get the benefit of that kind of awareness. However, there are a growing number of online-based solutions available to help counter what is likely the most devastating thing that can befall a musician, short of losing a finger.

Screaming Stone, founded a decade ago by musician Chris Stone, acts as a national clearing house for stolen instruments that uses crowd-sourcing to publicize instrument thefts to other musicians, because, as Stone’s website points out, they are “the people most likely to come across a stolen instrument for sale.” “The more people that know about an instrument theft, the greater chance we have at finding and recovering more stolen instruments,” he says, adding that since 2007 the site has helped recover over $500,000 in stolen instruments – twice the recovery rate of law enforcement. But, he warns through the site, that’s still only seven percent of all instruments stolen every year. “We need to recover more, and we need the music community to help us,” he adds.

Another, more high-tech approach is from Gear-Secure, an LA-based company that introduced what it asserts was the first embedded anti-theft device for musical instruments at the last NAMM Show. Using a self-powered RFID-type tracking device that can be attached or implanted into virtually any kind of instrument, the device’s ping can be tracked by the owner’s mobile device. The owner can also set a perimeter outside of which the device will send an alert – if you’ve left a guitar in a dressing room and it starts to “walk” out of the club, the tracking device will message your smartphone.

Another stolen-instrument recovery proposition will use optical recognition technology to help find lost instruments – or anything else, for that matter. is a Silicon Valley-area start-up that will use stored images of missing items uploaded by those who’ve lost them and match them optically by visual characteristics, as well as any other details the owners can share. Co-founder Antonio Vega says HaveItBack will rely mainly on details supplied by owners when they enter the site, but that as the number of those increases, the algorithm that runs the system will use AI to put that information together with the photos of the missing items that those owners also supply, eventually creating a data file that has visual as well as other information. That file will then scan millions of aggregated internet sites seeking a match. In the case of musical instruments – Vega says musical instruments account for 30,000 of the five million or so items reported lost or stolen annually – those likely suspects will include pawnshops, MI stores that sell used instruments, and online portals used by individuals to sell used instruments.

An initial one-week search is free; HaveItBack will charge between $3 and $5 per item sought, depending on the length of time the owner wants to keep the search active, between one and six months longer. If the search gets a hit, the owner’s mobile phone gets a notification. HaveItBack can arrange for shipping for a nominal fee. And as a sort of insurance policy for true pessimists, Vega says individuals will also be able to load images and information about their instrument ahead of time, before they’re stolen.

Losing an instrument is traumatic, and people have been stealing them ever since David restrung his first lyre. The informal network of MI retailers and ethical pawn shops have formed the biggest bulwark against this kind of crime, one that tends not to get placed high on the to-do lists of police departments. But technology is opening a new front in this ongoing battle, and it’s worth keeping an eye on those developments.

And oh, yeah, I didn’t want to forget to mention: Barry Flanagan got his guitar back a week or so later. According to a Honolulu media outlet, whoever stole the guitar from the car was unable to sell it because of how quickly word spread about its theft. However the word gets out, the faster, louder and wider it goes, so increases the chances of a good outcome to a bad experience.

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