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The Truth Is In There

Nonintrusive molecular and near-infrared markers fight fraud.
March 15, 2003

In the film Catch Me If You Can, an inventive con man lived large on forged checks, thanks to ingenuity and an eye for detail. Today he'd need a degree in molecular physics. Bar codes and radio-frequency ID (RFID) tags allow a company to mark its goods inexpensively, but a new breed of molecular and near-infrared markers may make counterfeiting and related forms of fraud vastly more difficult to pull off. Developed at Los Alamos National Laboratories and currently marketed by Isotag Technology Inc., the markers are nonintrusive molecules that provide a chemical signature detectable in a lab or via an infrared reader in the field. Added to, say, gasoline or car parts, these markers provide a way to distinguish the real thing from a fake or even a diluted product. "Counterfeiting, theft, and diversion are no longer acceptable costs of doing business," says Isotag CEO David Moxam. Priced at less than a penny per unit (although a complete system entails other expenses), the markers are invisible, yet their presence (or absence) provides what he calls a "legally defensible" proof of authenticity; in fact, the technology has been presented successfully in court several times. Moxam says molecular markers won't replace bar codes or RFID tags for supply-chain purposes, but for brand-authentication they may become elemental.

Counterfeiting costs companies money, of course, but it gets worse: counterfeit pharmaceuticals are rampant, particularly in less-developed nations. A foolproof way to distinguish real medicine from snake oil could save lives.