Take steps to stop thieves

While those in the lawn and landscape industry might expect to feel an impact in tough economic times, some are getting more than they bargained for. Rather than worrying only about taking a financial hit as customers scale back services, some are concerned about having the equipment they use to make a living taken from them—not by repossession companies, but by thieves.

Jimmy Keiley, owner of Champion Yard Services in Smyrna, Ga., had a truck loaded with equipment stolen off a job site in September 2008. “The guys were at a condominium complex and were around the back blowing when the truck was stolen. We lost a $10,000 mower, a $200 push mower and about $2,000 to $3,000 worth of hedge trimmers, weed eaters and edgers,” he says. “I still owe $9,000 on that mower.”

Atlanta police later found the truck abandoned, but the equipment, which was uninsured, was gone. “We had been struggling with the economy, so something had to give. I kept the insurance on the truck, but cancelled the insurance on the equipment,” explains Keiley.

The theft has changed the way that Champion Yard Services does business. The vehicle had been left unlocked and unattended, with the keys in it. “Obviously, we don’t do that anymore,” says Keiley. “Now, the trucks are locked everywhere we go.”

The Equipment Lock Company’s product line includes specialty locks for skid steers and hitch locks to prevent the theft of trailers, as well as wheel locks for a variety of other equipment.

Keiley says he’s heard of seven or eight other landscape trucks being stolen in the Atlanta area over the past year, all during the day from job sites. “Some of them have been taken at gunpoint. If someone wants the truck, they’re going to get it. I don’t want my guys getting hurt.”

“You don’t think too much about the security of your equipment until you get hit,” says Richard Crouch, owner of Pro Mow in Granite Quarry, N.C. He lost a trailer, two Scag mowers and several weed eaters, blowers and other pieces of smaller equipment in an overnight robbery at the company’s yard in November 2008. “The two Scags were on a trailer, and they just hauled that right off; the rest of the stuff they took out of the shop,” says Crouch.

It’s the first time he’s had a theft at the shop. Since then, the company has instituted new security procedures based on tips from the police and insurance investigator. “We’ve put more locks on the building and installed a security system. We also secure the equipment inside: we chain and lock bigger equipment down, and we have cages that we put the smaller stuff into,” explains Crouch. “I had all my serial numbers on file, but something else I’m also going to do now is use a pencil engraver and engrave all the equipment in a hidden area, so it can be identified in the future if it doesn’t have a serial number, of if the serial number is removed.”

The National Equipment Register (NER) maintains a database of stolen equipment records and ownership records that is available to law enforcement. “If someone has a piece of equipment stolen, they can list it on our database. Then, that information is available to law enforcement through our 24-hour hotline,” explains Ryan Shepherd, operations manager with NER (www.nerusa.com). If police find a piece of equipment they think might be stolen, the staff at NER helps them look for serial numbers and other identifying information.

The NER works with any “mobile, off-road piece of equipment,” including everything from mowers, tractors and skid steers to large construction machinery.

Photos Courtesy of the Equipment Lock Company, Unless Otherwise Noted.
Wheel locks, such as those from The Equipment Lock Company, can prevent thieves from moving equipment, such as zero-turn mowers.

Shepherd explains that one common problem is equipment serial numbers being entered incorrectly on police reports, because the report and police computer systems accommodate automobile VIN numbers, which follow a different format. “Sometimes it’s entered as a vehicle, other times as property or an article. Our system is designed to make it easy for police to search for a particular item no matter how it is entered initially. We keep corrected and uncorrected entries, so they can find it either way.”

The NER gets its database information from public information filings (which are issued whenever equipment is financed, for example), as well as from equipment owners that sign up for the group’s HelpTech service and provide their equipment information. National rental companies also provide the NER with equipment identification numbers for easier future tracking. “It seems like it would be easy to find the owner of a piece of equipment, but it’s more difficult than it appears,” says Shepherd. And, he adds, with equipment there’s typically no title or registration as with vehicles to prove ownership.

Complicating the situation are thieves who remove or otherwise tamper with equipment identification numbers. “The smarter thieves won’t remove the PIN plates, because they know that’s an instant red flag to an investigator. Instead, they’ll steal a PIN plate from a similar machine and reattach it to the stolen machine,” he explains.

Shepherd says it’s difficult to put a value on the amount of equipment stolen every year, because many pieces of equipment are uninsured or self-insured, and dollar values are often left out of police reports. “Broad figures say $300 million to $1 billion annually is lost due to stolen equipment; the higher figure reflecting losses due to added replacement costs, downtime and so on,” he explains.

What’s worse, stolen equipment is rarely recovered. Hortica Insurance (www.hortica-insurance.com), which specializes in serving the green industry, puts the estimate at just 10 percent. The insurance industry’s emphasis is on preventing equipment theft in the first place.

“We go to our clients—landscapers, nursery and garden centers and so on—and do property walk-throughs. One of the things we talk about is putting up security fences and the importance of locking things up. In some cases, we talk about installing security systems and night lighting,” says Zachery Bruce, regional loss control manager with Hortica Insurance.

Photo Courtesy of Dewalt.
DeWalt’s MobileLock attaches to equipment and provides wireless phone call and e-mail alerts in the event the equipment is stolen. A GPS feature also helps in tracking and recovery.

Many equipment theft measures are basic and low-cost. “We try to make sure companies take keys out of all the equipment, which not everyone does, and then keep keys in a controlled area, such as a lockbox, inside,” says Bruce. “A lot of equipment, when it comes from the manufacturer, comes with a ‘universal’ key, so we recommend having equipment re-keyed so that one key doesn’t operate all the equipment.”

Bruce also says not to overlook smaller equipment, hand tools, generators, etc., which can be easier for thieves to take. “Sometimes, with that type of equipment, you need to worry about employees, as well,” he adds.

In addition to the common-sense measures to deter theft, Hortica Insurance provides its clients with information on several product categories designed to assist in that mission. Some include more traditional locks, such as those designed by The Equipment Lock Company (www.equipmentlock.com), whose product line includes specialty locks for skid steers; wheel locks that can be used on a variety of equipment, including zero-turn mowers; hitch locks to prevent the theft of trailers; and more.

Other options involve the use of technology to prevent theft or to track stolen equipment:

• Data Dot (www.datadotdna.com) offers laser-etched microchips to put identifying information on equipment in a way that is visible only to law enforcement using specialized equipment.

• RFID (radio frequency identification) tags store information about the equipment, as well as track its location. The same is true of Electronic Article Surveillance systems, which utilize paper-thin electronic tags.

• Equipment alarms, such as the magnetically (or screw) mounted Mobile Lock from DeWalt (www.dewaltmobilelock.com), can be armed or disarmed by telephone, and if the equipment is taken when the alarm is activated, the unit will automatically call or e-mail an alert. The unit includes GPS technology to assist in locating the stolen equipment.

• Some manufacturers, including Caterpillar (www.cat.com), offer micro­chip-enabled key systems in new equipment or as a retrofit option.

• LoJack (www.lojack.com), widely used to track stolen cars, can also be used to provide GPS tracking of equipment.

Bruce says it’s important to keep track of all equipment that the company owns. “Make a list of the year, make, model, PIN number, company equipment number, anything that can help police in identifying the equipment; and that includes attachments,” he says. Taking photos of the equipment is also helpful, he adds.

There is no guaranteed way to prevent equipment theft, but taking simple steps and making a small investment in time and technology can help prevent a much bigger loss down the road.

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 13 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vt., and is always on the lookout for unusual stories.