‘Gut instinct’ is just one theft-prevention tip
By Connie Lannan
June 6, 2023
A reservation for a mini excavator came in on a Monday to Highlift Equipment in Cincinnati. An alleged employee from the construction company that made the reservation picked up the equipment at Highlift’s sister store, Rental Stop Ohio in Sunbury, Ohio. He showed up around 4 p.m. on a Friday with a U-Haul truck and trailer. That was a potential red flag to the team at the Sunbury location, but after a call to the salesperson at the Cincinnati store, they were assured that all was OK and proceeded with the rental.
The following Tuesday, still feeling a little uneasy, Jeff Loudermilk, Rental Stop Ohio president, who also serves as ARA of Ohio president, called the salesperson in Cincinnati. “I said the job site doesn’t seem too far from your operation. Could you follow up, see that everything is OK and ask whether they need more equipment? Then the dealer who we bought the machine from called, asking if we were selling this machine. I said no as it was out on contract. He told me the machine was on Facebook Marketplace in Detroit. At that point we figured we had been taken,” he says.
Sure enough, that is exactly what happened. While they never recovered their mini excavator, they found that these thefts were the work of a crime ring that had hit rental operations in Michigan and Ohio. They also learned that the person who came in to pick up the equipment had multiple IDs and stolen credit card numbers. On a positive note, that person was eventually arrested.
That was in 2018. Then, in February 2020, Loudermilk experienced another attempted fraud. A supposed renter called his store to reserve a track loader. “This time we were alerted to the likelihood that this was the same type of situation we had in 2018. A rental operator at another store in Ohio, which also had been hit by the same ring as us in 2018, shared what was going on,” Loudermilk says.
“When I heard about this situation, I looked down and saw that this same person had reserved something at our store. I realized this person was putting in reservations for equipment in a bunch of different places. A different person than the one who reserved the equipment showed up at my location. I discreetly took a photo of the license plate of his pickup truck. He gave us a debit card. I said we could not take it. I wanted to stall for time, so I told the renter to let me call my boss. I went and called the Licking County Sheriff — the same county where the rental operator who called me has a store. That sheriff was ready to pounce on this if the renter went back to the store that initially called me. I then called the sheriff in my county. They couldn’t do anything as he hadn’t stolen anything yet. I ended up declining the rental. The police eventually found the truck and the person who came into our store. When they ran the license plate, it was a fleet plate. That was different than the plate that was on the truck when it was at our operation. The police later found the one license plate in the trash can. He was arrested for possession of stolen property,” Loudermilk says.
Loudermilk is grateful he avoided another theft attempt. When it comes to vetting customers, he gets a driver’s license and credit card and makes sure they match up. He also makes sure he gets a signed contract. He also uses GPS on many of his units. Unfortunately, it was not used on the equipment that was stolen in 2018.
“Also, if they are driving a rental truck, wearing a safety vest, have an out-of-town driver’s license or want to take our equipment out of state, we decline the rental,” he says, adding that the policy can be modified on a case-by-case basis.
Loudermilk also is thinking about having customers put their thumbprint on the contract. “A thief probably wouldn’t want to do this,” he says.
Ways to protect your operation
Detective Sgt. Jim Dietz with the Michigan State Police SCAR (Southwest Commercial Auto Recovery) Unit, Kalamazoo, Mich., who received the ARA Insurance/National Equipment Register (NER) Award in 2020 and 2021, agrees with a lot of the strategies Loudermilk has employed. He also offers the following tips:
- Know the issues and theft trends in your area and throughout the U.S. “With fraud cases, some thieves are hiring homeless people to go into the rental operation and rent the equipment, using their real IDs. Pass this type of information on to your counter staff, train them on your policies and procedures as to what questions to ask, what documents to get, what red flags to be aware of and provide them a way out so if they have a gut feeling that something isn’t right they can come to you or another manager and have a way out to decline the rental,” Dietz says.
- Share with others incidents that happen at your operation. That was the issue with the first incident in the Ohio case. Dietz was involved in this case from the beginning and ending up being instrumental in arresting the key leaders in this crime ring. Loudermilk didn’t know there was a theft ring or their modus operandi until after the fact. “Notify the other rental operators — network with them to let them know that this just happened. If you turn a risky renter away, I guarantee they will go to another business and try to rent from that other rental operation down the road. That is exactly what happened in this case. Networking is huge as every rental operation is in this together. Just be aware of not giving out personal identification information by email. Sharing information is a must, though,” Dietz says.
- Don’t continue to swipe credit cards or override the card if they are declined.
- Get the license plate numbers and even the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) on renters’ vehicles. “They might swap the plates on rented vehicles, so getting the VIN from the windshield dash is good. Thieves usually don’t change that,” Dietz says.
- Get a thumbprint on the contract. “I think this is a good step,” Dietz says, adding that refusal to do so could be considered a red flag.
- Make sure all renters sign the contract. “Then check the signature on the ID with what they sign on the contract. If you see a distinct difference, that should be a red flag. Also, make sure you list on the contract that they are responsible if the equipment is stolen,” Dietz adds.
- Receive the telephone number of the person picking up the rental. “Many times people will call ahead and give their names and contact number. When the person comes in to pick up the item, make sure you get that person’s phone number. That is the one you want. While they are standing there, call the number right there to make sure their phone rings. If it doesn’t, there is an issue,” Dietz says.
- Ask for the location they are taking the equipment to. “Check it on Google Maps. In fraud cases, nine times out of 10, this is a fraudulent location,” Dietz says.
- Use GPS on your equipment. “GPS is a great tool. If we recover equipment, it is usually done by GPS. Some machines have it as part of their telematics. You can’t get rid of those,” Dietz says.
- Register your equipment on the National Equipment Register (NER) database. “Law enforcement has recovered a lot of equipment by utilizing NER because they catalog and document all the equipment,” Dietz says.
- Make sure you have surveillance video. “This is becoming a must. Prosecutors are requesting surveillance videos. If you don’t have it, your case might not be prosecuted or pushed way down the pile,” Dietz says.
Any steps a rental operator can take to make theft harder to accomplish the better. “If we can prevent it from happening to begin with, that is the best way to go,” Dietz says.