Builders say construction-site theft is ‘rampant’

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Fenced construction site for All Health Pet Care by Noah. (IBJ photo/Eric Learned)

Noah’s Animal Hospitals hoped their newest facility, All Pet Health Care by Noah’s, would be open by now.

Situated at the corner of West Washington Street and Holt Road, the former Steak ’n Shake location is slated, once finished, to replace an older, smaller Noah’s facility across the street. But things haven’t gone to plan.

During the course of the long, troubled construction campaign, the building has been broken into so many times its owners have lost count. The rooftop HVAC unit has twice been stolen, as was the construction foreman’s truck. The site is fenced, but thieves simply climb it to gain entry.

While a good portion of those trespassers take stuff, many leave things behind.

One precaution at the work site is the locking up of ladders. (IBJ photo/ Eric Learned)

“The trash that’s dumped on the property almost daily is mind-blowing,” said Tom Dock, director of communications for Indianapolis-based Noah’s Animal Hospitals.

The flotsam and jetsam include couches, mattresses, an old truck and even a boat. So much junk, in fact, that the city sent Noah’s a letter stating that, if the company didn’t clean up the site, it could receive a $2,500 fine. In other words, Noah’s would have to pay a penalty for not policing the junk that other people illegally abandoned at the site.

All of this has played havoc with the project’s budget and timetable.

“We had hoped to open before the end of the year,” Dock said. “Right now, our anticipated opening date is the end of March.”

It’s a miserable situation, but at least Noah’s knows it has plenty of company. The problem of residential and commercial construction theft has plagued contractors both locally and nationally for decades.

The people who do the stealing range from individuals committing small-time, spur-of-the-moment thefts to organized crews who go from state to state, hitting construction sites and then blowing town.

The items they take also run the gamut, from power tools to lumber and various types of metal. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that about $1 billion in copper alone is taken every year.

According to the National Equipment Register, a national database of stolen heavy equipment, $400 million worth of backhoes, jackhammers, trucks and other industrial and construction gear walks off job sites each year. And this is only the thefts that are actually reported to insurers or the police.

“From personal experience in my own neighborhood with builders,” said Lt. Shane Foley, public information officer for the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department, “[builders] often just didn’t think it was worth the effort to report it. So, if nobody wants to be the victim and serve in that capacity, there’s nothing to investigate.”

“Theft is absolutely a big issue,” said Andrew Brindley, project development and strategy officer for Indianapolis-based HE Homes and past board president for the Builders Association of Greater Indianapolis. “On the whole, it’s focused more on raw construction materials than on a finished product.”

Amateurs, professionals

Thefts at residential construction sites can range from the pilfering of a few loose items to stealing entire shrink-wrapped flats of materials. And they don’t necessarily happen in the middle of the night. Particularly brazen or well-organized crews hit job sites during the middle of a workday—provided no one’s around to stop them.

“Often, on a smaller residential project, we might be at the stage where we’re ready to install windows,” Brindley said. “And maybe there’s no work going on because we’re waiting on the windows. So they get delivered on a Tuesday, ahead of their scheduled Wednesday installation. Well, the Tuesday afternoon after delivery, somebody might come and grab them.”

Brindley said he thinks most of the thefts hitting his company are committed by individuals or a couple of guys in the spur of the moment.

“Two or three friends come together with a pickup truck and a trailer and, as I like to say, go shopping,” he said.

The worst Brindley saw happened about five years ago, when a crew of professional thieves passed through Indianapolis.

“They actually had a crane built onto a truck, and they would pick up an entire bunk of plywood, which is 108 sheets that’s steel-banded,” he said. “They would just pick one up, put it on the back of a truck and drive away in less than a minute.”

Activity also seems to be largely seasonal.

“When it’s cold, snowy or rainy, thieves won’t be out,” Brindley said. “But when it’s a nice warm summer evening, we know that we’re going to have a couple of job sites where something may be attempted.”

Alarms, cameras, etc.

The steps HE Homes takes to stop theft are the same ones most contractors use. The job site is fenced, easily transportable items are kept secured and out of sight, and CCTVs and motion detectors dot the area.

“We have 24/7 monitored alarms, motion detectors and cameras with audio as well as visual,” Brindley said. “We can dispatch the authorities pretty quick, give them descriptions of the suspects, what it is they’re doing, and if they leave, we can tell them which direction they headed in. It gives us a much better success rate overall.”

The company catches about 80% of the people who steal from them, or who try to.

“Not that some don’t still get away,” Brindley said. “But we have an excellent capture rate because of our cameras.”

Brindley estimated that thievery costs HE Homes $10,000 to $15,000 per year, and that some other builders could lose as much as $75,000 to $100,000 annually. The level of damage, he said, depends on how aggressively each individual contracting firm defends itself.

“Just as there are organized thieves and disorganized thieves, it’s the same for builders,” Brindley said. “If you look at the more reputable and professional builders, they use cameras and alarms because they want to catch people and discourage thievery. And then there are builders who are just starting out or who are less organized or just have a different mindset and do nothing.”

“Personally, I think reporting thefts is worth it,” the IMPD’s Foley said. “Because if there’s, say, 20 smallish thefts in one neighborhood, and construction companies think that each of those individual incidents is too small to report, then you won’t [notice] the larger trend developing.”

If you don’t want the hassle of waiting for the police to show up at the job site and take a report, you can now file a theft report with the IMPD online.

“You don’t even need to speak with an officer to make out that report,” Foley said.

Contractor Bryan Swift does some mortar work in the basement of a fenced construction site for All Health Pet Care by Noah. (IBJ photo/Eric Learned)

Desirable goods

Interestingly, while copper wire is one of the most sought-after items, copper theft is not a huge problem in residential developments. Mostly because the typical residential home doesn’t use as much as, say, a warehouse or factory. Also, water pipes are mostly made of plastic these days. That said, it’s not uncommon for crooks to rip wiring out of the walls of a home under construction, nab spools of wire left unsecured, or rip the copper components out of, say, an air conditioner.

Brindley said his electrical contractors have told of hotel construction sites where professional thieves strip the copper from industrial transformers—a potentially fatal pursuit if you don’t know what you’re doing.

“If they’re not discharged in the appropriate fashion or in the correct order, it would kill you,” Brindley said. “They know how to do it correctly, and then they take the copper.”

Electrical contractors are keenly aware that copper wiring remains a high-value target.

“We’re very conscious of the copper wire and how easy it is to make money off of it,” said Tim Whicker, president of Avon-based electrical contractor Electric Plus. “It’s an easy target, and it’s not traceable. So we try to keep a fairly good eye on it and lock it up the best we can at job sites.”

However, copper isn’t the most popular stolen item. That title belongs to power tools—everything from drills to sanders.

“I’d say it’s rampant, if you want the truth,” Whicker said. “We go through tons of battery-powered drills each year.”

A couple of weeks ago at a construction site in Terre Haute, he said, thieves stole a bunch of tools, threw them inside a mostly empty trailer, hooked up the trailer to their vehicle and pulled it away.

“They just beat the lock off the trailer,” Whicker said. “Or at least we’re assuming they beat the lock off, because we don’t have the trailer now.”

‘We’re going after them’

In spite of this, he said the problem is not necessarily worse than in past years. Copper thefts actually seem to be down slightly (based on his own experience), while tool thefts remain pretty constant.

“We’re pretty convinced that 90% of those are inside jobs,” he said. “Not necessarily Electric Plus inside jobs, but other construction workers.”

In other words, one of the numerous workers swarming over a large job site might decide to take someone else’s tools home. Or perhaps alert an outside thief as to the location of some particularly choice equipment or supplies at a construction site.

“There’s no way somebody just wandered in off the street, got to the third floor and just found all of our tools,” Whicker said. “That doesn’t happen.”

Many thefts are so small that police simply aren’t interested in actively pursuing the crime. Yet the occasional thief does get caught, and when he does, Electric Plus shows no mercy.

“We will prosecute to the fullest if we can, because if they’ve stolen from us, they’ve stolen from others,” Whicker said. “We’re going after them because we’re trying to make sure there’s a point proven, and perhaps it will slow people down.”

The makers of tools and construction equipment are also trying to make it easier to track and recover stolen products. Vehicles like backhoes and trucks are equipped with GPS trackers, and even hand tools are being fitted out with Bluetooth systems that allow them to be tracked over relatively short distances.

‘Out of sight, out of mind’

According to Jeff Chandler, vice president of Columbus, Indiana-based Taylor Brothers Construction and board president of the Associated General Contractors of Indiana, the nature of on-site thefts has changed recently, and in a rather odd way.

“We’re seeing an increase in thefts, but it’s kind of strange,” Chandler said. “It seems like, in the past when we got hit, they would take everything that was in sight. Now it seems to be more specific things they’re going after.”

For instance, power saws. Tool thieves seem to be acquiring not necessarily to sell, but to use for another type of crime. Perhaps, Chandler theorized, to assist in the theft of catalytic converters from cars. Also, the lithium used in cordless power tool batteries can be recycled as an ingredient in methamphetamine production.

Fortunately, much of Taylor Brothers’ work is done indoors, allowing the company to keep any tempting supplies or tools out of sight and in a secure (or relatively secure) area.

“I know our mechanical contractors keep their large pipe deliveries in containers now, versus leaving them out in the staging areas,” Chandler said. “We’re trying to keep things out of sight, out of mind, and to keep things locked up as best we can.”

The company works all over the country, giving it a more national perspective on theft. Chandler said the problem seems to be increasing.

“We’ve had tailgates stolen off of trucks,” he said. “We’ve seen installed manhole covers being stolen out of parking lots.”

Chandler estimated that theft costs the company $25,000 to $30,000 per year. Not that everything stays lost. For instance, Taylor Brothers had a spate of thefts involving Bobcat-type small utility vehicles. Only the thieves were typically high school kids borrowing the vehicles for a joy ride.

“We had one about two weeks ago that was stolen off a project site and was found, turned over, in the middle of a street a few blocks away,” Chandler said.•

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One thought on “Builders say construction-site theft is ‘rampant’

  1. I can tell you from personal experience that construction theft is very real. I built in Fountain Square last year and we had 6 break-ins during the construction phase. One particular hit ended was for $20K in light and plumbing fixtures. Sadly, I had cameras, alarms, videos, photos. We even took the police to the house of one of the thief’s with proof of the vehicle, footage of the people, etc., and our city did nothing. On the final break in, I told the police to simply give me my case # and bug off, as they aren’t going to do anything and the prosecutor won’t prosecute. He told me I wasn’t wrong, and it’s the fault of the court as to why they aren’t able to do anything. They’d just take the criminals to jail and they’d be on the street the very next day doing it again. Hey Indy, recall you reelected this prosecutor by a landslide. #NoJustice

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