Burglary, cybertheft and area tragedy impact Michigan rental operator
By Connie Lannan
September 5, 2023
Gerhardt “Gary” Helfmann, president, A-1 Lansing Rent-All in Lansing, Mich., will never forget Feb. 13, 2023. It was the day his rental operation of 36 years was burglarized, which quickly spiraled into cybertheft and more.
That also was a day of tragedy and sorrow for his town. On that day, an active shooter stormed the nearby Michigan State University campus, killing three students and critically wounding five others.
In looking back at all that has happened, Helfmann says his experience doesn’t even come close to what occurred at the East Lansing campus that day. However, these “incidents,” as Helfmann calls them, put his life and business in a tailspin.
It all started that evening when thieves broke into his building. “They cut my power, which turned off all our cameras. They broke through our back gate and through a side door,” he says.
By all appearances, the thieves were at his operation for a while. “They went through the entire building. They unloaded our box truck and reloaded it with what they wanted,” he says.
To Helfmann’s amazement, the thieves stole a hodge-podge of equipment. “They took more than $100,000 worth of equipment. Some of the other items they took needed repair. There was more valuable equipment sitting right next to some of the items they took. They even took the computer we were using, two rollaway beds, our popcorn popper and my A-1 Rent-All coat. Why would they want to run around Lansing with my A-1 Rent-All coat?” he asks.
As for the computer, they took the hardware. “We lost some information, but it wasn’t critical information. I had everything password-protected pretty well, so they couldn’t get any customer information. In that way, we were OK,” Helfmann adds.
What really got him, though, “was that I had a motorcycle here that I had been building for the past 10 years. I had put a diesel engine on it and a clutch. They took that,” he says.
Before leaving with his box truck, which had some tents and tables in it, and his pickup truck, the thieves also took the keys to the backhoe and tractor that he left on his desk, plus his briefcase that he left at the office that evening.
“That was a big mistake I made,” Helfmann says. “Rental guys are very trusting. Leaving the keys and my briefcase was stupid. I had a lot of personal information in my briefcase as well as my phone and my company checkbook.”
Helfmann learned that his pickup truck was used in two more burglaries that evening, one in town and one in Grand Ledge, Mich. “One of the burglaries was a repair place. One of the guys from that store was driving around Lansing and spotted our truck. He called the police. The police got it back to me. I knew the burglars had a key, so I parked it in our lot and put a skid steer in front of it. Two days after I got it back, the same thieves cut the lock on our gate and stole the truck again,” he says.
This was just the beginning of his challenges. With the thieves having his phone and company checkbook, the issues just escalated.
“They transferred $6,000 out of my personal account to a T-Mobile account and transferred my phone into their name. I went to T-Mobile, was able to get my money back and had them turn off the phone. Three minutes after I turned it off at T-Mobile, the burglars turned it back on again. T-Mobile then protected it so they couldn’t do it again,” Helfmann says.
“They also were writing checks all around Lansing with my checkbook, including paying their utilities. I had to put a freeze on the account and open up a new account,” he adds.
The thieves then called the post office. “They talked to the postmaster, claimed to be me and canceled my mail service. I was looking for documentation from T-Mobile that I had to sign and send back, and it never came. I went to the postmaster. He said I turned off my mail and that I would be sending my grandson to pick it up. I said no, that was not me. I informed the postmaster that they would be coming to pick up my mail and asked him to get the license plate of their car when they came. I also told the postmaster to not give out my mail to anyone unless my wife or I came in and showed our ID,” Helfmann says.
Helfmann and his wife, Mary, then started getting packages at home that they had not ordered and quickly returned.
An incident with one package almost led to Helfmann having a physical encounter with the thieves.
“I was sitting at home and saw this car pull up. A guy wearing a hoodie and glasses gets out of the car and comes to my mailbox. I thought this was weird. As I was putting my shoes on to check this out, I saw that he grabbed a package — one that my wife actually ordered. I started running after him. He quickly got into the car and then they skidded out of our driveway,” Helfmann says.
If that wasn’t enough, Helfmann then received a letter from the Social Security office asking where to send his Social Security check. “I have no intention of taking Social Security yet. I called and froze the account. Now, when we want to collect it, we will have to physically go to the Social Security office and show our licenses to prove it is us,” he says.
Since the initial burglary, Helfmann has been looking at pawn shops and Facebook Marketplace for any of his equipment to show up. “I also notified all the rental guys around here to look for things, but nothing has shown up,” he says.
He is grateful he got his pickup truck back, that he didn’t lose any critical information from his computer and that everyone was safe. He has learned lessons, made changes and is ready to move forward.
Since the incident, Helfmann has beefed up his overall security for his operation, including that “I now take my briefcase and phone home with me every night. I hide the keys to our equipment and park equipment in front of the gate. I reinforced our side door, chain it shut from the inside every night, installed another camera that is looking right at where the power comes in and added trackers to our equipment. I also changed all the locks at my home and business. In addition, I put lines of credit on all our properties so if someone tried to get it or change it, the first person who would be contacted would be the bank and, in turn, they would contact me,” he says.
Reflecting on everything he has been through, he admits “it was terrible, but on Feb. 13, three Michigan State University students got murdered,” he says, adding that this tragedy puts everything else in perspective.
“I don’t take all of this so seriously. I will keep trying to do the right thing and know that I will make the money back,” he says, noting that what really matters is that he, his wife and employees are safe, and that they have taken actions that should help prevent this from happening again.
For more information on the ways Helfmann has enhanced his business’s security, call him at 517-394-0220.