As risk managers, we are often told to "think like a thief" when considering
security measures. The following narrative is designed to help get you into
the mindset of an equipment thief and is based on real cases from theft and
recovery data from the National Equipment Register. At the end are some tips
that a thief might give—if forced.
A Day in the Life of an Equipment Thief
It had just turned 10:00 on Saturday night as I arrived at the compound.
It always gave me a sense of comfort to see the equipment in the yard that Bill
was working on—nothing strange about another two or three machines being in
the yard on Monday morning. It also occurred to me that I was one of the few
people who earned most of my money on the weekend despite having a job as a
Bill was already at the salvage yard with the flatbed that we had stolen
2 weeks ago. We would be able to use this for a long time now that it had a
plate on it from the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV)—we simply ordered one
for a "homemade" trailer. All they needed were sales receipts for all the materials
and the parts.
After about 15 minutes and a coffee, Jimmy arrived with a broad grin on his
face. Jimmy was the scout who not only had a nose for easy targets but also
knew people on the local workforces who were happy to earn $100 for information
about poor security. Jimmy's motto was, "If the security is good today, I can
go next door and come back in 6 months." We would often hear about new security
procedures at a company that were so complicated that it was just a matter of
time before things started to be missed. Jimmy's favorite trick was to walk
by a compound on a Friday and, if a padlock had been left open, simply replace
it with one of his that looked like it. It was only after a year that he let
us know how he had the key to so many compounds!
"We've got a beaut' tonight—no gates, no fences, no nothing," Jimmy shouted
as he approached the cab. Jimmy explained that he had been watching the roadwork
up on the interstate for a month and how the concrete safety barriers that had
been blocking the equipment in the work area had been moved on Friday to get
a delivery in and had not been replaced. As we pulled out of the yard, Jimmy
removed his map and flashlight, and started to give directions as he summed
up the quarry.
"Two skid steers, a backhoe, two generators, and a compressor—we'll fit what
we can on the trailer and take it up to Johnny's auction on Monday. I've never
known him or his clients to ask where the equipment comes from, and I know this
contractor doesn't buy from Johnny's." I smiled to myself as I wondered what
Johnny could do even if he did care who owned the equipment he sold.
Jimmy guided us out of town. As the streetlights ended and we approached
the roadwork, Jimmy ordered Bill to slow down. "Just drive past so I can check
that nothing's moved."
As we passed the worksite, the headlights lit up the edge of a worksite where
a variety of equipment was parked. We turned around at the next exit and returned
to the worksite. Jimmy pointed out the gap where a concrete divider had been
and we drove though it and backed up to the first skid steer. There were some
larger, more valuable machines, but we never took these as it takes serious
hauling equipment that obstructs the highway and the risk of attracting the
attention of the highway patrol is too high.
Jimmy had visited the site on Friday night to check out the equipment, looking
particularly for locks, fuel cut-offs, and antennas of tracking devices. He
knows a lot about these devices and can quickly disable the ones that have to
see a satellite but always makes us take the equipment to temporary storage
for an hour so that he can look them over for any devices.
I jumped out and worked through my key ring until I got to the right one
for the skid steer. I bought the keys from a website 4 years ago—$50 for a
full set of keys that work almost any equipment in the country must be a bargain.
I got into the cab and after a couple of turns, got it going. By now Bill had
the ramps down and I drove the skid steer on to the far end of the flatbed.
A few cars passed in the time that we were there but we were working on the
edge of their light beams and none had even slowed down. Within half an hour,
we had the skid steer, the backhoe, and one of the generators on the flatbed.
Jimmy directed us to the temporary "safe area"—an unused group of warehouses
that we could park in for an hour or as long as it took Jimmy to give us the
We would also use this time to make sure all the decals were off. We used
to take the identification plates completely off, but had heard stories of arrests
triggered by buyers who became suspicious of machines with missing plates. We've
also discovered that most owners do not record these numbers, and even those
that do often write them down wrong or just a portion of them. Some owners have
started posting signs to say that they have registered their serial numbers
on a national database that police can access, so we steer clear of these even
if they have forgotten to lock their gate.
As Jimmy worked, he was telling us about a new scam which made use of the
increased availability of fake IDs. He explained how easy it is to rent equipment
with a fake ID and then disappear with the equipment. He had also heard of someone
who was posing as a rental company employee who would pick up rental equipment
before the real rental company did, but he supposed that this would require
inside information on jobsite and pickup schedules.
Just after 2 a.m., Jimmy gave the all-clear, and we headed back to the yard.
Johnny's next auction would be in a week's time, but we would drive the equipment
up on Monday as the only real chance of getting caught is if the owner sees
the equipment on his way to work. The police and insurance reports would take
most of the week to process. As we drove, we started adding up the haul. The
backhoe would fetch at least $20,000, the newer skid steer close to $15,000,
and maybe $3,000 for the generator—close to $40,000—not bad for 4 hours' work.
Tips from the Thieves
What would thieves say if forced to reveal what is uppermost in their minds
when planning a theft?
- They most fear getting caught when stealing, storing, or moving the
equipment. The risk of getting caught when selling the equipment is considered
low because owners tend not record serial numbers, buyers of used equipment
tend not to check titles, and even with leads, it is difficult for police
to identify equipment and link serial numbers to owners.
- Sites tend to either be well secured or not—either because the worksite
is impossible to secure or due to the attitude of the contractor. There
are enough sites with poor security to keep thieves in business for years.
It is not necessary to be 100 percent secure, but to be at least better
than average, so thieves opt for the less secure sites.
- There is no point in setting up security procedures that are either
too complex or not regularly checked, as thieves will just watch and wait
until security starts to decline.
- Employees of your firm and other local firms are both your best allies
and biggest risks. They are the ones who will usually be responsible for
the implementation of security and may even know something about a theft.
They may even be the ones that let the thieves know about poor security.
The key is to give then incentives to help rather than hinder.
- If you don't record your serial numbers, you can forget about getting
your equipment back. Even if recovered, you still have to prove that it
is yours. Better still is to find a way of making this information readily
available to law enforcement and use signs and decals to let the thief know
this has been done.
Other IRMI articles on equipment theft prevention can be found at
and more detailed tips on security can be found at