Put the Lock on Equipment Theft

It can happen in the middle of the night or in broad daylight, while your crew eats lunch at a fastfood restaurant. Whether it is a small string trimmer or a $20,000 commercial mower, landscape equipment and vehicles are prime targets for criminals.

As warmer weather approaches, landscape equipment becomes a hot and easily accessible commodity for thieves. Equipment theft not only causes production and bottom-line losses for any company—no matter the size—but a single theft can destroy a small business or one that’s just starting out.

Not only is equipment theft a persistent thorn in the sides of landscape contractors, it costs the industry an estimated $300 million to $1 billion annually.

Seth Kehne, owner of The Lawn Butler in Knoxville, Tennessee, knows about equipment theft all too well. A few years ago, thieves cut a lock on the outside gate of his shop yard in the middle of the night and left with a truck, trailer and skid steer — a loss of $90,000 worth of equipment.

Part of the stolen equipment was recovered more than a year later. The truck had been scrapped and was found without its engine or transmission. Law enforcement told him that his equipment was taken by a large, organized theft ring that had stolen and stripped hundreds of big trucks.

Although insurance covered his losses, Kehne says that the episode was frustrating, as well as a drain on time and productivity. “It’s unfortunate, the time that you have to spend just to keep what you’ve worked hard for,” he said.

Today, all of his vehicles and large equipment, such as excavators and skid steers, are hard-wired with GPS systems. To secure the shop, he installed an alarm system and more than 20 surveillance cameras, which were recently upgraded with highdefinition technology for better visibility.

He now parks a truck in front of the locked outside gate at night. “You can’t just cut the lock to get in,” he said. “You also have to move the truck out of the way.”

An easy target

Landscape equipment is an attractive prospect for criminals, because the reward outweighs the risk. From trenchers to gas cans, landscaping equipment is generally out in the open, and not always being watched.

Online sales and auction sites and pawn shops make it easy for criminals to cash out equipment somewhat anonymously, without the buyer knowing that it was stolen. The market for vehicle parts, as in Kehne’s case, puts larger landscaping equipment at risk.

Two key factors determine the type of equipment that thieves are most likely to steal: value and mobility. According to the 2016 Theft Report compiled by the National Equipment Register and the National Insurance Crime Bureau, mowers were the most popular type of heavy equipment stolen in 2016, totaling 41 percent of all equipment reported stolen during the year. Loaders were at a distant second, making up 18 percent of all equipment reported stolen.

Kehne only buys new equipment for his business, and warns other contractors to beware when purchasing used equipment. “If the deal seems too good to be true, it’s probably stolen,” he said.

The key to eliminating equipment theft is to be proactive and use a combination of technology, common-sense tactics and employee vigilance to make your business and equipment appear unappealing and overly risky to a potential thief.

A secure storage yard

The prime spot for organized and premeditated equipment theft is the storage yard. Many landscape businesses employ several methods of security, including basic locks, keyless entry systems and surveillance equipment.

Keeping large equipment and vehicles in a well-lit area that is easily seen from the road is preferable. Privacy fences and large bushes may seem like good ideas, but they only provide thieves cover to do their work. However, security fences and motion-sensing security lights serve as strong deterrents.

Highly visible security cameras (available solar-powered with battery backups) provide an additional level of security. High-tech systems have the ability to tilt and zoom the cameras, and use WiFi or cellular frequencies to transmit video or photographs for Cloud storage or live monitoring from virtually anywhere there’s an Internet connection. They can send text alerts when a camera is activated by the motion or infrared sensors, allowing the owners to notify authorities immediately if they suspect suspicious activity on their property.

Low-tech solutions help, too, such as keeping a watch dog inside the yard. The presence of a dog, especially a big, loudly barking one, will scare off a lot of would-be criminals.

On the jobsite

Thefts from jobsites are crimes of opportunity. Equipment left out in the open, or trailers and vehicles that aren’t locked or secured, are invitations to steal.

Paul Fraynd, CTP, CEO and partner at Sun Valley Landscaping in Omaha, Nebraska, agrees with Kehne that being aware of where all your equipment is, at all times, is one of the best tools for preventing jobsite thefts. Both contractors train their employees to always park their trucks within sight, and to even take their lunch breaks near their trucks or somewhere where they can keep their eyes on them.

Smaller equipment is stored in lockboxes or the locked cabs of vehicles. If a crew is working in an area out of sight of a truck, the vehicle and all its equipment is locked up. Even something as simple as requiring employee uniforms makes it more difficult for unauthorized personnel to approach work areas or equipment without being noticed.

Kehne uses a unique approach to reinforce equipment security with his employees. While driving around checking on crews, if he sees equipment that has been left unsecured on one of his own jobsites, he steals it. This works, because no employee wants to have to tell the boss that a piece of equipment he’s accountable for has been stolen. “Having to make that call hammers the point home,” Kehne said.

Although theft of smaller items doesn’t impact a business as much as losing larger, big-ticket equipment, these items add up. And, they’re usually out-of-pocket losses because they are too minimal to report to insurance.

Proactive security

Keeping thorough and accurate records of all your equipment can pay immeasurable dividends, in the event of a major theft. Records should include photos of all your high-value machines and vehicles, including a listing of each item’s serial number, manufacturer, model and year number.

Take it a step further and use an etching tool, die stamp or steel punch to duplicate the serial number in a hidden place on the piece of equipment. Criminals can file off obvious numbers, but won’t know about hidden ones. This will help identify you as the owner should the equipment be recovered. Some landscape companies customize their equipment with unique paint colors, contrasting roofs and large company logos to further deter thieves.

Equipment registry

The National Equipment Register was created to improve the way information is shared between segments of the equipment industry, insurers and law enforcement.

According to NER General Manager Ryan Shepherd, registering equipment with the NER helps deter theft and increases the chances of recovery if equipment is stolen. The NER runs a national database of equipment ownership that’s immediately accessible to law enforcement. “This is a key factor for them (law enforcement) because there are no titles or registrations for landscape equipment at the state or county level like there is for automobiles,” Shepherd said.

The NER is the only equipment registry in North America, and it’s used by law enforcement all across the country. Registering can be done through the website (www.ner.net); companies pay an annual fee based on the amount of equipment registered. Some insurance companies offer incentives to register equipment with the NER.

Technological advantage

Many landscape contractors are using technology to fight theft. Installing a GPS recovery system is a valuable option for high-valued mobile equipment, and is becoming more affordable. The tracking signals allow law enforcement and owners to quickly locate and recover their equipment. Criminals are usually unaware that a piece of equipment has GPS installed—that is, until the police show up.

Geofencing, another GPS technology, allows an owner to create a virtual perimeter around a jobsite. At night, it can act as a security feature by notifying the owner of any unauthorized movements.

Another anti-theft option for large equipment is keyless ignition systems that require PINs to start machines. Wireless relays in the ignition or fuel pump circuits prevent the system from being circumvented and hotwired.

Employee buy-in

Fraynd has heard about other companies in his area having issues with equipment theft, but so far, Sun Valley Landscaping has avoided any problems. In addition to using shop-locking procedures and GPS tracking on his trucks and skids, he also uses detailed record-keeping procedures to keep track of his equipment, where it’s going, who’s using it and whether or not it makes it back to the shop.

He puts a lot of responsibility into the hands of his crew managers and employees. Every crew has its own customized list of inventory, down to each hammer. Every piece of equipment is tagged with a specific color, according to which crew it belongs to, and employees double-check their inventories on a weekly basis. “It’s not a perfect system, but we try,” he said.

Franyd takes his company’s culture seriously, and continually conveys the idea that “everyone is an owner” to his employees. “We like to tell them that they’re out there running their own businesses,” he said.

Instead of just dumping rules and procedures on his workers, he explains the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ of these rules, and shares information about equipment costs and how it affects profits.

“They understand how they affect the bottom line every day. When they see how little things add up, they start to care more about what happens,” he said. The end result has been that his employees pay more attention to what they’re doing throughout the day. “You have to give them the big picture, that they aren’t just mowing lawns.”

Insuring assets

According to the NER, only 21 percent of equipment reported stolen was recovered in 2016. And while insurance helps, simply having the coverage isn’t enough. It needs to be the right coverage.

Knowing the details of your coverage is crucial, such as whether the policy will pay the full replacement cost of a piece of equipment or just its depreciated value. All equipment, whether it’s owned, leased or rented, should be covered. Business interruption insurance is also a good idea, to recoup profits lost by not having access to your equipment.

Kehne reviews and audits his insurance policy annually, to make sure it’s up to date and that the coverage matches what his company actually owns at the time. This ensures that he doesn’t pay too much for equipment he no longer has, or find himself with too little coverage in case of a loss.

If you are targeted

In the unfortunate event that your company becomes the target of an equipment theft, you should notify law enforcement and the NER immediately. Creating stolen-equipment bulletins and notifying local dealers will also raise awareness, in case someone tries to sell them your stolen goods. A quick response from you can increase the chances for recovery, and prevent thieves from victimizing you again.