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Equipment Theft Prevention

Technology in the Fight Against Equipment Theft—Part 4

David Shillingford | March 1, 2003

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A computer monitor with chains and a padlock on it

Technology can be used to fight crime, but there are cost/benefit considerations for each of these technologies. Analyze your environment and determine whether you want to detect or deter thieves. Are two layers of protection better than one? What is the real cost? Consider ignition locks, inventory marking systems, and tracking devices.

This is the fourth and final article in a series that deals with the growing problem of heavy equipment theft and what owners and risk managers can do to reduce the costs associated with equipment theft. Part 1 of this series discussed the size and nature of the problem and how to align theft prevention with business goals. Part 2 described simple physical measures that can be taken to prevent theft. Part 3 looked at how information can be used to deter and detect theft.

This article considers ways in which new technologies can be used to fight equipment crime and the factors to consider when weighing the cost and benefit of these technologies. Some of the factors that will help you assess your own environment as it relates to theft will be introduced along with available antitheft technology. Rather than a review of specific products, the analysis looks at different technologies and which factors play the greatest part in their effectiveness. The article ends with some additional considerations that relate to the overall cost of a product.

Analyze Your Environment

The initial analysis of your circumstances should look at what type of equipment you have and how and where is it used. If your equipment, or certain pieces, is in a remote location that is difficult to secure, e.g., highway maintenance, at weekends or at night when most equipment is stolen, then your solution must focus on the equipment as well as the work site. The technologies discussed in this series are generally used on equipment rather than premises. (See Part 2 of this series for premises recommendations.)

The next step is to assess whether some equipment is higher risk than others. A good target for a thief is something that is mobile and relatively high value—skid steers are a good example and top of the list of the 10 Most Stolen Items. Another factor to consider is whether or not you think that you suffer from employee theft or theft by outsiders assisted by employees. This will affect decisions on devices that rely on the action of employees. Your general geographic location may also have an effect on what type of technology best suits you and which machines it is used on.

To Deter or Detect?

One way of broadly categorizing security devices is whether the device deters or detects theft—or both. In an ideal world, we would deter all thefts. But in reality, this is impossible. Deterrence, like detection, is only measured in degrees. The key to deterrence is to ensure that of similar targets for a thief, yours are the best protected and that this is clear to the thief. Devices that detect a theft may be said to "generally" deter theft by the mere fact that they exist, but if a thief does not know that a certain technology is employed whilst in the act of considering a theft, the device does not really deter. The role of law enforcement in detection is important as an item cannot, or should not, be recovered without some involvement by law enforcement.

General Factors

There are some general questions that can be asked regardless of what technology is employed.

Does the device rely on the action of employees such as fitting or setting a device daily? If so, how complex is this, and how can it be monitored? These kinds of devices are only as effective as those responsible for their activation and is accentuated by any concern over employee involvement in thefts. One of the advantages of many of the new technologies is that control of the device is remote and in the hands of a limited number of accountable employees.

How easily can the device be located and disabled by a thief? This applies across the board but is often a key consideration when looking at tracking devices.

Does the unit have other uses? An example is safety. Some devices may help with safety, such as a remote monitoring device that can give early warning of system failures. It is also possible for a device to pose a safety risk such as a device that immobilizes part of a machine other than the ignition which, if not disabled properly, could damage equipment or even injure an employee. However, if the device does have other uses, it is worth considering whether combating theft is its primary use; if it is not, then it should be bought for this use with the knowledge that it may help prevent or detect theft.

Is the device factory fitted? If it is, it is more likely to be concealed or better integrated into the overall design of the machine but may be an item for which the primary use is not combating theft.

Has the device been proven in combating other types of property theft such as autos? If it has, then there will be a track record that can be part of your analysis, but beware—just because a device works well on a car does not necessarily mean that it will work well on equipment. Factors such as the time it takes to discover a theft, the remoteness of work sites, and the "wear and tear" that a unit is subjected to are a few examples of differences for off-road vehicles.

Three technologies being employed to combat equipment theft are ignition locks, inventory management and marking systems, and tracking devices.

Ignition Locks

There are two systems of ignition locks generally used: the "smart" key and keypad ignition. The smart key is an electronic key with a unique digital ID that must match the machine to start it and is usually reprogrammable. In some products, the digital ID can be programmed for more than one piece of equipment or for limited time periods. A keypad ignition works through a code being programmed into the machine's ignition system that must be reentered to start the machine. Most devices allow a number of codes to be programmed into the system, allowing a number of employees to have access to that machine.

The use of this technology in heavy equipment varies from autos because equipment owners need the flexibility to be able to change who has access to the equipment, whereas the code or key for an auto can be more closely controlled. This means that the system you buy should be flexible but also one that allows close control and monitoring.

Another important difference between autos and equipment is that the ignition system in a car tends to be encased, whereas this may not be the case with equipment. Look carefully at the ability that a thief may have to bypass the ignition security and "hotwire" the equipment. This is an example of where a factory-fitted system may have an advantage over an after-market device.

Inventory Management and Marking Systems

The previous article explained the importance of recording as much information as possible about your equipment so that a full and accurate police report can be filed if a theft occurs. Inventory management and marking systems take this concept a step further and can be cost effective and powerful as both a deterrent and to recover equipment.

An inventory management system will enhance your ability to accurately track your equipment by serial number and allow an accurate police report to be filed, but this can be turned into a powerful detection tool if this information is stored on a national database that law enforcement uses around the clock to confirm the true owner of suspicious equipment. Be sure to ask what measures are taken to keep your data secure.

This can be further enhanced to act as a deterrent if a decal is added to the equipment to clearly tell the thief that the equipment is registered and that the chances of detection whilst handling the equipment are greater. Although it may make the equipment harder to sell and more likely to become the subject of police scrutiny, a determined thief might remove the decal and any other visible identifying numbers. For this reason, owners should also consider stamping a hidden ID number onto the equipment or employing "invisible" marking technology.

Technologies such as DNA marking, molecular marking, and microdots have been developed to "invisibly" (that is, invisible to the naked eye) mark property. The technology that is used will determine what type of information is recorded and what type of device is needed to read the mark. The primary use for this technology is identification and authentication rather than the location of the asset because if the marking is invisible to the thief, it is also invisible to a police officer.

Scanners that use ultraviolet light, magnification, magnetism and lasers to quickly scan surfaces for markings go some way to meeting this challenge, although this still relies on officers to know to look in the first place and to have the appropriate device to hand. This will improve as certain marking technologies become more widely used. Microdot technology is widely used in the motorcycle industry although bikes have a clear advantage over equipment as there is a limit to the number of places that an officer may have to look or the amount of dirt that may be covering the mark.

Once the marking has been read, an officer needs some way of linking the mark to an owner. This will be most efficient where marks and owners can be matched on a central, secure, national database accessible to law enforcement 24 hours a day. In most cases, it is impossible for a thief to fully remove the mark, which means that a decal warning can be posted—a powerful deterrent.

Tracking Devices

This is a technology that has been used successfully in the detection of auto theft. But does it work on equipment? Although the employment of these devices on equipment is in its infancy, the technology does work although the degree to which it does depends upon what the device is designed to do and how it overcomes some challenges that are specific to off-road equipment.

A point of some debate is whether or not such devices deter theft. As already explained, deterrence will be achieved where the thief is alerted that the equipment has such a device fitted. This is generally not done where a tracking device is fitted due to the fear that this might allow a thief to locate and disable the device.

The type of communication used is important because it determines the type, strength, and geographic coverage of the signal. Equipment can be used in almost every square mile of the United States, whereas cars are limited to roads and are concentrated in urban areas. Does the technology provide coverage over your area of use or the area to which a criminal may move the equipment?

In broad terms, tracking devices use one of two types of communication. The first involves ground-based communications such as radio signals or using satellites—commonly referred to as Global Positioning Systems (GPS). A GPS device is likely to have a wider coverage. There are two types of satellites employed: geostationary satellites appear to remain in the same position above the earth and synchronous satellites that go around the earth once a day returning to their original position. The strength of signal is important when you consider whether or not the equipment might be used or stored inside or under some other kind of cover—will this block the signal? What if the equipment is moved by a thief into a container? Will bad weather affect the signal? In general, radio signals are stronger. An enhancement of active technology employs geofencing, whereby an alarm message will be sent when the next signal is sent once a machine is moved out of a predetermined area. Take into account the maximum size of the area and ease of resetting the area in which the equipment is used and who has access to do this.

Another way of categorizing tracking devices is whether a device is active, whereby a signal is sent in any circumstances at a predetermined time, or a device that is passive, whereby the signal is triggered by an event related to a theft. For active devices it is important to know how often a signal is sent and received and if this can be increased during nights and weekends. Usually there is a limit to the number of signals and further charges for more frequent exchanges. If the device is passive, you should ask what trigger is used to initiate the device. Does it depend on something that happens to the equipment when it is being stolen, or will activation occur when the theft has been discovered? An important difference between car theft and equipment theft is the greater time that it may take for an equipment theft to be discovered.

A common concern of equipment owners is that their equipment may be in a remote location where a criminal has more time to locate and disable a device than he might with an auto. The risk of this will depend on how easy the power unit, transmitter, or antenna are to find and what happens if any one of these components is disabled. Does this send an alarm message, if so, to whom, and is this a different message than when a signal is lost for some other reason? If theft detection is not the primary role of the device, such as fleet management systems, it is important to be aware that clear communications may be a greater priority than hiding key components such as antennae.

Damage to the device is a greater concern when used on off-road equipment than on-road vehicles, so it is important to understand how the device has been strengthened to cope with this. This may be an area where factory-fitted devices have the upper hand.

At some stage in the recovery process, law enforcement should be involved. Do you receive the alert, or does the service provider have established contacts with law enforcement to help facilitate police involvement? There are hundreds of thousands of agencies at the local, state, regional, or federal levels. Which agency would be contacted in your area? Have they heard of your service provider or worked with them before? You might even ask if the service provider has ever acted as an expert witness in court. This may be beyond and above any service contract but reflects a determination to help convict equipment thieves.

Another question to ask is whether or not the service provider owns the communication systems that are being used. If it is a satellite, this is unlikely, but the degree to which the vendor is "removed" from the owner of the basic communication system may have a bearing on the level of service and any possible interruptions further down the line. What guarantees of service are given?

Are Two Layers Better than One?

Because some of your equipment may be higher risk than others, consider different layers to your security. A low cost measure may be appropriate for the entire fleet, whereas a more expensive solution may be appropriate for higher risk items. Employing both technologies if they compliment each other may achieve both deterrence and detection.

The Real Cost

The points above are some areas to look at to assess the likely performance of a device. This can then be compared against the cost, but there are some factors to consider beyond the basic cost of the device.

Are there any extra costs such as when an alarm is triggered, be it a real or false alarm? How many messages can be sent for your monthly fee and what do extra signals cost? Is there an installation cost? Does the device need regular servicing? If so, how often, who does it, and how much does it cost?

What is the expected lifetime of the device? Can you speak to an owner who has had a device fitted for this length of time? Can the device be moved from one piece of equipment to another? The greater your equipment turnover, the greater the importance of this for you. Note that if you have different machines moving in and out of a high-risk environment, an easily movable device may be able to cover more than one piece of equipment.

If you are insured, will your agent or insurer be prepared to adjust your deductible or premium to reflect use of such a device? Now is a good time to ask as insurers are being encouraged to look at incentives for increased security to strengthen homeland security.


The bottom line on the use of equipment theft technology is one of risk assessment. Consider the likelihood and possible severity of a theft, including the costs of business interruption and how many devices could be bought for the cost of deterring or detecting one theft.

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