Note: This is a “classic” Interesting Thing of the Day article from over 10 years ago. It has not been edited recently, so it may contain broken links, outdated information, or other infelicities. We plan to eventually update or retire most classic articles, as time permits.

While I was shopping at a travel store, a piece of luggage caught my eye—but not because of its modern styling, heavy-duty ballistic nylon fabric, or retractable handle and wheels. What attracted my attention was a small tag with the words “RETURN FOR REWARD,” along with a toll-free phone number, a URL, and a serial number. This tag was supplied by a service called BoomerangIt, one of several internet-based lost-and-found services that provide a new spin on an old concept.

If you go to a coffee shop and leave your glasses, keys, or notebook on the table, chances are some honest citizen will turn them in at the counter, and as long as you know where you left the article, you can return later to claim it. Larger stores, stadiums, concert halls, theme parks and so on typically have central lost-and-found departments that serve the same purpose. But again, you must have at least a general idea of where an item was lost, and you can only hope that whoever found it didn’t decide just to keep it. (Lost-and-found departments are not very likely to have your lost camera, laptop computer, or wallet—at least not with the money still in it.) Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a general, all-purpose lost-and-found service that didn’t require you to know where your valuables went missing? And wouldn’t it be nice if there were an incentive for the finder to return your lost item rather than just pocketing it? These are precisely the ideas behind several online services.

The Carrot and the Sticker

In general, the programs require you to purchase tags, stickers, or labels of some kind and affix them to the things you want to keep track of. The person who finds your missing item can either call a toll-free number or visit a Web site and enter the ID number on the label. The finder is then informed of the amount of reward you’re offering—which can be any amount you choose. At this point, the details diverge depending on which service you’re using. Some services simply send you a message from the finder—allowing you to make your own arrangements for getting the item back. In other cases, the service arranges for anonymous return of the item (at your expense) and delivery of the reward to the finder.

Unfortunately, even the promise of a reward may not result in the return of items that have been stolen rather than simply misplaced. However, if stolen goods are later recovered by the police, the ID tags provide a way for them to get in touch with the rightful owner and arrange for return of the goods. When police confiscate stolen property and can’t determine who owns it, it is often sold at auction.

The idea for online lost-and-found services actually came from a very successful program called the National Bike Registry (NBR) that is endorsed by many police departments. Like more general lost-and-found services, NBR provides you with a tamper-resistant ID label for your bike which includes a URL and a toll-free phone number. Since missing bikes are much more likely to have been stolen than lost, though, it is rare for anyone other than law enforcement officials to use the service.

Fringe Benefits

Though not their main purpose, there is reason to believe ID labels provide a deterrent to theft. Because the labels are tamper-resistant, they cannot be removed cleanly, making resale of stolen goods more difficult. Although these lost-and-found services are still small enough not to have aroused much interest in the insurance industry, the potential certainly exists for reduced premiums for people who use the ID tags, as they decrease the probability that an insurer would have to pay the cost of a missing item.

Lost-and-found services offer labels in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and materials to be used with almost any imaginable product. For example, StuffBak sells skinny labels that can fit unobtrusively on eyeglasses and sunglasses, and wrap-around labels that can be affixed to headphone cables, zippers, and other oddly shaped items. BoomerangIt, meanwhile, offers metal key tags, clip-on luggage tags, and even combination luggage locks. And now that you can buy certain brands of luggage with lost-and-found labels already on them, other products are sure to follow. You may feel a bit self-conscious with a bright yellow label on your cell phone, camera, PDA, wallet, and everything else you carry with you, but along with insurance, the tags are an excellent way of making sure you don’t suffer for forgetting to pick up that umbrella or briefcase when you step off the train or out of the restaurant. —Joe Kissell

More Information

Popular lost-and-found services in the U.S. include BoomerangIt (which is affiliated with the National Bike Registry), StuffBak, and MicroTrax, which incorporates nearly invisible MicroDots that stay on your device and enable it to be identified even if the label is removed.

In the UK, Yellowtag offers a similar service, as does Trackitback in Canada.