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Equipment Theft Prevention

Lessons from an Equipment Thief

David Shillingford | June 1, 2004

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A person driving a bulldozer.

Heavy equipment theft from construction worksites is a growing problem across America. While security precautions are often undertaken, attention to security tends to wane when owners and contractors are not constantly vigilant. What are the greatest theft exposures? To catch a thief, you need to think like a thief, and heed their suggestions on how to avoid being ripped off.

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 part-time mechanic.

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 all-clear.

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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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

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