What are the 5 most-stolen types of construction machinery?
26 October 2023
Construction machinery thefts in the USA are on the increase and are “well on pace” to eclipse the national average of 10,000-11,000 thefts a year.
That’s according to the latest estimates of the National Equipment Register NER), which tracks equipment thefts across the country.
So what is driving the uptick in machinery thefts, what are the most stolen types of machines, and are efforts to recover those machines improving?
Those were some of the questions that the Ryan Shepherd, director general and general manager, crime analytics and supply chain solutions at Verisk, which runs the NER, has attempted to answer while speaking to International Construction.
Why are thefts on the increase?
Shepherd said, “Thefts are trending up over the last couple of years. Generally, we’re at around 6,000 thefts reported directly to us this year through our clients, insurance carriers and directly from law enforcement.
“But we also have access to the national crime statistics and that generally exceeds 10,000 to 11,000 thefts a year on average. And we’re well on pace to eclipse that this year.”
With the average loss value fluctuating between $35,000 to $45,000 per machine, Shepherd puts the total annual loss value at half a billion dollars once delays, downtime and replacement costs are taken into account.
While those figures do include agricultural equipment as well, Shepherd says that a significant majority of machines stolen – somewhere around 80% – are construction machines.
Unfortunately, a jump in organised retail crime in the US is stretching law enforcement more thinly, which is in turn making life easier for criminals to steal from construction sites and dealerships.
“We feel that the uptick in machinery thefts is linked to a tremendous increase in other property crimes throughout the US,” Shepherd says.
“There are major issues with retail theft rings and that limits the resources for law enforcement to focus on these other types of crimes. That has decreased the focus on what some of these other traditional auto theft teams and investigators may have focused on.”
Ironically, stolen construction equipment can then itself end up being involved in other forms of property crime, particularly when it comes to using stolen excavators for smash and grab raids on ATMs.
The 5 most-stolen machinery types
According to NER, the five most-stolen machinery types in construction are:
- Skid steer loaders
- Backhoe loaders
- Mini excavators
That list reflects not just the popularity of certain machine types in North America, with the skid steer being ubiquitous in the region, but also how mobile they are.
Shepherd says, “It’s the mobility and the ease of steal [that determines how appealing certain machine types are to thieves]. How quickly can thieves get in and get out without being noticed?
“They are looking for assets that they can steal really quickly and that have a high value. A tower crane is worth a lot more money than a skid steer but how do you steal that and move it in the middle of the night?”
There’s also a pull factor, he adds, in terms of demand for certain machine types in the black market or the end user market. Smaller used machines can be bought and sold over Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace without attracting too much attention.
“When you think about the types of attachments that you could also rent or purchase for that skid steer, it virtually turns that machine into 90 or 100 different kinds of machine. So it really gives that end user versatility which in turn makes it so much easier and quicker to sell,” Shepherd adds.
The 5 most-stolen brands
When it comes to the most popular machinery brands stolen by thieves, it is once again governed in large part by the prevalence of those brands in the North American market.
The five most stolen brands in the US are:
- John Deere
Gone in 60 seconds…
The type of criminals behind construction machinery thefts are a mixed bag but at the more professional end of the spectrum, they can use sophisticated methods.
Shepherd notes that in some cases, organised crime groups will have a ‘shopping list’ of machines that they want to steal and even fill out the paperwork necessary to get them out of the country before they have even been stolen.
“The equipment may not be as cool as some of the cars that are stolen in the movie ‘Gone in 60 Seconds’, but the concept is the same,” says Shepherd. “A group of people from somewhere around the world will say, we need these 20 pieces of equipment, and a crew will come over here to the United States to find all 20 or so in one combined area that they can scoop up.
“More sophisticated crews will scout out an area Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday before stealing it on Thursday and Friday, and getting it out of the area over the weekend before anybody knows about it.
“They’re using GPS and telematics jammers to try to kill signals or security devices. And a lot of times while they are scouting they will secure the equipment details, the correct PIN number, the make and model and then submit the exportation paperwork to customs. Customs will do a random check for stolen equipment on the crime database but they won’t any theft matches because it’s not stolen yet. Once it finally is stolen, it goes straight on the boat.”
Machines stolen from sites near coastal areas are more likely to get put in containers and shipped overseas than staying locally.
Meanwhile machines in the southern parts of the US will sometimes may their way across the border into South and Central America.
Others will be moved into different areas of the US, particularly during natural disasters. “What we see is crews are making their way down to the disaster zone to work and get contracts through FEMA or through insurance companies to do cleanup,” says Shepherd.
“They’re stealing equipment along the way and it ends up getting left in these disaster zones.”
But sometimes, machines stay local. And in some cases very local indeed.
“My favourite story of all is a case we were involved in where a man stole his neighbour’s machine.
“He went down to a dealership from a different manufacturer and got decals and rebranded and, and repainted what was a Caterpillar machine to look like a Case and then he used it right next door. He even let his neighbor borrow it a couple of times,” Shepherd says.
Recovery rates for construction equipment are still low but they have started improve.
Currently they hover at around 21%-22%, up from 5% around 15 years ago.
“It has come a long way in the last 10-15 years and we feel we are part of that,” says Shepherd.
“When you compare the recovery rate to US auto theft recovery, that stands at around 70%. So there is a huge gap between what auto theft investigators are able to do versus the equipment theft investigators are doing but we’re increasing that number every year.
“The goal is to get it up there with vehicles.”
10 security tips
There are measures that construction companies, dealerships and rental companies can all take. They include:
- Check that all alarms and lighting are working properly. Frequent false alarms could be an indication that criminals are attempting to rest your responsiveness.
- Look out for vehicles “casing” your site.
- Test cameras both in daylight and at night time to make sure they can capture licence plates, faces and vehicles.
- Check fences and gates regularly – thieves may partially cut fence posts or stack materials near a wall in advance of a theft.
- Move light or highly target machines away from the boundaries of the site and ideally into a safe area if possible.
- Be sure that neighbouring businesses have your emergency contact information and encourage them to phone the emergency services if they spot a suspected theft in progress in your absence.
- Designate someone to check on your facility at different times during holiday periods.
- Don’t leave anything on a trailer and secure trailers so that thieves can’t use them to steal your equipment.
- Get buy-in from your employees and encourage them to help secure equipment during work time, rather than expecting them to do it at the end of a working day on their own time.
- Register your equipment with your national database to help drive up recovery rates.