Thieves target construction tools as building industry picks up
Robberies on building sites surge to 13 a day as criminals target lucrative equipment
The nature of the crime can be both opportunistic and targeted. Courtney says that of the crimes reported within the construction industry in the past year, 90 per cent involved the theft of tools. Photograph: Colin Keegan/Collins
“People magpie them. We refer to them as magpies. It is fairly common,” says Billy Wall, the head of one of the trade unions representing workers in the building industry, of the increasing number of thefts in the sector.
“As my father always said to me: ‘Hang your tools from your bottom lip’,” said the tradesman.
The mobile nature of construction work means that builders and tradespeople must transport and carry expensive tools with them. The recovery in the building industry over the past four years has brought with it opportunities for criminals stealing and trading in lucrative equipment. There is a ready and growing market for it.
In the past year, construction-related crime, more specifically thefts from sites and vehicles, has soared.
“It can happen any time. It can happen at night or during the day,” said Wall, the general secretary of the Operative Plasterers and Allied Trades Society of Ireland, better known as Opatsi in the industry.
Explaining how common and easily thefts are occurring, Wall referred to the recent theft of a set of stilts from a fellow tradesman on a building site in south Co Dublin. By the time the worker went up and down a flight of stairs, the stilts had been stolen.
“Within one flight of stairs, they were gone. It can happen that quick and it can happen anywhere,” he said.
Construction activity has increased for 50 successive months, as one metric for the sector, Ulster Bank’s monthly purchasing managers’ index, has shown. While Operation Thor, the Garda’s overall crackdown on roaming, organised burglary gangs, slowed the rate of thefts last year, construction-related robberies have risen this year.
Statistics from An Garda Síochána, yet to be officially signed off by the Central Statistics Office, show that construction crime has increased 35 per cent over the past year, from about 3,400 to 4,500 incidents, or roughly 13 a day. The value of tools and equipment stolen from building sites and tradespeople’s vehicles topped €7.7 million in the 12 months to October. Of that, equipment worth €3.6 million was taken from vehicles.
“It is down to increased activity in the industry,” said Sgt Kelvin Courtney of the Garda’s National Crime Prevention Unit. “There are more opportunities for people to carry out these crimes.”
The nature of the crime can be both opportunistic and targeted. Courtney says that of the crimes reported within the construction industry in the past year, 90 per cent involved the theft of tools.
Among the incidents of items stolen from vehicles, almost four in 10 thefts were from public car parks and among those incidents, almost six in 10 involved robberies from builders’ vehicles parked outside hotels, cafes or restaurants.
Many incidents could have been avoided, says Courtney, if workers had taken better precautions. He says that of the thefts from vehicles, vehicles were left unlocked in one in 10 incidents.
“The majority of items stolen would be saws and drills. You can ‘fence’ them off fairly handily,” he said, using the criminal term applied to individuals who trade in stolen goods.
“They can be packed up and exported abroad. Investigators have found container-loads of tools and they have found them ready to be shipped out of the country.”
In June the Garda tried to link recovered equipment back to their owners as part of a “national recovery day” initiative by laying an estimated €200,000 worth of equipment stolen from the construction and farming industries at a warehouse in Nenagh, Co Tipperary. The items covered the equivalent of half a football pitch, said one representative from the farming community who attended the event.
Courtney urged workers in the construction industry to be more proactive in taking the security of their tools and machinery more seriously. Mobile tracking devices have dropped dramatically in price, he said, and could be used by tradespeople for their vehicles and tools. It may not be possible to lock away equipment while working on building sites, but marking equipment by etching the owner’s Eircode from their postal address or keeping a photographic record of them helps investigators recover and return the equipment to their owners.
“It is important to mark your property in a way that you know it’s yours, both overtly and covertly. You can etch them with your identification with ultra-violet pens so you can identify them back to you. We have plenty of tools that we have seized but we cannot find owners for them,” he said.
Marci Bonham, managing director of Hilti Ireland, said her tools company endured a “nightmare this summer” with break-ins to seven vans in its 40-vehicle fleet and a burglary at their head office in Finglas. She conservatively estimates that the thefts and damage over a four-week period cost the firm more than €50,000.
“This was the worst rash we have seen,” she said.
She said that Hilti-branded vans makes the vehicles “easy marks” for thefts. More generally, the demands of the market have led to greater investment in new products, which in turn has attracted more crime.
The company has changed the locks on all its vans and installed a type of deadbolt lock for the back doors of its vehicles (known as a “slam lock”) to prevent future robberies.
Hilti’s stolen goods have shown up for sale at public street markets and on websites such as DoneDeal and Gumtree. Others have reported stolen goods being sold through Facebook groups aimed at builders and tradesmen.
“If it looks too good to be true – a brand new Hilti at a low price – the buyer questions it,” said Bonham.
The company registers the serial number of every tool it sells so it can trace any item reported it to the company to determine whether it has been stolen. If it has, the company can return it to the market.
Anecdotally, others in the industry report incidents that support the Garda statistics.
In a call around of companies in the sector, Dermot Carey, director of safety and manpower services at the Construction Industry Federation, said that one company reported back that four compressors, all large pieces of equipment, were stolen this year.
Another also had heavy equipment, rock breakers and compressors, taken. In one case, a large piece of equipment that would normally only be towed, was stolen from a building site in the back of a van.
“They have no idea where they are. They haven’t turned up. You could take it from that that they [the pieces of equipment] have probably gone abroad,” he said.
The Garda said that 31 diggers, or excavators, were stolen in 2016.
Jer Bergin, the Irish Farmers Association’s national treasurer and spokesman on rural crime, said that there had been “a pick-up” in the theft of construction equipment from the Laois-Offaly-Kildare area. He pointed to the increased Garda resources being deployed the Midlands under Operation Thor.
Earlier this month, gardaí recovered a substantial quantity of suspected stolen power tools and equipment worth tens of thousands of euro during a routine patrol stop in Mountmellick, Co Laois at around 5am.
“What we would be saying to farmers is to stop dealing with these people and dealing with hooky guys coming in with equipment in vans. Tell people if you see something,” said Bergin.
Sgt Courtney says removing the motivation to steal-and-sell-on will help prevent further crime.
“These tools are being bought and sold amongst the industry so if you are buying stuff for a price that you know is not the market rate, you know that you are contributing to some criminal activity,” he said.
“It is up to people in the industry to not purchase them and remove that reward.”
Tracking stolen equipment online
DoneDeal.ie, the classified website, posts on average 8,000 ads a day and does not have the resources to monitor the provenance of every item it sells, but if a product is suspected of being stolen, the Garda will be alerted.
“We don’t police an ad before it goes up; that would be an impossible task,” said Finbarr Garland, trust and safety officer at Distilled SCH, the company behind DoneDeal.ie, Adverts.ie and Daft.ie.
“If somebody puts up something that is stolen or suspected to be stolen we will take the ad down and take guidance from the Garda.”
The company has an agreement with the Garda whereby if some criminal activity is suspected, it contacts the force, which, in turn, makes an application under the Data Protection Act for information on the vendor. Garland has attended court six times so far this year to give evidence in cases.
“As trust and safety officer, my job is to try to keep the bad guy off the site and follow up with anyone who has posted an ad where we suspect that there is something not right with it,” he said.
The former detective sergeant who ran the Garda’s stolen car unit said that as little as 0.01 per cent of ads posted involve suspected stolen goods or fraud. At one point this week the website had 34,000 live ads for building materials and equipment, mostly small industrial goods such as drills, angle grinders or chainsaws.
“It is very difficult for us to review every day,” said Garland.
“We do look at people and see if there is anyone posting up to 100 ads over a particular few days and they are not in the trade. We might contact the Garda to say that this might be something you may be interested in.”