Hot Iron

It’s hard to place an exact estimate on the value of construction equipment stolen each year. Everyone just knows it’s big.

Based on reports from the Insurance Services Office, other industry statistics and its own databases, the National Equipment Register estimates the annual total value of off-road equipment stolen in the United States is in the $300 million to $1 billion range.

“The reason there’s such a large gap is not all of the facts are yet collected in a single place,” says David Shillingford, president of NER, which compiles an equipment database used by law enforcement in recovery efforts. “If we’re seeing the amount we’re accounting for, we know the real number must be much larger because a lot of these losses just don’t show up on the insurance industry radar.”

And the NER figure doesn’t take into account the theft-related costs normally not covered by insurance, including business interruption, short-term equipment rental and project delay penalties.

Analyzing its stolen equipment recovery rates, equipment theft-deterrent maker LoJack concluded more than $9 million in construction equipment assets were stolen and recovered by the company in 2003, up 15 percent from 2002. And that’s just LoJack-equipped machines.

“Let’s not kid each other,” says Earl Gunnerson, executive director of the Crime Prevention Program of Southern California, a contractor-driven effort to combat theft. “Construction equipment theft is a lot like the earthquakes out here. It’s not a matter of if it’s going to happen, but when it’s going to happen.”

Plenty of blame to go around
Who’s at fault for these high numbers? It’s more of a question of who’s not.

While there are the thieves who discover stealing equipment is a low risk/high reward proposition, it goes deeper. There also are the equipment owners who don’t take basic precautions to secure a $100,000 machine on a jobsite. There are police officers who don’t know a backhoe from an excavator and so tend to shrug in frustration when they see something suspicious. And although equipment manufacturers have agreed in principle on an industry-wide standard Product Identification Number – used in tracing ownership of stolen equipment – few have yet to adopt it.

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And so a two-year-old backhoe makes its way down the highway with no interference. The only problem: it’s been stolen off your jobsite.

With our Hot Iron special report, Equipment World editors delve into why this problem is hitting construction company ledgers and what’s being done to reduce the chances of your being the next victim.

Like you, “Jim” thinks of himself as a businessman – and a hardworking one at that. He kept records and had a list of clients – many of whom were repeat customers. He made sure his paperwork and his clothing were in order. He didn’t let his inventory get stale and prided himself on filling special orders in as little as 48 hours. “If you’re not hustling, you’re not making any money,” he says. “And for me, this was all about easy money.”

Our conversation is guarded – Jim is careful not to reveal too many details. In fact, we don’t even meet face-to-face – and I’m not sure where he lives, although certain hints lead me to believe it’s somewhere in the Southwest. “You can ask me anything you want to,” he says over the phone breezily. “And if I’ve got a problem with it, we’ll just move on to something else.”

But try as he might to be evasive about his private life, certain personality traits are visible through the veil Jim puts up. He’s got a great sense of humor. He sounds like the type of guy you could hang out and drink a beer with. He’s thorough and thoughtful. He won’t tell me anything about his childhood, although he admits he was fascinated by construction machinery as a boy. “I loved everything about those machines,” he says, “The sounds they made working, the smell of the exhaust, oil and grease. I just wanted to know how they ran and how they worked. Everything about them was special to me.”

‘Act like you know what you’re doing’
And that’s where any similarities between you and Jim end: Jim is a convicted felon – a construction equipment thief. He won’t say how long he actively stole equipment, nor will he say how much money he made. “You know, man,” he says cagily, “the IRS is on me about that. But I wasn’t picking cans up off the side of the road, if you know what I mean.”
Jim will say that at his peak, he was stealing, on average, three to five machines a week. The largest unit he ever lifted was a scraper. His favorite machine to steal? “Cat D6 dozers,” he says fondly. They were highly sought after and easy to move offsite and sell quickly. Skid steers were so easy to steal he’d sometimes take two or three a week just for spending money.

While he knows guys who liked to work at night, he preferred to work the day shift; and often moved equipment off jobsites while crews toiled around him. “You just gotta be cool,” he says. “You gotta act like you’re supposed to be there… Act like you know what you’re doing, and nobody’s gonna mess with you.”

And he was supremely confident. He drove around his city daily and checked on construction projects. He kept a little black book and updated it regularly – entering any new machine or a type of machine that might interest a client, along with its location and notes about security measures on the site – if there were any. “Nobody cares,” Jim says. “Nobody takes precautions. The cops don’t know what the hell’s going on. If I could see a machine, I could get it. Every time.”

‘Show ’em the paperwork and go’
Jim lied about his age and started operating equipment when he was 17 years old. His life of crime began soon afterwards. He started out stealing parts off machines and selling them to other contractors and repair shops for extra cash. “There were always guys out there who needed starters, alternators, cylinders and stuff like that,” he says. “Once they know who you are – that you can be trusted – you’d always be getting orders. Guys would say, ‘I need a starter for my dozer. Can you get me one?'”

Jim could. He’d slip onto a jobsite in the dead of night and find what he needed. “That’s all you’ve gotta do,” he says. “Just get on the site. Usually the tools you need to get the part are right there on the job.”

Jim graduated from parts theft to whole machines in relatively short order. His customers began to ask him if he could “procure” equipment for them. “It’s pretty easy to do,” he says. “Just go to your friendly neighborhood office supply store and get some bills of lading. Steal or buy an old work shirt with somebody else’s name on it… Keys … hell, everyone’s got keys. There’s always extra sets laying around. Then go by a jobsite and get the serial number off the machine you want. Go back and dummy up your serial number on your bill of lading. Then, next day, if you don’t have a trailer, go steal you one, or whatever you need to haul it.”

From there, Jim would case the machine until it wasn’t being used. He always worked alone, he says, figuring there were fewer lies to keep straight when he was by himself. But even then, snatching machinery was easy. He’d simply pull onto the site and load his target machine onto his trailer. “If anybody stops you or says anything … hey, you’ve got your bill of lading, the serial number’s there, the destination is there … nobody’s gonna mess with you.”

Problems, he says, were few and far between. “Nobody ever follows up on paperwork,” he says. “If Juan or Jose comes up to you, that’s no big deal. They can’t read the damn bill of lading anyway. You might get a nosey foreman every once in a while. But he’s not gonna drop a dime and call anybody to make sure the bill’s legit. You pretty much just show ’em the paperwork and go.” Sometimes, Jim would hedge his bet, though. “If I thought the foreman was gonna ask a lot of questions, I’d fake the referral number on the bill of lading – you know, have a buddy waiting by the phone to OK the shipment. As long as someone says it’s OK, everybody’s happy.”

Even the sight of a police car wasn’t undue cause for alarm. “I’ve got a buddy who was stealing a dozer off a site one night, and he was having trouble getting the truck through the gate, ’cause it was real narrow,” he recalls. “These cops pulled up and asked him what the hell he was doing. He just showed ’em his paperwork – and the cops don’t know any more than anybody else – they bought it and ended up turning on their lights and stopping traffic so he could get out of the yard and on the road with the machine. As long as you act like you know what you’re doing, you can get away with anything.”

Once he was off the jobsite, everything else was easy. “If you want to take the machine to Mexico and sell it, that’s no problem,” Jim says. “Homeland Security checks everything coming into the country. They don’t care what goes out.”

When it came to orders for specific machines, Jim and the buyer usually agreed on the price in advance. Jim’s job was to find the machine and deliver it to his client as soon as possible. “That’s the best – when you’ve got an order in hand,” he says. “‘Cause you don’t have to worry about anything except delivering the machine.” And because he kept a close eye on active jobsites in his area, Jim always had machines in mind for prospective customers. “Worse case, it might take me a couple of days to find a certain machine,” he notes. “But not much more than that.”

Other times Jim would steal equipment on his own and sell it – usually in the local newspaper or in shopper guides. “If you don’t list the price too low, nobody’s gonna get suspicious,” he says. “Just list it $2,000, maybe $3,000 less than its normal asking price – use a phone card as your contact number – you can generally move it pretty quick.”

All transactions were cash. But if Jim was selling the equipment on his own, he was always careful to give the buyer a receipt. “That makes it legit in people’s eyes,” he says. “They think you’re on the up and up, then.”

Sometimes Jim would take machines across town and sell them to contractors who weren’t above paying cash for stolen machines. “They all know what’s going on,” he says. “They’re not as innocent as they pretend. If they can get a $200,000 machine for $5,000, they’re gonna buy it. They can cut their expenses and get their work done – it’s all profit for them. And when they’re done, they can just leave it on site – if that machine gets stolen from them, it’s no big deal. They didn’t have much money tied up in it and it was stolen anyway.”

Advice from the enemy
Access – that was Jim’s No. 1 priority when casing a jobsite. “You gotta be able to get in and get out quick and easy,” he says. “I liked a wide open place, with no guards or lights. And the busier the site, the better. You’ve got a lot less chance of being noticed.”

Spread out equipment was a good sign, too. “They can’t keep track of machines if they’re all over the place,” Jim says. “If they were smart, they’d group all the machines up together at the end of the day. I sure hated to see machines lined up in a row – it’s easy to tell real quick if something’s missing. I’d always pass on a row of lined-up machines.”

While he prefers stealing in the daytime, Jim did some night jobs as well. “Jobsites never have enough lighting,” he notes. “That always made things easier. And you’d be surprised how many people park machines in hard-to-reach spots, out of sight of the road or buildings. Those machines are just begging to get stolen.”

Jim didn’t like cables strung across jobsite entrances, either. “I always liked to see chains,” he says, “‘Cause they’re easy to break through: You can just drive a damn truck right through ’em – they’ll bust. People put little ol’ crappy chains up and think they’re doing something, but you can get an 18-volt grinder and zip right through them in no time at all. Cables … They’re a bitch, man.”

One guaranteed deterrent, in Jim’s mind, were GPS tracking systems. “I didn’t like all that secret agent shit,” he says. “If I saw an antenna or anything like that on a machine, I wouldn’t fool with it. They can have that one. There are too many others right down that road that don’t.”

We’d talked for a pretty long while when Jim announced he had to go. But before he went, I asked him if he was through stealing equipment. A long pause followed. Finally, he said, “Nah, man. I don’t do that anymore.”

Thad Pirtle kept a reward poster for a stolen $150,000 loader hanging on the wall next to his computer for more than a year. “Just so I could look at it every day,” says the vice president and equipment manager for Traylor Bros., a heavy civil contractor in Evansville, Indiana.

The near-new Caterpillar 953 track loader disappeared from a Mississippi River bridge project in southern Illinois in 2002. It was parked in a dimly lit, unsecured area bordered by woods across the river from where work had begun on the bridge. A day or two passed before anyone noticed the machine was missing. “They made all the mistakes that a typical contractor makes other than the key wasn’t in it,” Pirtle recalls.

An investigation ensued. Pirtle could see rust on the ground where the lowboy had been dropped, so he knew it was an old trailer – not something anyone would use to transport such a large machine very far.

Traylor Bros. contacted the local sheriff’s office, Caterpillar and the FBI, which couldn’t get involved because there was no proof the machine went across state lines. And because most of the project was located in Missouri and the machine was stolen in Illinois, there was a question about which police department should handle the case. “We had a little bit of conflict with law enforcement in actually getting someone to take the ball and run with it,” Pirtle says.

Illinois police detectives ended up doing the initial investigation. But after a week or two, the case fell to the wayside. “From my perspective, I was expecting somebody to do something really grand,” Pirtle recalls. “From their perspective, it’s probably something they see every day and they probably just put the pieces in place and let time take its course.”

Pirtle decided to take a more active approach. Convinced the loader was still in the general area, he printed bulletins offering a $5,000 reward for the machine, and an equipment superintendent spent a week canvassing towns and construction sites within a 150-mile radius of the bridge project.

A year passed with no response. Pirtle stayed in touch with police and sent a superintendent into the area occasionally to look around and ask if anyone had seen the machine.

Almost a year and a half later the Missouri prosecutor’s office called to say the machine had been located within 30 miles of the jobsite it had been stolen from. The Product Identification Number plates had been torn off and replaced, but Caterpillar told police where to look for hidden PINs thieves usually don’t know about.

The thief was the partner of someone who had performed an environmental survey on the bridge project and noticed the machine. After the two had a falling out and split up their equipment theft business, the thief got caught. During plea bargaining, he offered information about three thefts, including that of Traylor’s loader.

A man running a pit-and-quarry operation had bought the machine for about $70,000 – money he didn’t get back.

The loader had 200 or 300 extra hours on it and needed about $2,000 in repairs, but that didn’t bother Pirtle. “I was just tickled to have my machine back,” he says.

In the most recent theft at Geneva Rock Products, a Springville, Utah-based road builder and construction material provider, a thief took a compact excavator from a small road project near a community college. “It was in a fairly public place, so it was a little bit surprising it happened there,” says Paul Clyde, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Clyde Companies, Geneva Rock’s parent. “It indicates how daring they’re getting in taking things.”

The thief simply drove up in a pickup with a small trailer attached, backed up to an embankment and drove the excavator onto the trailer. While Geneva’s policy is to lock equipment and take the keys, in this case the operator left the keys in the machine. “They made it easy,” Clyde says.

The company contacted the police, the insurance company and, because the compact excavator was a rented machine, the rental company. When a rental machine is stolen, the contractor is responsible for the fair market value of the equipment – the price one would pay for a replacement machine with a similar number of hours – plus, in most cases, loss of use for 30 days, says Priscilla Oehlert, director of risk, safety and environmental for Rental Service Corporation.

Clyde had the insurance check in hand three months later when police found the machine. It was in a backyard along with several other small pieces of equipment that were missing from the area. The thief was advertising the machines on the Internet.

Clyde says the company was just lucky the thief hadn’t taken the compact excavator very far away. “A lot of times when equipment is stolen from here it’s gone quick – out of the area,” he says. “Very seldom does it stay local. They’re stealing it to take to another market where it would be harder to trace.”

Geneva Rock Products: The case of the careless operator
In the most recent theft at Geneva Rock Products, a Springville, Utah-based road builder and construction material provider, a thief took a compact excavator from a small road project near a community college. “It was in a fairly public place, so it was a little bit surprising it happened there,” says Paul Clyde, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Clyde Companies, Geneva Rock’s parent. “It indicates how daring they’re getting in taking things.”

The thief simply drove up in a pickup with a small trailer attached, backed up to an embankment and drove the excavator onto the trailer. While Geneva’s policy is to lock equipment and take the keys, in this case the operator left the keys in the machine. “They made it easy,” Clyde says.

The company contacted the police, the insurance company and, because the compact excavator was a rented machine, the rental company. When a rental machine is stolen, the contractor is responsible for the fair market value of the equipment – the price one would pay for a replacement machine with a similar number of hours – plus, in most cases, loss of use for 30 days, says Priscilla Oehlert, director of risk, safety and environmental for Rental Service Corporation.

Clyde had the insurance check in hand three months later when police found the machine. It was in a backyard along with several other small pieces of equipment that were missing from the area. The thief was advertising the machines on the Internet.

Clyde says the company was just lucky the thief hadn’t taken the compact excavator very far away. “A lot of times when equipment is stolen from here it’s gone quick – out of the area,” he says. “Very seldom does it stay local. They’re stealing it to take to another market where it would be harder to trace.”

In January, Steven Bevilacqua, owner of Bevilacqua Paving in Medway, Massachusetts, discovered thieves had broken into his shop and taken $15,000 worth of cut-off saws, plate compactors and tools.

The shop is located in a low-crime area and is hidden in the woods, Bevilacqua says, so he suspects the thief or thieves are either employees or people who make deliveries to the company. Small items are stolen from Bevilacqua Paving about three times a year, and the thieves have never been caught.

The shop is not completely fenced in, but a locked gate blocks entrance from the street. The gate was still locked the morning Bevilacqua and his employees discovered the theft, so the thief either knew the combination or left a truck parked on the street, carried items past the gate and put them in the vehicle. When employees arrived Monday morning they found their toolboxes broken into and noticed missing saws. An inventory had to be taken. “We put it under a microscope,” Bevilacqua says. “Within about six hours we knew what was gone.”

The police wrote up a report of the break-in, but Bevilacqua doesn’t expect to recover any of the stolen equipment. He notes that the shop is located on the Interstate 495 corridor and thieves can be on the highway in a minute. Thefts from the entire region surrounding I-495 have increased dramatically in recent years, he says. “With the black market on this stuff, it’s probably gone in an hour,” Bevilacqua says.

Five months ago, Bevilacqua Paving experienced a theft even more expensive than the shop break-in, although it involved only one item. A two-week-old, $25,000 generator powering the mix design laboratory was stolen from the company’s asphalt plant site. Bevilacqua discovered the theft on a Monday morning, when he tried to start up the lab and found there was no power. “We looked outside and the generator was gone,” he says.

The thief had broken a lock to get inside the site and backed a pickup down a hill to where the generator was located. “I can’t believe they had the guts to do it and didn’t get stuck,” Bevilacqua says. “It seemed like they had the stars aligned for that one.”

To determine if a machine is stolen, law enforcement first has to find its rightful owner. This is trickier than it first appears.

The foremost line of defense is the Product Identification Number – or serial number – located on the machine. PINs used by construction equipment manufacturers, however, have their own frustrations. Since 2001, there’s been an international advisory calling for a standard 17-character PIN on all construction equipment. Such a PIN would put law enforcement on familiar ground since officers deal daily with automotive 17-character Vehicle Identification Numbers.

To date, however, just a few manufacturers have adopted this 17-character PIN (for a more thorough discussion on manufacturer efforts, see the article on page 60). Because there’s no consistency – PINs placed on construction equipment can be five to 17 characters long – there’s currently no way for law enforcement computers to determine if a number has been entered correctly. If it hasn’t, the chances are zero a patrol officer checking a suspicious machine at 1 a.m. will find it listed as stolen.

In addition, there are thousands of PIN location variations in existence and new ones get created each year. This makes it impossible to produce a list that is both easy for police to carry and up to date, according to the International Association of Chiefs of Police. For example, PIN locations on skid steers can be found in at least four general locations.

The PIN is ideal, but any number will help, including owner-applied numbers. Some components, usually engines and transmissions, have their own serial numbers, which sometimes can be cross referenced to locate a machine’s owner.

Yes, but they still need to be found
Of course, this is all assuming the officer knows where to locate the PIN plate on the machine, or even knows it’s a PIN as opposed to a component serial number. Again, if a number is entered incorrectly or misidentified in any way, finding the owner in any database will be rough going.

“Most manufacturers have been a delight to work with and are helpful, but it’s hard to nail down anything without a PIN,” says Det. Jamie Woodruff, one of two officers working heavy equipment theft for the Miami Dade Police Department. “Unlike cars, which have component numbers that mirror the vehicle’s VIN, if you just have a transmission or a pump number on a stolen piece it makes it more difficult to find.”

Officers typically trace numbers using the FBI’s National Crime Information Computer. Since 2003, however, they’ve had an additional resource with the National Equipment Register, funded primarily by 350 insurance companies, although the firm has also found success among rental companies and individual contractors.

“We typically get a call from a police officer at 3 a.m. about a suspicious machine,” says David Shillingford, NER president. “The first question from them is usually ‘Where do I find the PIN?’ We can always get them to a number somewhere on the machine. Then we start running it against our database of 70,000 theft reports and 11 million owner records. Sometimes in the course of the investigation, they’ll ask us to call an owner or insurer.”

Sgt. Henry Brune of the Texas Department of Safety and current chair of the International Association of Auto Theft Investigators’ heavy equipment theft committee, says another brick wall for law enforcement is the lack of registration on construction equipment. “You’re plumb out of luck on equipment,” he says. “Many times you have to go to the manufacturer, and if you’re dealing with a third or fourth owner, they’re hard to find.”

And the fact most of this working equipment is covered with dirt and grime adds to the PIN location problem. Grabbing a flashlight and searching underneath a muddy machine for a hidden number isn’t high on anyone’s list of preferred tasks.

What numbers?
But what really gets officers shaking their heads is the lack of owner records. It’s hard to prove ownership when owners don’t even have a bill of sale with the PIN listed, or have recorded just part of the PIN in their records. “We have to have the correct numbers,” says Bruce Ogden, an investigator with the California Highway Patrol. “If we don’t, it will never come back as stolen.”

NER advises equipment owners to maintain as many of the following details as possible for each piece of equipment: year, manufacturer, model number, PIN/serial number, engine and other component numbers from plates or decals, photos from all four sides, location and description of any unique details or paint patterns and any etched, die stamped or stenciled inventory numbers.

And while you’re getting your record keeping in order, don’t forget your tool bin. It’s common in Ogden’s jurisdiction for contractors to keep their smaller items in cargo containers, which then become an easy target for thieves. “Last year we had a large case with 50 victims,” he says. “Nothing was marked, so we had thousands of power tools we couldn’t match with owners. At $400 a tool it adds up.”

But officer, it was just here
Let’s face it: many contractors make a practice of leaving their equipment just sitting anywhere. Then there’s the universal key standard, in which a John Deere key fits all Deere construction equipment, a Case key fits all Case equipment, and so on. These keys can be bought anywhere.

“I equate this situation to buying a new Porsche, leaving it in a remote area and knowing thousands of people have the key to it,” Ogden says.

There are a variety of theft deterrents on the market (see article on page 63), as well as plain old common-sense practices, including:

  • Parking equipment tightly together to hamper access
  • Stressing to your employees that everything must be locked up
  • Fencing in your equipment

“Just make it hard for thieves to steal from you,” Brune says. “You may think, ‘Well, I’m insured,’ but the real cost of theft just starts with your insurance deductible. You finally get your insurance check, but now you’re 10 days behind on a job that’s costing you $10,000 a day.”

Details make a difference, whether they concern construction contracting or police work. It was two small, separate items that caught the eye of D.T. “Rusty” Russell, a detective working in Florida’s Saint Lucie County Sheriff’s Office, and led to the biggest stolen equipment bust of his 18-year career.

In 1998 St. Lucie County experienced a rash of heavy equipment and tractor-trailer thefts. There seemed to be no common thread linking the thefts, but an anonymous tip led Russell and his investigators to a house on the outskirts of town with a large yard hidden from sight behind a fence. Russell didn’t have a warrant to search the premises, but in eyeing the property from the road he noticed a stack of pallets outside. Printed on the pallets was the company name of one of the theft victims.

That was enough to start surveillance. Three weeks later in the middle of the night Russell’s investigators observed a suspect moving a stolen tractor off the property. That led to a warrant, and once inside Russell and his investigators found a treasure trove of stolen goods. “This guy was stealing everything,” Russell says. “His primary interest was heavy equipment, but he was not above stealing your bass boat if he saw a good opportunity.”

A chance encounter
At that point, all they had on the suspect (called John, not his real name) was possession of stolen goods. John’s story was that he was just warehousing and moving product for somebody in Miami. The case might have ended there, but in the cache of stolen equipment Russell noticed a purple semi-truck with the name of a Miami company painted on its side.

Two weeks later Russell was driving home late in the evening and saw two trucks with the same color and logo – and no trailers – pull into a truck stop in Fort Pierce. He ran a check on the tags and sure enough, they were stolen.

That bust led them down to Miami and a character Russell calls “Manny,” who turned out to be John’s co-conspirator. But unlike John, Manny quickly spilled the beans.

May I take your order please?
What Russell and his investigators heard from Manny was a story of audacious criminals repeatedly hitting contractors, dealers and other victims whose naiveté made them easy marks.
“These guys were contract thieves,” Russell says. “They stole to order.”

Using a phony offshore company as their cover, they would take requests for a certain type of equipment and then drive around until they found what the customer wanted. “They’d come back and show the buyers Polaroids of what they’d found, give them a price and let the customer pick out the machine they wanted. Then they’d go out the next night and steal it.”

A lot of John’s success was due to his familiarity with the equipment. “He had been in construction his whole life,” Russell says.

Stolen in broad daylight
Russell cites as an example a job at a small construction site where an auto dealership was expanding its facilities. It was a pleasant Saturday afternoon and John drove his truck up to the site, loaded a Deere backhoe onto his lowboy, chained it down and drove off. “The salesmen were outside shooting the breeze and no one asked him a thing,” Russell says. “He knew if he tried it at 4 a.m. it would look suspicious. So the solution was to steal it in plain view and broad daylight.”

Another weak link John exploited was interchangeable construction equipment keys. “If you wanted a certain brand of machine and he didn’t have a key for it, he’d go down to the dealership and say ‘Hey, I lost my keys and I need a few extra.’ He’d pay cash, so it wasn’t traceable. Later on when we did some more searching we found key receipts from all the big dealerships in the area.”

Challenges in rounding up evidence
From the first anonymous tip to the trial took Russell and his fellow investigators nearly two years. Catching a thief was one thing. Building an airtight case was another. While Manny was eager to cooperate, John never admitted anything. “The challenge was to tie everything back to the ring leader, John,” Russell says. That meant months of reviewing equipment theft reports and calling all the victims and witnesses, exhaustively interviewing them and chasing down additional leads for more detailed information.

Russell organized a task force for the case that included four counties, the state Department of Agriculture and the Florida Highway Patrol. Police task forces can be tricky to manage. The different participants all have limited time, budgets and priorities. And elected officials and prosecutors give priority to murders, rapes, robberies and other high-profile crimes. Even though the dollar amounts on equipment thefts are often quite high (there are plenty of backhoes that cost more than a new Porsche), the problem doesn’t elicit much attention from the general public.

Who you know
Russell says the key to making these task forces work is for all the participants to check their egos at the door. Fortunately for Russell’s case, his task force proved to be a model of inter-agency cooperation. A lot of this success Russell attributes to the old, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” principle.

“There are a lot of questions I don’t know the answers to, but I probably know enough people that I can dig around and find the answer,” Russell says. “Having someone you can call on a personal level and ask for a favor makes a big difference.”

With a lot of the suspects and much of the evidence in Miami 100 miles to the south, Russell found it necessary to develop relationships with the authorities there as well. Spending time getting to know Miami’s law enforcement community on a face-to-face level was a key ingredient in the success of the investigations, he says, and produced much better results than impersonal communication through telephone and e-mail.

Toward the end of the investigation, Russell also tapped into the resources of the FBI. “The agent and I had worked together on previous cases, so we already had a pretty good rapport,” Russell says. And while the FBI did not pursue the case as its own, the information its agents provided led to the recovery of an additional $100,000 worth of stolen equipment that had been loaded on a barge for shipping out of the country.

Case closed
Two years after Russell first spotted the purple trucks, his task force unloaded two thick binders of evidence on the desks of the state prosecutors. Manny cut a deal with the prosecutors and because of his cooperation got 10 years probation. John, the ringleader, refused to confess to anything and got five years’ jail time and 10 years’ probation. In all, five people went to jail.

With Manny’s cooperation investigators were able to recover about $900,000 worth of the $1.3 million in equipment the gang had stolen,” Russell says. “It wasn’t the greatest resolution,” he says, “but to start out with nothing and end up with what we did – and being able to get a lot of the property back – in my mind was a pretty good thing.”

Given the sticker price of most pieces of mobile heavy construction equipment, nearly any theft of yellow iron qualifies as a serious felony. Despite this, the problem generates little visibility or public concern.

Tough cases to crack
We asked Capt. Gerald McGough, who runs the investigative division of the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries, and his team of investigators to tell us about some of the challenges they and their peers face in this specialized line of police work. Here’s what they said:

  • Contractors are sometimes reluctant to report thefts. Given the rise in insurance rates in the past two years, some contractors would just as soon eat the cost of a stolen piece of equipment rather than report it and risk higher premiums.
  • Equipment thieves know what they’re doing. Unlike the common criminal, equipment thieves usually don’t act on impulse, but plan their hits. In one example cited by McGough’s investigators, the thieves hired a legitimate trucking company to pick up and deliver the equipment to them. Presented with a bill of lading and DOT haul permits the thieves had obtained legally, the site supervisor assumed the request was legitimate and let the unwitting trucking company deliver one of the contractor’s biggest and most expensive machines straight into the arms of thieves.
  • Police don’t know the equipment well. Report a missing 1968 Camero and every cop in this country will be able to spot it from a half-mile away. But few law enforcement personnel know the difference between a backhoe and an excavator, a skid steer and a wheel loader.
  • Thefts are not immediately reported. When a car is stolen, police find out immediately. When a piece of equipment is stolen, often during the weekend, contractors don’t report the loss until Monday morning or sometimes even later. Confusion over what pieces of equipment belong at what jobsite, or if anybody borrowed a piece of equipment over the weekend for personal use, can delay reporting further.
  • The crime sometimes covers a wide geographic area. That means investigations by necessity require regional task forces. Manpower limitations, the difficulty of conducting investigations in remote rural areas and inter-agency communication all present challenges.
  • Equipment thieves joining with larger criminal enterprises. McGough says he’s starting to see a convergence between drug crimes and equipment theft, where the money generated by stolen equipment can be used to fund large drug purchases and other criminal enterprises. Larger criminal organizations can provide thieves additional protection and resources that police must combat to break cases and bring successful prosecutions.
  • Reluctance to prosecute. In some tight-knit, rural areas authorities may hesitate to throw the book at somebody’s wayward child for crimes like equipment theft. This is especially true when the thief may be related to local politicians or civic officials.

Caterpillar – which owns an insurance company with a vested interest in recovering stolen equipment – recently took a hard look at what the company was doing to help combat equipment theft. “We came up with a layered approach,” says Matt Wahrenburg, senior business investigator with the company.

Cat dealers were first on the plan of attack. Company security personnel put on awareness training for dealers in the most equipment-theft prone states. The subjects at hand: What to look for, how to bolster security at the dealerships themselves and how to effectively work with law enforcement. While at the dealerships, Cat invited local law enforcement personnel in for a free day of training.

Wahrenburg, a former law enforcement officer himself, knows first-hand the value of such training. “They’re just not familiar with this equipment, so we’re encouraging them to get in there and get dirty and try to find stampings and the Product Identification Number plates.”

“We try to get as much information to law enforcement as we can,” says Beth Schaefer, CNH Corporate Security for Case Construction Equipment. “We’ll show them different types of equipment, how to identify them, what PIN plates look like, where the component serial numbers are. We can cross reference numbers on engines and transmissions and sometimes axles and ROPS. The only clink would be a remanufactured engine, which usually can’t be cross referenced.”

Once the PINs have been located, they can be run through a manufacturer’s stolen equipment database such as the one Cat recently upgraded. “Since we have owner information on machines stolen 12 to 20 years ago, we can give officers information they can’t always find in other places,” Wahrenburg says. One of those other places is the FBI’s National Crime Information Computer, which only keeps data online for five years.

Case also maintains a database customers and law enforcement personnel can call on, Schaefer says. “I can do a cross reference with an engine number and tell an officer where a secondary plate number is located on the machine,” she says. “Anything to help them identify the unit.”

When a machine is reported as stolen to Case, the company puts a block on any warranty work. “That way a dealer can find out when they’re ordering parts that the machine is under question,” Schaefer says. “They are then directed to corporate security. If it turns out to be stolen, we in turn notify law enforcement.” This database is never purged. “We’ve had some machines recovered 10 years after the theft.”

Caterpillar is one of the few manufacturers using the 17-character PIN recommended by the International Organization for Standardization. The company started implementing it in 2000. Komatsu began using the 17-character PIN in 2004. Starting with the company’s new backhoes released last fall, Case uses a nine-digit number that eventually will be able to fit in the format of the 17-character PIN. “In this nine-digit PIN we have information on where it was made, what year it was made, what type of unit it is, followed by a six-digit manufacturer’s sequence number,” Schaefer says. Some of Case’s European-made equipment now displays the 17-character PIN.

Cat has also put a bar code on PIN plates, so if thieves deface the PIN an officer with a bar code reader can still read it. Another theft deterrent, micro engraving, puts the PIN on the plate or machine in such small characters you need a magnifying glass to read it.

Manufacturers admit they haven’t quite met one law enforcement request: the need for a 24/7 hotline so an officer checking out a machine at 2 a.m. can talk to a knowledgeable person. “We’re just not there today,” Wahrenburg says, “but we hope to have a dedicated 24-hour command center by the end of this year.”

“I understand the frustration of not reaching anyone,” Schaefer says, “but if they’ll leave us a message with the information they have, we’ll start running any numbers before we call back so we can have any information readily available. We’re good at getting back to them.”