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Commercial theft is not only growing, but for markets contracting after Covid-19, it is even more damaging. The majority of serious thefts are conducted by career criminals, but the Covid-19 lockdown affected them too, closing access to their markets and making them conspicuous on the roads. Now the lockdown is lifting, they will be as eager as anyone to make up for lost time.

Research from the Allianz Cornhill Insurance group reveals that claims arising from plant theft grew steadily between 2013 and 2017 and are believed to have continued rising since. Agricultural, construction and manufacturing sectors are all hit hard by the loss of major items of equipment: not only are the items themselves expensive, but their loss entails downtime, leasing replacement equipment and higher insurance premiums. Unwary victims have been known to make quick purchases of replacement vehicles only to discover that they too are stolen, leased or still on HP.

Break-ins also cause substantial collateral damage to gates, fences and garage doors. Just before Christmas 2017, a stolen Manitou digger was used to smash an ATM out of a station wall in Haslemere, leaving the station building unsafe. In many cases, the damage done by thieves seems to be purely senseless.

Most thieves are not nice people as evidenced by the 80,000 face masks and other medical PPE stolen from a Salford warehouse in May. The haul, valued at £166,000, was on its way to NHS hospitals and old people’s homes in West Yorkshire, an area with high Covid-19 fatalities among patients and medical staff. To reach the PPE, the thieves cut a hole in expensive steel security doors, probably with stolen cutting equipment.

Deterring thieves and recovering property

Popular targets range from small electrical tools up to tractors, trailers, excavators and bulldozers. Fuel tanks, metals, roofing materials, aggregates and livestock are also popular. Immobilising vehicles only provides partial defence; some are simply stripped of valuable spares where they stand. 

Different kinds of theft present farms, factories, storage depots and building firms with a range of different problems. CCTV, intrusion systems, impregnable fencing and human security patrols are all highly expensive and none are fool-proof against specialist criminals. Drones are now popular on large farms, but even more expensive than the drone is the labour of its human operator. The rising rate of theft demonstrates that most technological solutions have been ineffective so far, and once stolen the chances of recovering machinery are less than 10%.

Fortunately, cheap and effective ways to deter thefts and recover many kinds of stolen goods do now exist.

The first step all farmers, building contractors, plant managers and fleet owners should take is to register their Industrial vehicles and large static machinery on national databases such as TER (The Equipment Register [1]) or CESAR (The Construction & Agricultural Equipment Security and Registration Scheme [2]). Rather than relying solely on the equipment’s VRN or serial number, which thieves will try to erase, apply and record your own unique and discrete security markings.

The main point of registration is to recover property, but it also helps to trap and convict the thieves. Registration is also a deterrent. Many thieves will think twice about taking items that are dangerous to sell on, so display a warning.

The Internet of Things

Another strategy that works very well for both registered vehicles and shipments of bulk materials is tracking them with a new generation of smart devices.

Today, almost any electrical or battery-powered item can be connected wirelessly to the internet. Once connected, you can communicate with it from any smart-phone or convenient computer. Tracking is a simple application, but you can also use the IoT to monitor or control your devices remotely. A connected device can also be designed to send you an alert if it is moved or disturbed in a way that it shouldn’t be.

The most common targets for thieves are portable tools such as chainsaws and grinders, levels, theodolites, BIM and GPS equipment. Favourite vehicles include breakers, diggers and excavators, generators and compressors. Farmers need to remember their trailers, horseboxes and quadbikes. There are ways to connect almost all of these items into the IoT. You can also tag your cargoes with discrete recoverable connected devices that will report their movements in real-time as they are moved around the country, or even if they are shipped abroad.

The imminent introduction of 5G connections will greatly accelerate the rollout of cheap sophisticated IoT devices, so this is a great time to review your security strategy.



Asset tracking has always been important but never more so than today. To position your contract bids or product prices competitively, you really need to know what resources and equipment you already have. With so much of industry geared to 'just-in-time' production and delivery schedules, you have to be able to mobilise, or replace them promptly. Things can go south very quickly if they aren't exactly where you need them and fit for purpose.

Even small enterprises need a long list of items to function, but for a company dependent on expensive tools, machinery and transport, losing them is no joke - it is the difference between prospering and insolvency. High levels of theft easily turn a challenging logistical problem into an unmitigated disaster. 92% of construction firms surveyed by the Chartered Institute of Building reported recent thefts from their sites; 21% said they fell victim on a weekly basis.

The total scale of losses from industrial crime is hard to assess. Estimates range from "over £1 million per week" to over £1 billion per year. Whatever the figure, the face-value of stolen tools and vehicles is only a fraction of the damage. Downtime, repairs, contract defaults, emergency equipment hire, higher insurance premiums and extra security measures probably triple the final cost.

The Construction Equipment Association has reported a surge during the Covid-19 lockdown []. In addition to tools and vehicles, fuel, roofing materials and copper bales are popular targets. On green and agricultural sites, mowers and quadbikes are popular targets. Even when an entire vehicle isn't taken, expensive components are often ripped out.

Two affordable solutions solve a host of problems

Those solutions are asset registration and tracking. In the past, neither of these things was easy. Written lists of assets were usually out of date before the ink was dry, and sticky labels didn't help you trace something that wasn't there. The Internet of Things changes all that. Tracking can now be conducted in real-time and linked directly into asset, maintenance and logistical databases. In the event of a theft, a range of rapid responses are now at your disposal, helping you quickly recover goods and vehicles and claim for any damage. It also serves to prevent you from buying equipment with a suspect history.

It is a travesty that not everyone is yet using the IoT and professional asset management services. The more farms, factories and builders that sign up, the more effective they become in deterring theft and recovering equipment. There are numerous asset registration services available, but what businesses need is one that integrates with IoT services to provide immediate reporting and analytics functions.

Crime is not the only problem state-of-the-art systems help to solve. Efficient registration and tracking helps throughout the asset lifecycle; improving your financial forecasting, bid writing, supply chain logistics, project management, maintenance regimes, health and safety compliance, uptake of subsidies and tax allowances, insurance claim validation, identification of surplus equipment, and in assessing the true net worth of the business.

Another vital asset in any enterprise is its staff resources. Once you have proactive control of your equipment, you can extend the system to match it up with qualified operators. In turn, this can inform your hiring and training investments. There are few aspects of a business that cannot benefit from a proactive asset management policy.

Rural crime boom

Plant and agricultural theft is a vocation for many criminal gangs and they have well-established routes for disposing of heavy goods. For example, three men were caught last year with a tractor and cutter stolen from Bala, trailers from Bala and Denbigh, a digger from Corwen, a quad bike from Machynlleth and ornamental stone troughs from Oswestry.

British agriculture lost at least £50 million in stolen fuel, livestock and agricultural vehicles in 2018 - a 12.1% increase over 2017. Most of the increase was from agricultural vehicles, including tractors, trailers, all-terrain 4x4s, quad bikes and horseboxes.

Even in remote locations, it is essential to lock-up all tools and vehicles and separate them from the keys. Record all serial numbers, for vehicles as well as each piece of valuable equipment fitted or stored inside them. Ideally, also photograph each item. Mark items in discrete locations with smart-water and paint your postcode or other identifier on vehicle roofs to help police helicopters.

Installing immobilisers and having the vehicle identification number etched onto the windows also helps to frustrate thieves, but tracking chips linked to the IoT are one of the cheapest solutions and hard for the professional thief to overcome.