Catch them if you can

August 1, 2005 -  By

An erosion of personal integrity along with the sense that “if I can take it, it’s mine,” pervades almost every aspect of American life. Increased theft in virtually every industry is the natural result. Not surprisingly, this trend has reached landscapers. Common-sense security measures that worked well enough in the past are no longer adequate. Whether the thief is a petty criminal or a regular guy who happens to see a nice chain saw on the back of your pickup and decides to take it home, it’s up to you to protect your investments.

So take it from the following pros who have learned about theft the hard way.

Lock and disable

“On job sites we have security fencing with a locked gate and we lock up all our trailers,” says Nathan Dirksen, construction manager for Dennis’ Seven Dees Landscaping in Portland, OR. “Where we’ve really had trouble and experienced our highest theft rates is along Interstate 205 to Vancouver. People just drive by and pick up whatever they can, anything from Bobcats to plant material.”

To safeguard plant material, the company rents a chain link fence for the duration of its commitment to the site. “The larger equipment we try to bring home,” Dirksen says. “But if we have to leave a Bobcat, we’ll take out the fuses or distributor cap and disable it in some way.”

A problem the company faces, common to many landscapers, Dirksen says, “is the small equipment — stringers, trimmers, blowers. We’ve been parked in a commercial lot and saw a guy come from 15 feet away to try to get a chain saw left in a bin. So we put a padlock on the trailers themselves.”

Crew members on Dirksen’s teams know to take ownership of the equipment they use and secure it.

Bill Schumacher, president of Springtime Landscaping & Irrigation in Bend, OR, has added more and more security to protect his equipment. “We have a fenced-in compound of one-and-half acres, which has been broken into four or five times,” Schumacher says. “First they just jumped over the fence, so we put razor wire over the top. So then they used bolt cutters to cut through the locks, so we’ve secured the gates that can’t be cut with bolt cutters. So then they just cut a hole in the chain fence.”

To respond, Schumacher installed security lighting in the form of a big light pole in the middle of the yard. He also put a security system on the building, which has helped, he says.

“Remove all keys from your equipment,” he advises. “Our biggest problem has been with chainsaws, weedeaters and backpack blowers. We engrave and tag all our equipment, so if the police ever do come across it, they know where it came from.”

Springtime now uses enclosed, lockable trailers for added security. “Our tools run $500 to $600 each, and that adds up,” Shumacher says. “So we now pay $5,000 for an enclosed trailer, as opposed to $2,000 to $3,000 for an open one. I think it’s worth it. And we can use these enclosed trailers as traveling billboards.”

Beware professional thieves

Mike Vitou, Avon branch manager and senior sales executive for The Pattie Group in Novelty, OH, reports that he is up against professional thieves.

“It seems the thieves must be affiliated with the construction trade, for they know the value of the good items, which they take, leaving the lower-priced pieces behind,” Vitou says of his smaller equipment like chain saws, levels and transits, brick saws and high-end hand tools.

Vitou reports that one of his skidders was dropped off inside the fence at a dealership for repairs on a Friday just after closing. “We called Monday and the dealer says he had never seen it,” Vitou says. “We filed a report and our insurance company did replace it at our cost.”

He adds that his area had a ring of thieves stealing items like skidders and mini backhoes and shipping them overseas. “They took this smaller equipment, which they could remove from the site pretty quickly. There were about a half dozen of these thefts before the police and FBI got involved. They caught some of them and those incidents stopped.”

To combat theft, Vitou and his team keep trailers at the rear of driveways or in backyards so thieves would have to pass a residence to steal the items. He also blocks the path to his machinery and generally makes it as inaccessible as possible.

“Uglify” it

David W. Pearcy, owner of Beautiful Lawns Of Washington in Tacoma, WA, was a military policeman before starting his landscape business so he has an eye for crime.

“We’re in a new yard every 30 to 45 minutes, and have had numerous pieces of equipment stolen off the truck,” he says. “We have cables and locks so the thefts have almost always resulted from carelessness because employees don’t want to be always locking and unlocking.”

What Pearcy does with his equipment now is “uglify it,” he says. “We color coat for each crew and make the stuff as ugly as possible. Then we scratch in the initials of our company and put our own number on it.”

One problem, Pearcy says, is that with so much equipment made with plastic components, the serial numbers can easily be sandpapered off. “A police officer advised us not to use our social security numbers but to make up our own,” he says.

Eye on the shop

Pearcy also relates problems he’s had with his shop area. “Here in Pierce County we need a permit for razor wire on a fence, and our insurance company told me that if someone got cut on that wire it would cancel our policy. If someone bled to death, the thief’s family would own my business,” he says.

Advanced tools give thieves easy access, Pearcy says. “The new electric grinders have cutting blades that can cut through chains and locks. The new chains are harder to cut through so the thieves cut the hinges,” he says. “I’ve heard of situations in which they just cut through a Cyclone fence, drove through, used cutting torches to cut through the side of a metal building, went inside and took what they wanted.”

Good flood lights are necessary, Pearce says, and video cameras have come down in price, costing about $300 from mass merchandisers. Video cameras may help you catch the thieves after the fact but it’s best to make them visible as a deterrent. Less-expensive fake video cameras also can work as a scare tactic.

Only a few people have keys to the gate, and Pearce changes the locks if personnel are terminated. His shop happens to be at the end of a long road. “We put a chain there that stops people from driving to the gate to get a free look,” Pearce says.

“For 20 years I worked out of my house and now I find it hard to go home,” Pearce says. “So one other tactic I use is to maintain a 26-ft. trailer at the shop, with flowers around it and lawn chairs, to try to make it looked lived in, as if maybe a senior citizen was there keeping a watch on things. I’ve actually stayed out there a few nights so I could see anything going on. There are a lot of thieves out there and you have to do everything you can to stay one step ahead of them.”

The author is a freelance business writer based in the Pacific Northwest

He got caught

RON HALL / Editor-in-Chief
KEY BISCAYNE, FL — If you haven’t been victimized by white-collar crime, consider yourself fortunate.

Reformed former con artist Frank W. Abagnale told attendees at the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute’s (OPEI) Annual Meeting in June that crimes against businesses cost the U.S. economy $660 billion annually, approximately 6% of the country’s total Gross Domestic Product. (By comparison, the U.S. military budget is about $480 billion.)

You’re not familiar with the name Frank Abagnale? Have you seen the movie Catch Me If You Can? Actor Leonardo DeCaprio in the movie portrayed the real-life Abagnale, one of the most accomplished con artists in U.S. history.

These days Abagnale is on the side of the good guys. He consults with business and government to combat white-collar crime.

With so much loss, you would think crimes against businesses would get more publicity. And more attention from owners. The main reason it doesn’t is that just 10% of embezzlements are reported. Of that total, only 35% of the cases result in arrests, says Abagnale.

Employee theft, check forgery, credit card theft/fraud are the three most common crimes costing U.S. businesses, Abagnale told the more than 200 manufacturing executives in attendance.

Check forgery alone resulted in $19 billion in business losses in 2005, he says. Even though e-commerce continues to grow, 75% of all b-to-b transactions are still made by check. Of the 1474 people charged with the crime in 2004, only 122 were convicted and 26 served jail time. Abagnale says these statistics come from the U.S. Department of Justice. Most prosecuting attorneys won’t pursue a forgery case resulting in losses under $5,000.

“Once you lose your money you’ll never get your money back,” says Abagnale who was returning to the OPEI Annual Meeting for the second year in a row. He warned the business executives that today’s high-tech society is generating ever-more-sophisticated scams. And they’re easier to perpetrate because today’s crooks can access so much information (much of it personal) from the Internet.

“Technology breeds crime. It always has. It always will,” he says.

But technology isn’t the real problem; it’s just provides easier vehicles for committing crimes such as credit card fraud and identity theft, says Abagnale. The bigger problem lies with society itself.

“This is not 1950; this is 2005. We live in an extremely unethical society,” he says. “We have to address the real problem — character and ethics.” He says today’s young people don’t get enough instruction in ethics in their homes, schools or universities. He cited a recent survey of top teen students in U.S. schools. He says 80% reported that they had cheated, copied or plagiarized during the school year. He described it as “an epidemic of cheating.”

They don’t need a gun

Today’s sophisticated crook doesn’t need a gun to rob a business. He or she does it by stealing people’s identities. The payoff is staggeringly greater for the crook and the victim’s losses are more devastating. It’s a huge problem, and it’s growing, says Abagnale.

That’s why he urges everyone to be aggressively guard their identity against theft. For a business owner the responsibility is greater because they have to guard their employees, suppliers and customers from identity theft, also. Few have systems in place to so do.

Here are some of the points that Abagnale made at the OPEI Annual Meeting in June:

  • The most common fraud committed against U.S. employers is employees that steal, followed by check forgery and credit card fraud;
  • Managers are 16 times more likely to commit fraud against a business than employees;
  • Men are four times more like to commit fraud than women;
  • Employees 60 years and older are 28 times more likely to commit fraud than those 25 years and younger.

Abagnale advised the business executives not to entrust all of their financial affairs — accounting, receivables, payables, auditing — to a single person.

He also stressed the importance of controlling access to a company’s checks and using special watermarked checks that are more difficult to forge.

LM Staff

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