Fact Check

The Self-Signaling Swag

Crooks are fingered by electronic locators contained in the items they steal.

Published Jan. 6, 2003


Claim:   Crooks are fingered by the electronic locators contained in items they steal.



[Collected via e-mail, 2002]

Seems that a year ago, some Boeing employees on the airfield decided to steal a life raft from one of the 747s. They were successful in getting it out of the plane and home. When they took it for a float on the river, they were surprised by a Coast Guard helicopter coming towards them. It turned out that the chopper was homing in on the emergency locator that is activated when the raft is inflated. They are no longer employed at Boeing.

[Brunvand, 1988]

A hunter, frustrated at not bagging a deer, illegally shot a wild turkey instead. He cleaned the bird, took it home and packed the carcass into his freezer.

But he failed to notice a tiny radio receiver that had been implanted under the turkey's wing by wildlife researchers.

A few days later, officials of the Department of Natural Resources came straight to the hunter's house, walked to the freezer, took out the dead turkey and arrested the live one — the hunter.


Origins:   Some legends can be told in such a disparate variety of ways that folks encountering two extreme versions of them might not realize they've just heard the same story, even if the details are different. That is the case with the legend above, which exists both as a "poached wildlife" and as a "purloined technology" story. Yet whether it involves turkeys or life rafts, it's the same tale underneath — in both forms of the legend the stolen item emits a signal that leads law enforcement to the wrongdoer, even as the thief remains blissfully unaware that his swag is summoning the gendarmes. In a satisfyingly just manner, the stolen item not only serves as hard evidence of the act, but also alerts authorities to the commission of the crime and brings them straight to the


We've been finding the "Boeing employees" variant on the Internet since 1997. Those tempted to allow for the possibility that it might be true should consider that there is no emergency locator transmitter (ELT) in the life raft or slide/raft on 747s. (If the story were about a 777 slide/raft it could be more believable, as the 777 does have the option of packing ELTs into the slide/raft. Recently the 767 has had this option too, but only one customer has opted for it so far. In all cases, ELTs are triggered not by inflation of the raft, but by getting wet.)

Likewise, tales about hunters who bag forbidden game only to have the Fish and Wildlife people appear at their doors, having been summoned to those locations by the electronic tracking devices attached to the critters, are legion. We've heard versions where it was Scottish salmon that had been poached, with the Wildlife people becoming very excited because — according to the signals now being received — the fish had broken from its usual migratory patterns and was headed into new territory, and there are versions that feature rare birds who set the ornithologists studying them to quivering when they seemingly strike out in new and unexpected directions that turn out to be towards someone's home freezer.

In a surprising twist of folkloric ostension, this decades-old legend played out for real in August 2002, when an Irish Light-Bellied Brent Goose being followed on its migration routes by the British-based Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust was found in a hunter's freezer in Cornwallis Island, Canada. The ill-fated goose, dubbed Kerry, had survived the arduous 4,500 mile trip only to be shot by a man out hunting. The goose, still wearing its $3,000 transponder, was discovered once local wildlife officials set out to locate the just-migrated bird and tracked its transponder signal to a house.

This next legend appears to be related to the core tale even though the key detail of the stolen item's leading law enforcement to it is implied rather than stated:

[Healey & Glanvill, 1996]

A friend of a friend's mum was on her way back from her daughter's new house and had stopped to top up with petrol at a motorway service station. She had just finished and was about to rejoin the main carriageway when her eagle eyes spotted a microwave oven glinting on the hard shoulder, seemingly abandoned.

Figuring it must have fallen off the back of a lorry, the overjoyed woman screeched to a halt and hoicked the modern technological marvel into her hatchback. Even if it was damaged, her handyman husband would soon get the gadget up and cooking.

The woman couldn't believe her luck: her conventional cooker was on its last legs, and for months she'd been jealous of her neighbours, who never stopped gassing about their microwave marvel. Eager to get home and excited by her good fortune, she put her foot down.

But shortly after she'd set off, a police motorway patrol car came haring up behind her, sirens wailing. The driver flashed her and indicated she should pull over.

As the officers sauntered over towards her, the poor woman began perspiring heavily and just couldn't help looking horribly guilty.

Deciding honesty was the best policy, she was ready to blurt out the whole sorry tale about the microwave when one of the officers jammed his head through her open window. 'I'm terribly sorry to bother you, madam, but could you please tell us why you've just stolen this object,' he oozed.

Through floods of tears, the women explained everything: 'I just wanted to use it to cook my family's dinner,' she sobbed.

'You'd be hard-pushed to cook for anyone with that thing,' smirked one of the officers. 'You see, it's a radar speed-trap box.'

Barbara "radar love" Mikkelson

Sightings:   In an episode of the BBC comedy Chef! ("Do The Right Thing," original air date 22 September 1994), Chef Garath has a visit from the National Rivers Authority accusing him of receiving illegally-fished salmon. They were tracking the migration of salmon using radio implants, and while they had learned many interesting things about the migratory patterns, they were still amazed to find the fish "traveling 58 mph down the A40."

Last updated:   23 April 2014


    Brunvand, Jan Harold.   "Mangled-Poodle Advertisement Turns Out to Be Popular Sick Joke."

    The San Diego Union-Tribune.   17 November 1988   (p. D2).

    CNN.com.   "Sad End for Wild Goose Chase."

    26 August 2002.

    Healey, Phil and Rick Glanvill.   "Urban Myths."

    The Guardian.   1 June 1996   (p. T59).

    von Radowitz, John.   "Satellite Trackers Find Kerry the Goose in Eskimo Freezer."

    Press Association.   25 August 2002.