It’s highway robbery

Business is good for contractors, but thieves have been prospering for years. A ROADS & BRIDGES survey reveals the industry is still getting robbed, but what is being done in terms of prevention?

Bill Wilson / December 28, 2000

Contractors tend to treat pieces of equipment like their own. They’ll baby a dozer, nurse it back to health, protect it. But sometimes, no matter what measures are taken, kids fall into the hands of strangers.

Equipment theft is a pesky virus lingering around the highway construction circuit. Few are immune to it.

"If you give a good crook enough time and ambition, he’s going to find a way to steal that piece of equipment," Sean Whalen, personal sales director for LoJack, a stolen vehicle recovery company, told ROADS & BRIDGES. "I don’t think there are many anti-theft devices out there that can stop a good crook."

Ambition is certainly high in the roadbuilding industry. A historic increase in federal dollars has companies breaking ground on new projects, and the rental industry is enjoying a feeding frenzy.

But the same two factors can fuel the black market. In a survey sent out by ROADS & BRIDGES, 70% of the respondents reported they have experienced theft, while just 44% say they use anti-theft devices on their machines. Of those who were robbed, 67% had two or more pieces swiped per year and 32% reported between $10,000 to $50,000 in stolen machinery annually. The recovery rate is slim, and of the successful cases, 32% took more than a month to solve. Dollars lost at the jobsite can be heavy. A significant portion of the contractors (22%) participating in the survey lost more than $10,000 in down time.
Among the items on the hot list were compressors (60%), welders (43%), trucks (23%), skid steers (21%), backhoes (19%) and compactors (16%).

"It seems to me, since we have been looking at the busines, more and more of the construction community has started to see theft as a problem," Paul McMahon, marketing communications manager for LoJack, told ROADS & BRIDGES.

Thieves, however, like to shop at the same place, in a particular region.

Frank Criscola Sr., president of the Crisdel Group Inc., South Plainfield, N.J., claims he’s had just two major pieces of equipment stolen in 30 years. Crisdel takes some precautionary measures. A light blue coat of paint is applied to all equipment, and out on a site during non-business hours crews try to park the machines in visible locations and close against each other. Also, the pieces are kept in a fenced-in area back at headquarters.

"If an expert wants it, he’s going to get it," Criscola admitted to ROADS & BRIDGES. "The light blue color is a deterrent to some degree."

Bill Twaddell, president of WT Welding, Mount Laurel, N.J., paints a different picture. Twaddell estimates he loses approximately 10 big and 100 small pieces of equipment annually.

Every step is taken to discourage theft. Cargo containers are secured with a special lock, fifth wheel locks are used on trailers, fuel cutoff switches are in abundance, and protection at home includes a lighted, fenced-in lot with a security guard who lives on the site.

Despite the strategy, people find a way in. During a bridge project about a year ago, Twaddell’s crew was working out of one side of a truck trying to finish a job. On the other side, thieves were making off with equipment. This was in broad daylight, with police protection.

"There’s a high theft rate," Twaddell told ROADS & BRIDGES. "If you leave a Bobcat (skid steer) or similar type equipment around at night it will be gone in the morning.

"It’s just constant. You do everything imaginable and unimaginable to try to protect it."
Technology has always been a useful tool against what is considered the impossible, and more contractors are turning to tracking devices to save a loader or two.

Bob Mabardy, executive vice president of The Middlesex Corp., Littleton, Mass., has been able to stop thieves in their tracks. His company has had three pieces stolen this year in Florida, and two armed with tracking devices—a rubber-tired backhoe and a bulldozer—have been recovered. The dozer was set to go overseas, according to Mabardy.

"There’s no question that machine was tagged to go somewhere overseas because it was down by the docks when we found it," he told ROADS & BRIDGES.

The tracking device is similar to the ones found on cars, only this one is designed to handle the harsh demands of the job. The electronic gadget, which is registered to a particular piece of equipment, is hidden somewhere on the machine. If the equipment is stolen, police activate the unit and it starts emitting a signal which is tracked by a tracking computer.

"We’ve had pieces stolen and have been able to recover them pretty quickly," said Mabardy. "Both us and our insurance company thought it was a wise move."

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