Stop, Thief!

By William Atkinson Special to CONTRACTOR Between October 2000 and July 2002, Raven Mechanical in Houston suffered the theft of more than $40,000 worth of tools and equipment from jobsites. The bulk of this came out of our pockets, because with the insurance climate being what it is, you dont dare turn it in, explains Bill Jones, managing partner. Even more costly than the loss of the tools and equipment

By William Atkinson


Between October 2000 and July 2002, Raven Mechanical in Houston suffered the theft of more than $40,000 worth of tools and equipment from jobsites.

“The bulk of this came out of our pockets, because with the insurance climate being what it is, you don’t dare turn it in,” explains Bill Jones, managing partner.

Even more costly than the loss of the tools and equipment was the downtime of the crews on the job, Jones says.

“We ended up stumbling around for a day or more remobilizing the men with new tools and equipment,” he says. “And with margins being cut to the bone on these large jobs, there was just no room to take these financial ‘hits.’”

When Republic Plumbing in Madison, Tenn., moved to a new location two years ago, the property had a fence in the back, complete with barbed wire across the top. Owner Andrew Ward also kept a guard dog in the area. Within six months, however, someone cut the high-security lock on the fence as well as the large lock on the trailer of a $25,000 backhoe and took off with it.

“We were experiencing between $3,000 and $4,000 a month in tool theft,” reports Lawrence Snow, former president of Blue Dot Services of Las Vegas. “Based on information we’ve received from the police, the majority of the thieves were non-employees. They were just drug users.”

The problem, as these examples illustrate, harms contractors across the country. Several members of the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors related their experiences to CONTRACTOR.

“If a contractor thinks he doesn’t have a theft problem, he’s not tracking it,” says Vicki Schlechter, executive director of Sacramento-based Construction Crime Prevention Program of Northern California. “We estimate that, in Sacramento County alone, contractors lose $13 million to $15 million a year in stolen tools and equipment.”

While some of the companies contacted by CONTRACTOR report that the majority of thefts against them are perpetrated by third parties, Schlechter claims that about 85% of contractor tool and equipment thefts are employee-related - either employees of the contractor or employees of other contractors on the job, and 98% of it is substance abuse-related.

“This doesn’t mean that 85% of your employees are stealing,” Schlecter says. “It may just be one employee.”

What doesn’t work

When it comes to thwarting theft, most contractors have tried a few tactics before hitting on some successful strategies.

After being struck by the theft of the backhoe, Republic Plumbing installed a high-security braided cable, a high-security lock on the gate and a trailer lock on the tongue of the trailer to protect its new backhoe. It didn’t work.

“Six months later, someone stole it,” Ward notes. “The dog was there again, too. They probably just threw it a large steak each time.”

Steve Irwin, operating officer for Farmer & Irwin in Riviera Beach, Fla., says one of his company’s earlier attempts to prevent tool theft was similarly unsuccessful.

“We marked our tools with, ‘Stolen from ...,’ but it didn’t help much.”

Raven Mechanical’s Jones adds: “We’ve purchased stainless steel locks and other security measures. Everything is marked using ‘tool tracking’ and is identified ‘Not for Resale.’ We even place our driver’s license numbers on the tools. None of that worked. I’ve thought about stringing electric wire up, but with the way lawyers are in this society, I know I can’t get away with that.”

The reason that most of these traditional preventive measures fail is simple, Jones says.

“The majority of thieves are professionals who work on the weekends using gasoline cut-off saws to cut locks or cut holes in steel containers,” he says. “They hit us at one site and took two of our welding machines with no tires. They probably used a flatbed truck.”

Unfortunately, for employee-related theft, employee screening usually is not a viable option, Schlechter says.

“In most cases, the union hall provides the labor,” she explains. “In addition, there is a huge labor shortage, so no one wants to go to the effort of screening.”

What does work

Now that you know what doesn’t work, here are a few steps that can be effective. If you’re a contractor in that area, you can join the Construction Crime Prevention Program of Northern California, which was formed in 1971 by mechanical contractors who were fed up with tool theft.

“We have a ‘secret witness’ program with an anonymous hotline number and the opportunity for callers to receive rewards,” Schlechter says. “We’ve had tremendous success in prevention and in recoveries. In one case, information we received led to a $13 million recovery of tools and equipment.”

Schlechter recommends that contractors post a sign at their places of employment stating that they conduct drug testing.

“In many instances, people coming in to apply see that sign, turn around and walk out,” she says.

The Northern California program also works with law enforcement agencies by providing tools and containers with tracking devices for bait operations in areas that have been hit particularly hard.

“This program is very successful in apprehending professional thieves and has led to a number of arrests and convictions,” she says.

Although Raven Mechanical’s Jones reports not having much luck with this idea, Schlechter recommends placing your personal driver’s license number on all your tools and equipment. This may not prevent theft, but it can aid in recovery.

“During parolee searches and narcotics raids, police almost always find stolen tools and equipment,” she explains.

If your license number is on them, the police can impound the items. In addition, having your license number on the items makes it easier for the police to find the owner ¯ you.

Jones says he has found success in isolating the area of each jobsite that contains the office trailer and supply storage.

“At one job, the general contractor placed the compound within a construction fence, went 6 ft. inside the perimeter of that fence and set up a laser detector,” he reports. “You have to enter a code into an electronic keypad or an alarm goes off when you enter the compound. It was a $5,000 investment, but thefts stopped.”

Jones admits that, since general contractors rarely have their own equipment onsite, they may not have a strong interest in these types of security measures.

“As such, all of the subcontractors should get together to encourage cooperation for this idea,” Jones recommends.

Republic’s Ward also has found success with additional gating and technology.

“Since having our two backhoes stolen, we have added a second gate and a laser beam security system detector across the driveway between the two gates that automatically dials the police if it is tripped,” he says.

He swings the boom out on the backhoe each night so it would have to be started and the boom moved back onto the trailer for it to be stolen. These steps probably would be sufficient to deter theft, but to be even more safe, Ward parks a vehicle in front of the trailer each night, so the criminals would have to hot-wire the vehicle and move it out of the way first, in addition to defeating all the other deterrents.

“Since we implemented these things over a year ago, we haven’t had anything stolen,” Ward reports.

Jones says he is considering the purchase of a remote portable security system called “Tattletale” for each of his major projects. It operates on a marine battery.

“It utilizes a motion detector that sets off sirens and flashing lights, then automatically dials up to three preprogrammed phone numbers, such as the police, the superintendent and you, all using wireless technology,” he says.

Whatever amount it will cost Raven Mechanical to secure all its sites, it still will be less than the $40,000 the contractor has lost in less than two years, not to mention the lost productivity, Jones notes.

Blue Dot Services tried a simple, but definitely creative, idea.

“One weekend, we did a complete tool inventory, laid everything out and spray-painted everything hot pink,” Snow says. “Almost overnight, theft stopped. It’s virtually zero now.”

In addition, the few items that are stolen tend to be returned. The contractor informed the police theft unit of what it was doing, and now the company gets calls from police officers reporting the pink tools they have located.

One or two employees have quit, stating that they had no intention of working with pink tools. The remainder of the employees complained a bit, but then got used to the idea, Snow says.

“In fact, we now call ourselves the ‘pink plumbers.’”