On record: Dirty open secrets

It was time to change the oil on my Rav 4.

The employee at my local quick-change place gave the Vehicle Identification Number located on the driver’s side a cursory glance. “So it’s a 2002 model?” he asked. The question was polite. Of course it was a 2002 model; the VIN told him so.

Sadly, someone changing the oil in my car has access to more vehicle information than the average law enforcement officer does when trying to locate a stolen piece of construction equipment. Although international standards are in place for construction equipment Product Identification Numbers that mirror VINs for on-road vehicles, they’re still advisory and few manufacturers have implemented them on a worldwide basis.

But the ball is hardly just in the manufacturers’ court when it comes to stolen off-road equipment, estimated to cost U.S. owners between $300 million to $1 billion annually in equipment alone. It’s time for contractors to own up to a couple of dirty open secrets that help perpetuate the problem.

No. 1: Thieves steal because there are buyers.
This fact is virtually ignored when the subject of equipment theft comes up. The easy out is, “Oh, it’s all going down to South America.” Not hardly. In fact, the law enforcement personnel we interviewed for our special report this month say missing equipment usually ends up within a 30- to 65-mile radius of where it was stolen. And as Senior Editor Jack Robert’s conversation with a convicted equipment thief points out, many thefts are just a matter of filling orders from fellow contractors.

You can only play dumb for so long. If the price is too good to be true then it no doubt is. Contractors always talk about going with their gut feelings, and then blithely ignore them when a “good deal” comes around. When I interviewed him in 1990, Gene Rutledge, a now-retired California Highway Patrol investigator who made a career out of chasing heavy equipment thieves, told me the telltale signs of a thief: “The guy’s going to be reluctant to give you a bill of sale, he’s going to want to make this deal in a hurry and he’s going to want cash.” Does this sound like anyone who’s approached you lately?

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No. 2: Thieves steal because you give them plenty of opportunity.
One officer describes the roads he patrols as “equipment smorgasbords.” Contractors leave easy-to-transport machines alone with no visible security measures. At other times they load and securely tie down machines on trailers ready for a next-day transport only to discover in the morning someone’s helped themselves to a no-sweat opportunity. And those are only the slap-yourself-in-the-forehead mistakes.

There are contractors who don’t take the time to record machine serial numbers or keep them in an easy-to-get-to place. They don’t provide adequate security lighting or when possible, fence in their equipment. And they discount all theft deterrents as too expensive.
When we asked respondents to our 2005 equipment theft survey if they’d ever experienced a jobsite theft, 67 percent of them said “yes.” And yet there are a lot of what-can-you-do shrugs over such a widespread problem.

Take a hard look at how you may be putting out your own welcome mat for thieves. If these characters see an easy-in, easy-out situation on your jobsites, you need to claim your part of the blame for this problem.