Protect Your Gear!

If you don't think people exist who would boost your gear if they could get to it, you are wrong.

Based on my personal experience in the event of any catastrophic incident, theft, fire or whatever there are things an insurance adjuster will want to know. In the case of theft there are things the police want to know. Some of the information each entity wants is the same.

First and foremost, both the police and probably the insurance people will want serial numbers. The FBI/NCIC nationwide HOTFILES database is where serial numbers of stolen articles are stored and indexed electronically.  Any police officer can search this database in a few seconds.  Stolen article serials are kept in the HOTFILE database for the month of entry plus one full year.  That's 13 months at the most.  (Stolen guns are entered indefinitely, but not stolen instruments or gear which is all considered "articles.") 

If you have serial numbers they will be entered in the database and if the police runs the serial through the NCIC database the item will return as stolen and show which police agency took the report. The locating agency then contacts the agency that entered the article in the system and the entering agency will contact the owner. The owner can then make arrangements to recover his article. This is your best shot at ever getting your gear back short of tracking it down yourself.  Tracking it down yourself is sometimes worthwhile but frequently unsuccessful.  Often the instruments, even with a known serial number, are never found.  But having the serial GREATLY improves your chances of getting it back.

The second thing that helps with insurance claims are photos. Also NCIC has already enabled photo entry for a few categories like stolen motor vehicles and wanted persons, so even if the police can't use your photos right now they will have a use for your photos in the near future. They can be digital or standard photo prints but digital JPG images are best.

The third thing that protects your gear is an OWNER APPLIED NUMBER (OAN.) An OAN can be used to enter an item stolen in the NCIC HOTFILES database in the absence of a serial number. If you have a serial number that is what the police will enter.  For example on instruments you've modified so they no longer have a serial or on gear that never had a serial in the first place, you can have your driver's license number etched onto the metal neckplate at a local trophy shop or jeweler or onto the chassis of an amp. It should include your state abbreviation, followed by "DL" and then your drivers license number.  An OAN should be visible without removing anything. For an example of a good owner applied number, here in North Carolina I'd suggest something like "NCDL1234567." Any police officer knows that number is a driver's license number from NC and can track you down from anywhere in the USA with just your license number, even years later or even if the item isn't entered NCIC.  Tracking you down by your driver's license number can be done by officers in some cities with just a Blackberry or other mobile device!  Many people think Social Security Numbers are the thing to use for an OAN, however law enforcement has NO WAY to track down Social Security numbers unless they are entered in NCIC's stolen article file as the Owner Applied Number.  So I suggest using your drivers license instead as they are much more easily traced by law enforcement than a Social Security number.  These work MUCH better long term after the 13 month entry expires in the FBI/NCIC nationwide HOTFILES database.  Just make sure to put the state abbreviation at the beginning followed by DL and then your driver's license number and NOT your Social Security Number.

The fourth suggestion is to place hidden marks on your gear. Under the pickguard or neckplate or in the pickup cavity on guitars and on the bottom of cabs, heads, or combos. They don't have to be big, just so you can read them. Again use the OAN like NCDL1234567. This way you can positively identify your gear from any other otherwise identical item. You might see your stolen bass being played at a local club, but you can't prove to the police that it is your bass. However when you tell the officer to look under the pickguard for your own driver's license number...well you'll get it back most likely and the person playing your bass will have some explaining to do to the police.

Now my fifth suggestion. Here is how to keep track of it all. Type up a master list of all your current gear. List the Make, Model, Serial/OAN, Price Paid, Acquisition Date, Source, and anything else you can think of in an email. Then email this list to your own Webmail account at Yahoo, Hotmail, Gmail or wherever. Keep this file forever. Update it when you get new gear or sell old gear and then email the updated list to yourself again and then delete the old list. You can also email scans of sales receipts to yourself and then email the photos of your gear and receipt scans to this same Webmail account. If you have a lot of photos put them in a free Photobucket account.

If you take a little time to do this right now, then no matter where you are in the world, even on tour, you can just log into your Webmail and Photobucket to get all our gear serials, descriptions and photos for the Police and insurance companies in just a few moments.

Even if you do everything that I suggest your chance of getting stolen gear back is somewhat remote, but you will have a much better chance than no chance at all, which is basically the situation you are in without serial numbers or OAN's for the police to enter in NCIC. You'll also certainly have less of an argument and possibly a higher settlement from the insurance company too with good orderly information, serials and photos.

Rich people used to hire people to come in and catalog their things, then stored the photos and descriptions in a safe deposit box. Later videotaping for the same purpose became popular. I'm pretty much suggesting musicians do the same thing, only do it online electronically.  No matter where you are in the world, if you can get to the Internet you can get to this information stored on your webmail and online photo hosting.  I suggest this for all items of value with serials like watches, cameras, guns and electronic items.  Having the serial number or an Owner Applied Number is the ONLY way you will ever have any chance of getting your item back short of the unlikely possibility of seeing it somewhere yourself, beating the person who has it unconscious and taking your stuff back! 

Finally to protect YOURSELF, when you buy USED gear somewhere, it is wise to have the serial checked to make sure it is not entered in NCIC as a stolen item.  To do this all you need is the article TYPE, MAKE, MODEL and either SERIAL or the OWNER APPLIED NUMBER.  Contact your local police agency (using a NON-emergency line) during regular business hours 9 till 5 Monday through Friday and ask how you can get your newly acquired used gear checked to make sure it is "clean."  If you unknowingly buy stolen gear the following scenario is entirely possible.  You get stopped for speeding by police on the way to a gig and the traffic cop sees several guitar cases and other gear in your vehicle.  You are from out of town.  This all looks very suspicious to the officer.  This leads to him checking the serials on all your gear and this is when you will find out one of the items is entered stolen.  In my state possession of stolen goods may land you in jail.  Your state laws may vary.  With so many used instruments bought and sold on eBay and moving state to state or country to country the possibility of buying stolen used gear definitely exists. 

Most stolen gear isn't entered as stolen in the law enforcement computer network HOTFILES merely because the owner can't give the police the serial numbers.  Don't wait until it is too late.  Catalog EVERYTHING.  Use OAN's and email the list to yourself.   



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