Nelson Wyatt, Canadian Press
Published: Monday, January 15, 2007
MONTREAL (CP) – One thief stole backhoes to dig basements and swimming pools on the weekend. Another wanted heavy equipment to help rebuild war-torn Lebanon and areas hit by Hurricane Katrina.
The theft of heavy equipment – road graders, front-end loaders and snowplows – usually gets a chuckle when it’s reported as an oddball news story.
But George Kleinsteiber isn’t laughing.
“It’s about a $33-million-a-year problem,” says the former Ontario Provincial Police auto theft investigator who now advises companies and police on how to combat heavy equipment theft.
Kleinsteiber agrees that more cars are stolen than heavy equipment but “the value of each vehicle is so much greater for a piece of heavy equipment. We get into the millions of dollars very quickly as compared to automobiles.
“You have one piece of heavy equipment stolen that’s worth about $100,000 to $200,000 – that’s an awful lot of Honda Civics and Toyota Corollas,” says Kleinsteiber, citing the targets of choice for many car thieves.
And like hot cars, heavy equipment finds its way overseas where there’s a demand, usually after a disaster.
Kleinsteiber said equipment has made its way to Pakistan, Israel and Lebanon.
“There has to be a community out there in North America that are actually the eyes and ears there, stealing and then sending it back to the homeland,” said Kleinsteiber, who works with the Ontario Sewer and Watermain Construction Association.
“I know down in Louisiana, they’ve recovered a number of pieces of stolen heavy equipment after Katrina went through,” he said, pointing out that contractors realized there was a lot of money to be made in disaster areas.
“But they didn’t have the equipment. They’ve been stealing equipment and taking it down to that area and they’ve been using that to rebuild the hurricane damage.”
Kleinsteiber said groups from Pacific Rim countries are particularly active, basically working with shopping lists and selling their swag for double and triple the value when it’s shipped to buyers in their home countries.
And once it heads out of the country, there’s little chance to get it back because customs officers usually check what’s coming into Canada, not what’s leaving, Kleinsteiber said.
Most of the heavy equipment theft takes place in construction-rich Quebec and Ontario.
“The thieves go where the equipment is most plentiful,” Kleinsteiber explains.
Jeff Morrison, a spokesman for the Canadian Construction Association, said equipment theft is a heavy burden for the industry which is basically comprised of small businesses.
Insurance doesn’t usually cover the full cost and losses are inevitably passed on to the consumer through increased prices and longer completion times for projects.
“If you don’t have the equipment, people can’t be doing their jobs,” he said. “It takes time to replace. If you have, for example, a dozer, you can’t just replace that overnight.”
Robert D’Errico knows that first hand. He runs Montreal-based Broadway Pavers, which has a fleet of about 50 vehicles used in the paving of roads and parking lots.
“About 10 to 12 years ago, they broke into our yard and they removed a payloader,” he recalls.
Insurance picked up the tab but the saga wasn’t over.
“Two years later we were informed by the police that it was found in Boston. Apparently it had gone from Montreal to Vancouver to all around from what we can understand and it was found in an auction in Boston. I guess when the guy who bought it went to have it licensed, something didn’t jibe with the serial numbers and that’s how they found it.”
He estimates his company has had four major equipment thefts in the 50 years it’s been in operation. The company originally didn’t have a fence or an alarm on its lot, but that has changed.
“Now we even have concrete barriers that would take really big machinery to drive through,” he said. “They’ve got to be really determined to go through it.”
But D’Errico acknowledges there are some pretty determined thieves out there. He said one of his partner companies had a backhoe stolen from a job site this summer.
“There was even a guard at the site but as he was doing his rounds, I guess he went to the back and they were in the front and they took the machine right from under him.”
Brazen describes most heavy equipment thieves, Kleinsteiber says.
Take the crook digging the swimming pools and basements. Kleinsteiber says he took a new backhoe every weekend for two summers, did the digging and then abandoned the equipment where police would find it so they would simply close the case. He was eventually caught.
Another drove a truck onto a subdivision site and loaded up the biggest excavator shovel there.
“It was over width, over height, over weight,” Kleinsteiber recalls of the shovel, which was bigger than the truck that carried it off. “He put it on his truck and he left.”
When company officials clicked they’d been ripped off and called police, plenty of people were found who said they helped the crook load the shovel but thought nothing of it.
“All anybody remembers is the guy had a moustache and it was a red truck,” Kleinsteiber said.
Even police can get hoodwinked. Kleinsteiber remembered one collared thief telling him he had taken a backhoe from a cemetery in Oakville, Ont., and drove it to Pickering, Ont., a trip of about five hours at the backhoe’s top speed of 22 km-h. That’s where he ran out of gas. And was approached by a police officer.
The thief thought the jig was up – until the unsuspecting cop helped him get gas from a nearby station and sent him on his way with a friendly wave.
t doesn’t help that one key fits all on a lot of equipment but manufacturers are beginning to install security items such as Global Positioning Systems as options. Industry and police are also getting more aware of the problem.
Morrison would like to see stiffer penalties as well. Current sentences can range from a fine to house arrest.
“The more co-operation we can have from police, the more of a deterrence factor we can put in place, the happier our industry will be,” Morrison said.