When it comes to protecting his company's tools, Nick Oliver is a sensible, responsible job foreman. In accordance with policy at Morrow Meadows, his City of Industry, Calif.-based employer, he has the tools used on his jobsites engraved with their serial numbers and tracks them as they pass from one electrician to the next. At the end of the day, he makes sure those tools left on-site are locked away. And sometimes when the general contractor will agree to it, he'll have the site monitored at night by a security guard.

So you might think he would have been surprised when he arrived at the jobsite one morning two years ago to find the doors to his metal storage containers had been removed at their hinges by blowtorch and that thousands of dollars of tools they held were missing. But he wasn't. The same thing had happened two years earlier. “If they have the time and the jobsite is remote enough, they'll take anything,” he says of tool thieves. “If they've got the opportunity, there's no stopping them.”

Jobsite theft is a problem that construction workers like Oliver have reluctantly grown accustomed to, and in many cases come to expect. The National Equipment Register (NER) estimates that when production losses and wasted man-hours are considered, equipment and tool theft costs the construction industry nearly $1 billion annually. Although NER says the equipment itself accounts for only about $300 million of that total, that still means more than $800,000 in tools are stolen every day. But even that figure may not tell the whole story because the data can be difficult to compile. “Not all reports are in one central location, so nobody really knows,” says Glen Sider, operations manager for NER. “As good as you want to believe those statistics are, they're still just a piece of a larger pie.”

Statistics show tool thieves like to spread the pain, too, so even if you haven't suffered a loss, the chances are good you know someone who has. The results of a survey of construction professionals released in October by DeWalt revealed that 55% had been the victims of tool theft in the previous year, and of those, 60% had been hit at least twice.

Bleak statistics aside, crime prevention experts say you don't have to treat theft as an inevitable loss. A combination of smart identification methods and prevention practices can reduce your chances of having to buy that hydraulic crimper for a second or third time.

Gimme back my tools. Vicki Schlecter has tracked tool theft for 25 years, and she says it's never been as prevalent as it is now. As the executive director of the Construction Industry Crime Prevention Program (CICP) of Northern California, one of three loosely affiliated organizations that monitor the problem on the West Coast, she's watched the industry reach the point of “absolute outrage” over its recent growth. It's not unusual for her to take phone calls from job foremen who have lost $10,000 of tools in a single night, and she estimates annual losses in Sacramento alone have reached $25 million. “That's a conservative estimate,” she says. “I always say to contractors in California, ‘If you say you don't have a crime problem, you're not tracking it.’”

In addition to compiling theft statistics, CICP helps member contractors file the necessary police reports and recover what they can. Thanks to high insurance deductibles, though, it's not always easy to convince them that step is worth it. Karen Blythe, executive director of the CICP of the Pacific Northwest, says too many contractors won't go to the trouble of notifying the police when they decide not to file an insurance claim. “They have this false sense that if they don't report it to their insurance company because it doesn't meet their insurance deductible, there's no sense in reporting it to the police,” she says. “Well, the police can't recover what they don't know is stolen.”

Once they know something's missing, though, they have to know what to look for. Marking tools with a recognizable form of identification is the most effective way to recover them. Insurance companies suggest painting tools bright colors, but Blythe warns that's only effective for tracking their movement around a jobsite. Once they make it off the site and into a police storage locker, though, the color you chose may not be as unique as you thought. “Off the top of my head, I can name seven contractors in this area who paint their tools green,” she says. “So is that going to help police figure out whose tools belong to whom? Probably not.”

Etching a company name or contractor's board number on the body is another common suggestion, but Schlecter says that only works if the tools stay instate. Instead, she and Blythe recommend using a driver's license number because it's instantly recognizable and can be tracked by police in any state. “Absolutely, unequivocally, without any argument, that's the most reliable form of tracking,” Schlecter says. “There isn't a cop in the country who doesn't recognize and know how to run a driver's license number.”

Maintaining a detailed inventory can also help you claim your tools faster once police have recovered them. After police broke up a ring of tool thieves in Colorado last year, they had a stash of tools from several contractors to sort through, which could have taken weeks to finish. Nearly $5,000 worth of Denver-based Quality Electric's tools were among them, but the police let Barry Wilson, the company's IT manager, come down to collect them the same day because he'd provided them with a list of exactly what he was missing, the serial numbers, and the brand. “They just let us take the tools right from where the thieves had them stashed because we had the inventory [list] to show them,” Wilson says. “Had we not had that inventory [list], they would have been sent to the police evidence locker for who knows how long.”

Quality Electric uses a tool tracking and inventory program to keep tabs on what's being used on each of its jobsites. Tools are affixed with adhesive barcodes that identify them as registered items and allow employees to check them in and out with a scanner. With more than $100,000 in tools to manage, Wilson says it can help him narrow the search for an item quickly. “We have a vast quantity of small tools, and having an inventory that focuses on the tools that are assigned to a jobsite makes it easier to find one of them,” he says.

Although encouraging, Wilson's story isn't the norm, and statistics show you may be better off trying to stop theft before it happens. In terms of overall property theft, tools don't rank very high on the list of priorities in most police precincts. Sider of NER says police just don't have the manpower. “It's hard enough to get officers trained to track down heavy construction equipment, so you can imagine the effort that might be needed to get them to start looking for hand tools,” he says. “So if you really drill down into it, you'll find that recovery rate for property stolen from construction sites is going to be very low.”

Neither Schlecter nor Blythe could provide statistics for recovery rates in their territories, but the CICP of Southern California does publish statistics, and they aren't promising: Although the numbers have been improving since 1999, less than two-fifths of tools and equipment stolen in 2003 were recovered. “Quite frankly, the likelihood of getting something back once it's stolen isn't very good,” Blythe says. “So you're much better off focusing on prevention strategies.”

An ounce of prevention. Despite the effort that most thieves will put into a job, Schlecter says they're still looking for an easy target. Lock everything, and make sure not to leave even the least valuable tool in plain site. If a thief sees even one unattended cordless saw, he's likely to take a closer look to see if you've made other mistakes. “You want to send that person on to the easy pickings,” she says. “Crime prevention is about how tough it looks to crack your jobsite.”

Schlecter also advises using a system of “double-binning” for your most valuable tools. Lock the tools you can least afford to lose in one box, and then lock that inside a larger one. Thieves may open the first box, but the extra effort needed to open the second one may be enough to send them on to a quicker score.

The site's layout and overall security measures can also have a noticeable effect on theft prevention. Although you may not be around to offer input early in the project, try to lobby for fenced perimeters, central station alarms, and well-lit equipment storage areas when you can.

Many of the methods suggested for recovery can also be effective for prevention. Construction thefts are often inside jobs, meaning that thieves know exactly where the holes are in your security. If they know you keep a close eye on things — you track your tools, maintain a detailed inventory, and keep them securely locked whenever they're not in use — they may think twice about trying to rip you off.

Schlecter says creating an environment of awareness and developing the perception among employees that you know where everything is at all times is crucial. “How much do you talk about prosecution and termination? How often do you do inventory?” she asks. “It's the tightness and attention to detail that makes [deceitful employees] aware that you're someone they shouldn't fool with.”

Establishing a security culture on your jobsites may also help you delegate some of the responsibility of watching for theft, which is even more important as thieves continue to get bolder. Blythe tells a story of a thief who recently walked around an Oregon jobsite in the middle of the day, stuffing his pockets with hand tools as he went. An employee watched him from the second story of the building he was working in and caught the man as he tried to leave the site. “It doesn't always happen in the dark of night anymore,” Blythe says. “Contractors need to empower their employees to watch out and speak up when they see something that's unusual.”

Sometimes it's just a stroke of luck — and a bad starter — that keeps thieves at bay. Although Morrow Meadows' Oliver lost several thousand dollars worth of tools that night two years ago, it could have been a lot worse. He'd parked a Pettibone hydraulic lift in front of a Haulaway container to block its doors, but that didn't stop the thieves from trying to get in. They succeeded in torching the locks off the door, but they had to give up when they couldn't start the ancient lift to move it out of the way. “There was probably another couple thousand dollars worth of tools in that container,” he says. “But that old [lift] was such a piece of junk that they couldn't get it started. It saved us.”




Sidebar: Raise Your Hand if You're Sure

If your tools aren't covered, you're taking a chance with your most valuable possessions. Allan Sague, manager of Hartford, Conn.-based insurance provider The Hartford's program for special trade contractors, says the right policy for you will ultimately depend on the value of your tools and how much you're willing to spend.

  • Property policy — Small contractors with less than $10,000 in tools choose a policy like this, which will lump tools in with other work-related property. (Premium: $)

  • Marine policy — Don't be fooled by the name, this has nothing to do with your yacht… or pontoon boat. This policy is meant for mid-to-large-sized contractors who regularly transport large amounts of tools and gear off their insured property. (Premium: $$)

  • Standalone policy or tool floater — By putting certain tools on a separate, dedicated policy, you're going to pay more because you're not covering other pieces of property that can bring down the overall risk for the entire package. Save this type of policy for those tools you absolutely can't work without. (Premium: $$$$)