Construction plant theft is on the rise

UK construction sites are increasingly being targeted by thieves and fraudsters who recognise the financial value of plant and machinery.

The number of plant theft claims has risen steadily over the last five years according to research from Allianz Insurance plc. Whereas there were a recorded 428 claims of this nature in 2013, this had increased to 665 in 2017. Further, forecasts predict this to rise to around 730 by the end of 2018.

Tools were the most frequently stolen item of equipment, accounting for a third of the number of claims reviewed. In fact, UK tool theft increased by two thirds from 2014/15 to 2016/17. In many instances the theft took place from vans, either through using force to break in or with a skeleton key.

It’s not only tools which are coveted by thieves; larger items of plant such as excavators and JCBs can also prove a lucrative haul for criminals. Indeed, excavators proved to be the most expensive claim on average, often stolen from contract sites outside of working hours or whilst hired out. There have also been instances of onsite staff being threatened and kit being removed by force.

Highest frequency of plant theft claims:

  • Tools
  • Surveillance equipment
  • Breakers
  • Excavators/diggers
  • Generators
  • Rollers
  • Wacker plates
  • Pressure/power washer

What’s in it for the theives?
Whilst some plant theft is merely opportunistic, there are equally more organised ‘professional’ criminals who make a career from such activity. After illegally acquiring valuable equipment, these individuals are able to arrange for it to be rapidly exported and sold abroad, either in its existing state or for parts. Where it’s not possible to export it immediately, the plant may be concealed in shipping containers or storage units. Once the machinery is no longer on British soil, it’s often deemed too difficult and costly to locate and repatriate. With much construction machinery carrying a high resale value, it seems criminals are willing to risk being caught for the potential financial gain.

Stolen identity
Another ruse adopted by lawbreakers, is to fraudulently hire a large quantity of high-value plant under the guise of being employed by a genuine company. This company will often be an existing business customer of the insured, or a company with a positive credit and trade history. This means that the fraudster will appear authentic and pass necessary checks. Once the plant has been signed over to the fraudsters, they will arrange for its resale and subsequently pocket the cash. In this digital age, the internet is making it easier for criminals to communicate and operate online, with the rise of auction and resale websites facilitating quick and easy sales.

Case study:
Criminals cloned the details of a property developer who had been trading for many decades. They used a loaded credit card to purchase plant insurance, arranged the hire of multiple items of plant using the name of a director of the property developer and erected signs at the delivery site to give the impression they traded from there. By the time the crime was uncovered, the fraudsters had absconded with nearly £130k worth of plant. A criminal ring was apprehended and it transpired they’d cloned details of at least five other companies.

ATM thefts
The UK has suffered a spate of ATM thefts in the last couple of years, where stolen JCBs and forklifts have been used to ram-raid the cash machines and make off with the rewards. Surrey and Hampshire alone reported 14 ram-raids in 2018, five of which were carried out using industrial machinery. In all instances, costs were incurred from the extensive damage to buildings and property, in addition to any cash which was taken.

In August 2018, a Halifax bank in Farnham, Surrey was targeted in the early hours of the morning when criminals used a stolen JCB to ram-raid the wall and steal the ATM machine. The building suffered extensive physical damage.

Impact upon the construction industry
It’s reported that the construction industry lost an estimated £800m in 2017 through the theft and vandalism of plant and machinery5. This has a significant financial impact on both construction firms and individual tradespeople. There’s not only the cost of replacing the stolen equipment, but also the potential expense of hiring tools in the interim in order to continue trading.

Security measures
Criminals are continually devising ways to overcome security measures put in place by construction companies. Heras fencing, often erected along building sites does not prove enough of a deterrent to intruders who are managing to unclip or unbolt it. Another common measure, CCTV recording, can provide useful footage of thefts which occur, but all too often the images are unclear or the cameras don’t cover the full premises.

Plant tagging is being adopted by some construction firms as a means of locating plant which has fallen into the wrong hands. Using various combinations of GPS, satellite and radio beacon technologies, these devices can be used to both trace and immobilise plant remotely. However, even this technology is not completely immune to the threat posed by thieves, who have managed to find and detach such gadgets, thereby foiling the system.

There are various measures which can be implemented to help prevent the theft of plant. One method is to install controlled entry and exit systems. Various options exist for this, from turnstiles to swipe cards and finger-print recognition systems.

It’s also important to invest in training to ensure that all staff are aware of security measures and practices used to identify imposters and secure onsite vehicles and machinery. Wherever possible, it’s recommended to remove tools from vans and containers and lock them securely away. Installing CCTV and relevant warning signs as well as bright lighting can deter potential criminals from entering sites. Investing in tracking devices and immobilisers can also help in the case that a thief is successful in their pursuit.

Case study
Tracking technology developed by AMI Group led police to a stolen JCB 2CX Backhoe Loader worth approximately £25,000. The machine was reported as stolen near Darlington on 20 September 2018 and recovered later that day where it was hidden behind bushes. The JCB was returned to its rightful owner within only four hours of it first being reported.

It’s important for companies to carry out robust identification and credit checks and inspect documentation carefully to identify counterfeit paperwork. It’s also worth checking any details against Companies House records or the legitimate company’s official website. Finally, ensuring plant is registered through the Construction & Agricultural Equipment Security and Registration Scheme (CESAR) can help avoid losses.

Remaining vigilant and employing a combination of security measures is the best defence against criminals looking to make a profit from the theft of plant.

Source: Allianz Insurance Plc