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Theft Prevention

Theft Prevention

Written by Diane Calabrese | Published July 2024

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Searching for a needle in a haystack may be easier than searching for national data on theft.

The national statistics on theft—burglary, armed robbery, carjacking, and the other forms of larceny—are so sketchily scattered, one could conclude the government does not want the data consolidated.

What we don’t know can’t alarm us. But in some areas, such as the Washington, D.C., metro region, it’s difficult not to notice another CVS or Walgreens store closing—while citing uncontrolled retail theft as the reason. Then, there are carjackings that motivate municipal governments to boast about prevention when they pair with an automaker to hand out steering-wheel clubs.

We will just skip over the shoplifting that many of us have witnessed firsthand at the grocery store. What can be done to thwart thieves?

Theft prevention is important to everyone in our industry. When machines “walk away” from distributorships, the loss becomes additive. Insurers want more for premiums. Equipment prices increase to meet the added cost of doing business.

Lights, alarms, cameras, and security guards are all on the well-known list of theft-prevention measures. But when culprits simply walk in and walk out with goods or turn a gun on a driver—and the best advice given by police is to let the thieves go and by all means hand over the keys and get out of the car—we know that hay is being added to the stack.

Herein, two distributors share thoughts on what’s possible in the real world where people are stealing things. (We write “things” because it’s not just goods, but also services and identities that are being netted by thieves.) We return to stats and advice from government crime-fighting entities in the last section.

“Staying ahead of thieves is the greatest challenge in theft protection,” says Dennis Black, president of McHenry Pressure Cleaning Systems Inc. in Frederick, MD. “We have been broken into several times.”

The “staying ahead” part might seem axiomatic, but it’s not easy.

Black says there have been two particularly vexing periods during his time in business. During one interval, changing deterrents had no effect.

“They would break in, and we’d fix that problem, and they would break in another way,” says Black. “So you find yourself trying to think like a thief.”

Thinking like a thief has brought some insight into the changes among those engaged in thievery. “I can remember 20 years ago, thieves would walk over a pressure washer to steal something else,” says Black. “Not anymore; they are well aware of the value and ease of moving the stolen equipment.”

Black deploys several lines of defense. “We have ended up with surveillance cameras, alarm systems, and a security fence and gates,” he explains.

“Our finding is that cameras don’t necessarily stop them and sometimes do not help in solving the case,” says Black. “We have had them even cover license plates and wear masks, etc. because they know we have cameras.”

Awareness and collaboration are important. “Being on good terms with your neighbors helps,” says Black. “We have had cases where each other’s camera system can assist all of us.”

The collaboration should also extend to law enforcement. It is helpful to “maintain a good relationship with your local police,” says Black. Frequent and unpredictable police drive-bys help, for instance. “Like other situations in life, when there is some type of personal connection, it makes people want to look out for you.”

Situational Awareness

Knowledge of surroundings coupled with vigilance is a must in thwarting thieves. Vehicles cannot be left unlocked. Valuables cannot be left in parked cars. We all know the precautions to take, and we know the countermeasures work only up to a point.

“Keeping your head on a swivel and being alert to everything going on around your business” is essential, says Roy Pennington, owner of HighPressure Cleaning Systems Inc. in Houma, LA. “You have to realize there are bad people out there who will do evil to you if given the opportunity.”

Lapses in attention cause problems of every sort—some small, such as a boil over on the stove, and some large, such as planes colliding on a taxiway. Thieves look for opportunities, and they see a lot of opportunities when people are distracted or a place is empty.

Team members must be as committed to awareness as owners. ”It is imperative that you instill a sense of ‘pride of ownership’ in team members,” says Pennington. Get them to recognize the importance of going “beyond the ‘I-don’t-care, it ain’t my money’ attitude.”

Neighbor-to-neighbor cooperation works well for Pennington. “We have one of the best security items in use at my facility,” he explains. “It’s the ‘biker bar’ next door, open ‘til the wee hours of the morning. They keep an eye on the comings and goings at our store.”

In exchange for the neighboring establishment—“great neighbors” with emphasis—keeping a watchful eye, Pennington makes his lot available for overflow parking on ‘bike night.’ “Occasionally we have to pick up the errant empty beer bottle.”

Reciprocity with neighbors is a huge assist in preventing thefts. That and, again, awareness.

“I believe that a strong presence is the best way to keep your equipment safe,” says Pennington. He adds that the BOLO [be on the lookout for] notices he receives from lost-theft alerts from CETA [Cleaning Equipment Trade Association] make him think there is laxity in the “presence” category.

“I have gotten the CETA BOLO for stolen trailer rigs, mostly in the Midwest, sometimes as often as three in a week,” explains Pennington. That indicates how much more needs to be done.

“Our expensive trailer units have been equipped with GPS reporting devices that update us if the unit moves more than five feet,” says Pennington. “Further, they are equipped with ‘engine status-run indicators,’ so when the customer claims, ‘We didn’t use it, the tech trailer going down the road, I know it is one of my rentals.”

Once a trailer that was in for minor service out of state was spotted in Oklahoma by one of Pennington’s friends, who contacted him about a possible theft. It wasn’t stolen, but it was recognizable. And that’s the point.

[We pause here to note that in the region where this writer lives, ATM started it by mistake,’ we ask, ‘How did he mistakenly run it for five hours?’”

Some of the devices Pennington describes have tamper alerts and send a signal if there’s an attempt to circumvent it. The devices are visible to the customer, so they serve as a form of prevention.

“Another thing we do very uniquely is our color scheme,” says Pennington. “All of our rental trailers are painted in OSHA safety purple. Yes, purple, so when I spot a purple machines are routinely carted away from 24-hour stores, outside strip malls, etc. We’re not sure that even painting them with a paint that glows in the dark would attract attention. A lot of crime occurs because a lot of crime is ignored.]

Back to the purple paint. “This color scheme has worked wonderfully well for us, up until I had to put some rentals into a nuclear plant, and they went ballistic,” says Pennigton. “It seems the code for ‘irradiated’ is a purple paint scheme. You can’t win them all.”

Ambiguity

The hazy treatment of theft in many jurisdictions—deliberate underreporting and nonconsolidated reporting that conceals actual numbers— makes it difficult to combat thieves. (If it’s not a big issue, why devote municipal or state resources to it?)

A more fundamental vagueness is the lack of concern or remorse on the part of thieves. Somehow, many individuals now think it’s okay to steal because losses will be covered by insurers. (It’s also okay in many jurisdictions because any punishment for theft is likely to be minimal. Juveniles cannot be prosecuted at all in many places.)

One of the least ambiguous approaches to retail theft comes recently from the Sunshine State. On April 9, 2024, Governor DeSantis signed legislation, HB 549, that increases penalties for retail theft and porch piracy.

According to the press release, nationally retailers lost $112 billion in 2022. The release cites New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., as among the locations with the biggest loss increases. Shoplifting in Florida has decreased during the tenure of the current governor, who has made it a priority to catch and prosecute thieves.

Theft methods are now as involved and circuitous as the digital world. In 2023 an organized group operating in 23 states stole equipment from home improvement chains. They made small deposits with debit cards and used false identities and phony phone numbers to evade tracking.

Identity theft goes beyond the targeted individual. Once the identity is stolen, it can be exploited to steal more.

The response of the government to theft is not consistent. While Florida takes a tough approach, other states downgrade felonies to misdemeanors and abolish misdemeanor charges (substituting, for example, a face-to-face apology, thief to victim).

There’s one certain takeaway regarding theft prevention: The property owner bears almost the entire load of responsibility. CT

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