Putting the Kibosh on Equipment Theft

Stealing heavy construction equipment is big business, in many ways. It costs the insurance industry $300 million a year, but it takes an even bigger bite out of the construction industry annually. And compared to the recovery rate for stolen automobiles (60 percent), the rate of recovery for construction equipment is relatively low, at 10 to 15 percent. Law enforcement and equipment security experts are biting back, though, and their biggest tools are information and communication.

While many thieves cross state lines with stolen equipment, a lot of stolen machines are recovered within 50 miles of where they're stolen, according to Arnold Wilson of the Jackson County (Mo.) sheriff's office. At a recent Regional Equipment Theft Summit, held last week in North Kansas City, Mo., the FBI and the Law Enforcement Executive Development Association (LEEDA) teamed up with the National Equipment Register (NER). Their goal was to share with local law enforcement, the insurance industry, and equipment owners solutions to deter this growing problem.

Equipment theft happens first and foremost because machines are difficult to secure. One key fits most makes and models of a type of equipment, and keys are often left in machines at night. Adding insult to injury, some of the people stealing equipment are turning around and bidding against the theft victims on construction projects. Although skid steers, tractors and backhoes are taken more often than other pieces of equipment because they're easiest to steal, cranes and lifting equipment are just as vulnerable.

Like burglaries or auto thefts, equipment thefts happen most often at night. But unlike these other types of thefts, equipment is usually stolen when no one is around, and for that reason are rarely interrupted. Because they take place in a commercial setting, witnesses rarely question what is taking place.

Once stolen, the equipment can be disposed of quickly, often repainted and moved out of the country, or sold through auctions with no questions asked, according to the FBI and NER. Often a buyer will look at and buy a piece of equipment that's too good to be true because auction houses will sell equipment with no questions asked of its origins, said one presenter.

Equipment thefts continue because police patrols are not examining stolen equipment against theft reports. There are no DMV records on machines, and in many instances stolen machines are unlikely to be encountered by law enforcement in their everyday patrols. Most equipment busts come from tips to police, who often aren't trained on how to detect stolen equipment. Identifying numbers are difficult to find on equipment, and many equipment owners are slow to report thefts, some because they keep inaccurate records on their fleets.

Four ways to deal with equipment theft, say security experts: Improve security for both construction sites and the machines on them; help police identify your equipment; communicate with employees about how to properly secure equipment; and employ technology as a deterrent to theft.

Security begins at home, many experts say. As an equipment owner, have an accurate record of every make and model you own, including serial numbers and other identifying marks. If you don't have one already, create one immediately.

At the construction site, reinforce the idea that operators and crew members should never just walk away from the machines at 4:30 p.m. on a Friday. As is often the case, at least one machine will be parked with the keys still in it, and that one key will work on many other machines, which can then be loaded on a flatbed and driven off the site.

Owners should be proactive and work with local law enforcement, actually helping to train them on how to spot stolen property. When a theft occurs, you'll already have that relationship established, and with proper records, you can provide them with accurate information.

Some security experts suggest that thorough background checks on employees reduce the risks of equipment thefts. Others advocate employing electronic deterrent systems, such as tracking, monitoring, and immobilization devices, as well as GPS technologies. But, they say, be sure you know how the technology works. “You've got to know how to use your GPS system,” says Jim Acres of the Will County, Ill., sheriff's department and winner of the ARA/NER award for highest dollar value in equipment recovered in 2006.

Acres reports that where one stolen piece of equipment is recovered, others can often be found. He believes deterrence solutions must be sustainable, and the equipment owner must have a buy-in from his employees in order to make his attempts successful. Where technology is concerned, he suggests owners “use what you have, then buy what you need.”

Acres' best tips

  • Paint your machines a distinguishing color.
  • Weld a distinguishing ID marker on the machine. It'll be obvious if the weld marks are ground off, he says.
  • Create your own internal identification numbers for your equipment, using a series that law enforcement is familiar with, such as driver's license or VIN numbers.
  • Paint ID numbers on the roof of the cab of the machine • one place thieves don't often look • large enough to be seen by helicopter.
  • Management must have a written policy in place, make it part of the business plan, and allow time in the workday for employees to adhere to the plan, suggests NER. Link employee buy-in to incentives or disincentives, or make it part of your hiring policy.

Ed DeMoss of the Mo/Kan Task Force of Equipment Theft, says many of the region's equipment thefts are taking place at the hands of the same people over and over again. As owner of Total Risk Management, the equipment security arm of Clarkson Construction, he's learned that once these thieves are incarcerated, crime drops dramatically in an area. The majority of equipment thefts are internal, he reports, while the rest are based on impulse.

Clarkson, a regional paving and construction contractor based in Kansas City, Mo., will offer a reward for information on equipment theft at a particular jobsite, says DeMoss. Supervisors are held accountable for all equipment, beginning with hand tools. In doing so, he says, the company sets a precedent and lets employees know the company will prosecute those who steal.

DeMoss' best tips

  • Employ a full-time guard force to patrol worksites at night. “Nothing will ever substitute for a warm body.”
  • Approach local businesses • especially 24-hour gas stations and convenience stores • and offer a reward for information on equipment thefts.
  • Make it a networking issue: Create a project brochure and distribute it to residents in the area of the jobsite. If no one's home, hang it on the door as a way of letting people know what's going on in their neighborhoods. List phone numbers and let them know about rewards for information on equipment thefts.