At a Glance

Some ways to prevent equipment theft include:

  • Keep good records for all equipment.
  • Pay attention to equipment theft trends.
  • Ensure that sites where vehicles will be left unattended are secured.
  • Move equipment to another area if security isn't possible.

National Insurance Crime Bureau investigators discovered a hoard of heavy equipment in which PIN plates had been altered or removed.  Photo courtesy of National Insurance Crime Bureau.

National Insurance Crime Bureau investigators discovered a hoard of heavy equipment in which PIN plates had been altered or removed. Photo courtesy of National Insurance Crime Bureau.

Vehicle theft is a problem well known to drivers and fleets alike, so fleet managers take the necessary precautions: educating drivers on protecting their vehicles, installing security alarms, or employing GPS.

But what about heavy equipment? Some might be surprised to learn theft is a huge problem in the United States. In fact, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) and National Equipment Register (NER), the annual estimates of the cost of equipment theft vary between $300 million and $1 billion annually — with most estimates panning out around the $400 million mark. And every month, nearly 1,000 pieces of commercial equipment are reported stolen to the National Crime Information Center (NCIC). With the average value of a stolen piece of equipment estimated to be $22,300, according to the NER and NICB’s 2011 Heavy Equipment Theft Report, the costs add up quickly for fleets.

Huge profits make stealing heavy equipment very attractive. The thieves — and often crime rings — who make stolen heavy equipment their business access jobsites after hours, load equipment onto trailers, then typically do one of three things: resell it to unsuspecting buyers, dismantle the equipment and sell the parts, or illegally export it to other countries.

In the end, fleets pay the price. Not only are there replacement costs to consider, but also loss of productivity. And there is always the possibility that reporters or politicians may look to the theft as an example of poor stewardship of public funding.

“Although not as prevalent as private sector equipment theft, the loss of government fleet equipment can have as great or greater impact to the fleet. In addition to the machine loss, the effect of a missing machine can disrupt a department’s project scheduling, manpower and resource allocation, and even prolong traffic flow disruption,” said David Mossman, senior analyst, National Equipment Register. “Additionally, the interruption of an agency’s response to catastrophes — such as storm water flooding and emergency snow removal — can greatly exacerbate the costs of that catastrophe and create citizen push-back due to delayed response.”

With the problem of equipment theft apparent, it’s important for fleet managers to understand the problem — and take heed of  ways to prevent it.

The Equipment Theft Problem
For those who are skeptical about the severity of the equipment theft problem, consider this: According to statistics from the 2011 Theft Report, on average, equipment is roughly twice as likely to be stolen as it is to be damaged by a natural event. And heavy equipment is roughly five times more likely to be stolen than to be in a collision.  

The high rate of equipment theft exits for several reasons:
● The value of the equipment
● Lack of proper equipment security
● Poor site security
● The ease of selling stolen equipment in the used-equipment market
● Low risk of detection and arrest
● Lenient penalties for thieves who are prosecuted and convicted.


Some notable trends in equipment theft include a higher rate of theft of newer equipment over older units, and the prevalence of theft of riding mowers or garden tractors as well as units located off-site.

“Many sites are located in remote locations away from busy thoroughfares, making it easy for thieves to enter and do their handy work undetected. Not only do unsecured, remote sites make attractive targets for thieves, but the equipment itself is generally easy to access because of open cabs and ‘one key that fits all,’ ” Courtney DeMilio, national director, Commercial Division, LoJack Corporation, said.

Overall, value and mobility are the key factors in equipment theft. A desirable brand, a recent model year, and the ease of which the piece can be loaded onto trailers and driven away make for a thief’s ideal target. Mossman said the biggest mistake fleets can make, though, is assuming the fleet won’t be targeted just because it’s a government fleet.

Don’t Count on Recovery

In 2011, mowers were the most common equipment reported to be stolen, followed by loaders.  Source: 2011 Heavy Equipment Theft Report.

In 2011, mowers were the most common equipment reported to be stolen, followed by loaders. Source: 2011 Heavy Equipment Theft Report.

While a large part of the equipment theft problem is the desirability to thieves and the vulnerability of equipment, the recovery of stolen assets is difficult.

“In 2011, heavy equipment thefts had a 21% recovery rate — that’s not very good,” said Frank Scafidi, director public affairs, NICB. “So the chances of ever seeing your stolen skid steer again are poor — unless you take some proactive steps.”

According to the Theft Report, several factors contribute to the low recovery rate, including:
● Delays in discovery and reporting of theft
● Inaccurate or nonexistent owner records
● Lack of pre-purchase screening of used equipment
● Limited law enforcement resources dedicated to equipment investigations.

It can also be hard to spot a stolen piece of equipment. “There are no unique identifiers with equipment as there are with vehicles (license plates),” DeMilio said, “so police may just be looking for a ‘yellow bulldozer.’ ”

If law enforcement has a viable lead, recovery is a possibility. But if little or no evidence exists, it can be challenging for officers to solve the case.

“If a fleet operator reports a theft but has little or no identifying information to provide law enforcement, then there is not much effort that will be expended in an investigation except for some basic procedural steps like alerting state and local authorities to the theft and hoping someone spots the item,” Scafidi said.


Tips for Preventing Theft
Despite the constant threat of theft and the difficulties involved in recovery, fortunately fleets can take proactive steps to protect their heavy equipment.   

➜ Make Equipment Identifiable
Titles and registration of equipment are not mandated, which makes it easy to skip the step of properly labeling equipment with unique product identification or owner-­applied numbers. But when these identifiers aren’t present, thieves know they have an easy target — and law enforcement will have a hard time recovering the asset.
Also stamp or engrave parts with identifying marks, numbers, or logos and you can prevent theft — or at the least, improve chances of recovery.  

➜ Keep Good Records
With equipment, there is a lack of standardization for product identification numbers (PINs) and serial numbers. It’s also relatively easy for thieves to change the identity of a piece of equipment by removing or switching a PIN.

That’s why, in addition to recording the unique identifiers on each piece of equipment, it’s important to know your inventory and record the manufacturer, model number, year, PIN, and purchase date, along with serial numbers for all component parts, to be able to identify equipment in the event of theft. Keeping a photo archive of equipment is wise as well.

“Knowing your inventory by each item’s specific nomenclature and its PIN is critical to identifying it and is essential for NICB and law enforcement to recover it,” Scafidi said. “As simple as it sounds, it is part of the reason heavy equipment has such a poor recovery rate when compared to passenger vehicles, for example.”

➜ Pay Attention to Trends
While fleets should be diligent in preventing all equipment from being stolen, understanding equipment theft trends can help them know which pieces are the biggest targets — and which to be hyper-­vigilant about.

Mossman identified the following as current trends to be aware of:
● Skid steers, tractors, and wheel loaders staged for snow removal are being targeted by thieves in northeast and north central states.
● While a spike in breaker/hammer attachment thefts nationwide has ebbed, diligence in protecting these assets should remain a priority.
● An uptick in backhoe thefts rurally in western states means fleets should ensure machines are secured.  

“Although government fleets may be targeted differently than the rest of the industry, as a member of the equipment community it’s important to be aware of the trends,” Mossman suggested. “Greater awareness leads to a greater likelihood that thefts are not misconstrued as legitimate behavior and overlooked. However, trends can be a false indicator of a lack of vulnerability. Any valuable equipment that is not protected is potentially a theft target, regardless of whether there is an active theft pattern in your area.”

➜ Secure Your Site
Because remote locations like construction sites make equipment more vulnerable to theft, focus on securing the site.

“Thefts are occurring in traditional forms — at remote jobsites or from yards where no security exists. Fleet operators should realize this and take steps to ‘harden’ their yards,” Scafidi said. “Thieves will often pass on a site that appears to be even moderately secure in favor of a softer target.”

Security measures don’t have to be expensive or complicated. “If at all possible, fence in the jobsite,” DeMilio said. “Park the equipment close together, in a circle with smaller pieces in the center, if possible. And communicate with law enforcement to request frequent patrols, especially if the jobsite is located in a known high-theft area.” DeMilio also recommends installing security cameras and motion sensors if possible.


➜ Avoid Leaving Equipment in ­Unattended, Remote Areas
If site security isn’t a possibility, it’s worth the small investment in gas to move equipment to a safer area. The time and expense it takes cost far less than losing the equipment.

➜ Use Theft Deterrents, Theft ­Recovery Systems, and GPS Tracking Devices
Beyond securing a site, the equipment itself can be made more secure, too. Immobilization devices like wheel locks, hidden fuel shut-off systems, and ignition locks can deter thieves, as can battery-disconnect switches.  Removing fuses and circuit breakers when equipment is unattended can help, too.

Unfortunately, these methods aren’t all foolproof. “If professional thieves target specific equipment, they can generally get around deterrents,” DeMilio said. “A proven tracking/recovery system that offers time-tested tracking technology and is integrated with police so that recovery is in the hands of law enforcement is the best possible way to protect your equipment.”

GPS tracking devices can also provide unit location information for monitoring as well as quicker recovery.

➜ Report Thefts Immediately
The sooner a theft is discovered, the better the chances of recovery. Calling the police immediately after equipment is discovered to be stolen — and providing the correct PIN — can improve chances of recovery. “The effectiveness of a theft report is entirely determined by the timeliness of the report and the quality of information the fleet manager and operator provide. The more details available about the incident and the machine, the more law enforcement has to work with to investigate the theft,” Mossman stated.

➜ Put Prevention High on Your To-Do List
Investing a little time and effort in theft prevention can save a lot of time, money, and hassle down the road. Mossman said the most proactive step fleets can take is to make prevention a priority. “Fleet managers who think as proactively about security as they do about issues like budgeting and utilization will be far ahead of the problem,” he said. “Being reactive to theft once it has occurred does nothing to prevent it — don’t let a loss be the reason to consider theft prevention.”

Scafidi agreed that any steps fleet managers take toward preventing the problem are time well spent. “These steps may seem redundant and needless, but if they prevent a single theft, using them will have saved a fleet from considerable down time as well as replacement costs,” he said.


  • David Grant Mossman, senior analyst, National Equipment Register
  • Courtney DeMillo, national director, Commercial Division, LoJack Corporation
  • Frank Scafidi, director, Public Affairs, National Insurance Crime Bureau
About the author
Shelley Mika

Shelley Mika

Freelance Writer

Shelley Mika is a freelance writer for Bobit Business Media. She writes regularly for Government Fleet and Work Truck magazines.

View Bio