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Theft: Don’t miss the red flags, always be alert

By Connie Lannan

December 19, 2023

It seems like theft never takes a break. Take a look at some of the more recent incidents impacting the rental industry and what steps could have been taken to help mitigate these losses.

  • In June, after an attempt to break into RentalMax’s Downers Grove, Ill., location failed, thieves gained entry to the company’s Carol Stream, Ill., operation. The thieves parked in front of the main entrance, smashed the glass on the front door, ran to the back of the shop, and stole rental chain saws and cutoff saws. They were in and out in about three minutes. Each saw had a value between $400 and $500. The company later saw chain saws that looked similar to what was stolen, selling for about $200 each on Craigslist. A few days later, their Lake Zurich. Ill., store was hit. The same thieves jumped a fence and pried open one of the pull-up doors in the back and got some resale items as well as a sewer camera — an $8,000 value. Then in October, two people — who matched the description of those who had tried to fraudulently rent equipment from other rental businesses in the area — visited the company’s Madison, Wis., operation. Already on alert status, the manager denied the rental when the information given did not match up.
  • This past spring, Redi Rental, with locations in Muskegon and Grand Haven, Mich., had an out-of-town renter who never returned the stand-on skid steer and trailer, worth more than $40,000. Then in October, the same type of equipment was rented by a local customer, who, when he didn’t return the equipment on time, confessed that it was for someone else and said it had been stolen. The rental company learned some equipment that looked like theirs was advertised for sale on Facebook Marketplace.
  • Recently Rent Rite, with locations in Alma, Mount Pleasant and Saginaw, Mich., had a customer from Detroit rent a mini walk-behind skid steer and trailer with a value of more than $40,000. When the rental wasn’t returned on time, the renter was contacted by the company with no luck, but he did answer when the call was made from a nonbusiness phone. The renter said the equipment was stolen. Then a couple of weekends later, the same crew from Detroit came to the store’s Alma location. They presented a different ID. When their information didn’t line up, they were denied the rental. The staff called the police but because the rental transaction did not take place, no arrests could be made. To top it off, shortly thereafter they received a call from a person who said he stole their equipment and sold it for $20,000. Information has been shared with local law enforcement officers.
  • At the end of October, Tim Hutchinson, president, Suburban Rental, Marietta, Ga., received a request through his company’s “Contact Us” link on his website. The request was from a purchasing manager for a large company in Florida. He was asking for a credit application as he was interested in long-term rentals of forklifts and pallet jacks for a project. The company has the pallet jacks but does not have forklifts. It does have skid steers with buckets and forks. When Hutchinson received the credit application back with the person’s name and signature, the information looked solid. While some of the email addresses for the references bounced back, he was able to contact a few of the names of national companies listed and learned the company requesting the rentals was reputable, with good credit. Hutchinson tried to have this person use his online reservation system, but that didn’t happen. When Hutchinson emailed this supposed purchasing manager, that email bounced back, so he checked on the company’s website and saw the email listed there was slightly different from the one provided by the renter. Further investigation revealed that the renter did not work for the company, that the company did not have any jobs set for the Atlanta area and that the company’s computer system had recently been hacked. Luckily, Hutchinson did not pull the trigger and deliver the nearly $160,000 worth of equipment that was supposed to go out.
Thieves continue to up their game

These thefts illustrate the never-ending need for rental operators to stay alert to possible red flags and “think like a thief,” according to David Grant Mossman, senior analyst, National Equipment Register (NER), a Verisk business, based in Jersey City, N.J.

“Fraud and conversion represent about one-fifth of all thefts where the cause of theft is known (fraud, conversion, burglary, etc.), with burglary being the most prevalent,” he says.

To best protect your rental operation, Mossman says to take a layered approach to theft-prevention efforts. In addition, he encourages rental operators to register their equipment on the NER HELPTech database, which can aid in the recovery because that database can be accessed by law enforcement 24/7. American Rental Association (ARA) members may register for free up to 1,000 pieces of mobile, off-road equipment on this national database. To learn more, click here.

Looking out for red flags

Mossman stresses that rental operators need to train counter staff to take a second look when red flags are raised, such as:

  • Online or phone reservations on credit accounts.
  • Cash customers with no past rental history and ambiguous identification.
  • Renters operating a rental vehicle (branded as a U-Haul type or unbranded Enterprise or Budget Car Rental pickup trucks), and the status of the rental truck has not been verified.
  • A temporary or recently issued ID.
  • Debit card deposits on trailers and earth-moving equipment.

He also emphasizes using the tow vehicle information to identify questionable renters. “If a renter raises concerns, require proof of liability insurance and verify that the vehicle plate matches the registration. Requiring this information may force a fraudster’s hand,” Mossman says.

With red flags, sometimes it is about “going with your gut,” he says, adding that it is important to empower your staff to say they require management approval for anything they feel is questionable. “If it feels wrong, don’t proceed until you are confident everything is legitimate,” he says.

  • For instance, it has been common practice to have renters pay in cash at Redi Rental’s Muskegon operation, according to Matt Cregg, general manager. “The renter in the spring, who paid with cash, had a valid Michigan driver’s license, which is what we look for. He did show up with a U-Haul trailer, which was too light to haul the equipment. He also was wearing a construction vest, which we rarely see. Because those things raised concerns, the team asked more questions. This man said he worked in the landscape industry. We took that information and looked up the company. We validated that it was a legitimate company but not in our state. What we didn’t notice was that the company had recently closed. We did not call the company to verify,” Cregg says, adding that looking back, that was a red flag they missed.For the future they are looking at requiring a valid credit card with a matching driver’s license and adding GPS to their units. “We are talking about ideas to add some layers of security without being offensive,” Cregg says.
  • However, the team at Rite Rent only accepts rentals that are paid for with a credit or debit card. “The driver’s license has to match the credit card. Sometimes we get where the equipment is going. We did not get that from the first renter,” says Ryan Roslund, co-owner. “Sometimes if we get a bad feeling, we tell the customer that the equipment is not available. There is a fine line between having a bad feeling and making a good customer in the future. We didn’t ask what it was for, where it was going this time and didn’t do a Google search to see exactly where it was going out of town.” Roslund notes that his team did do that for the second renter who came in with the same crew as the first renter. The second rental was denied. They will consider making that a normal part of the rental process.
  • Hutchinson at Suburban Rental says the entire rental “felt weird as our inventory is 75 percent event and only 25 percent equipment. We usually never receive requests through our ‘Contact Us’ link, and we deal mostly with local companies that rent with credit cards and not through billing. It was frustrating, but I kept going with it until the email bounced back.” That is when he did more investigating and discovered this renter wasn’t who he said he was. “From now on, we will check everything. If a national company inquires, we will definitely dial an independent phone number to confirm everything,” he says.
Beefing up your facility’s security

Mossman suggests rental operators walk around their premises to see where their physical security could be breached, check their lighting and cameras, secure their equipment, stage the equipment in a different manner and have all inventory documented and photographed.

Matt Shinofield, RentalMax’s area manager who serves on the ARA of Illinois board, immediately took those steps after the June break-in at the company’s Carol Stream location.

“Right after that, we buckled down on all the security at all our stores. We thought we were good, but this really showed us where our weaknesses were,” he says.

The company created a checklist and had their safety instructor make sure that all stores reinforced their facility’s safety, from checking the alarm delay settings; removing high-dollar resale items from the showroom and replacing them with signs and photos; installing sliding latches through the frames of the overhead doors; adding deadbolts to interior doors and tamper guards on some of our interior and all the exterior doors; updating security cameras and making sure all managers can see the security cameras from their phones when at home; and locking up saws and sewer cameras.

Besides enhancing his facility’s theft-prevention measures, Shinofield has made sure all team members have been reminded of possible red flags because thieves will continue to try to steal equipment.

His advice to his rental peers is simple: “Expect to be broken into. Be proactive and see what you can do to minimize your losses,” he says.