At a Glance

There are many ways that fleets can protect contents and vehicles from being stolen, including:

  • Tinting windows
  • Requiring drivers to remove all valuables or hide them out of sight before exiting the vehicle
  • Installing alarms on vehicles
  • Adopting a layered vehicle anti-theft program

Vehicle theft is a multi-billion-dollar criminal enterprise, and fleet vehicles can be particularly attractive targets. A layered approach of low-tech and high-tech strategies can stop thieves in their tracks.

Vehicle-related thefts are among the most common property crimes in the U.S. with an automotive theft occurring every 43 seconds. That’s more than 737,000 vehicles every year, costing the economy $4.5 billion annually, according to the most recent statistics from the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB), a century-old nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing and combating insurance fraud and crime.

While it’s most common to think of automotive theft as purely the theft of the entire vehicle, for fleets, it covers a range of crimes, including a simple smash and grab of valuables in plain sight, using the information on vehicles to “case” a business, using the vehicle for other criminal activities, outright theft, and everything in-between.

Among the most common form of automotive theft are crimes of opportunity, commonly known as smash-and-grab thefts.

Stopping Smash & Grab Theft

Smash-and-grab thieves typically target fleet vehicles when drivers are making deliveries, picking up cargo, or making a service or sales call to a business. The driver, focused on the task at hand, may leave the windows down, the door unlocked, or a laptop in plain view, planning to be out of the vehicle for a “minute.” It takes a less than a minute for a thief to reach in and grab the valuables and be off to his or her next victim.

One of the keys to stopping opportunist thieves is to make it more difficult to commit the crime. “In order for a thief to burglarize or steal a vehicle, they are going to have to get into the vehicle. So, the Reduce Auto Theft in Texas (RATT) Task Force advocates any technique that will make it more difficult for a thief to get into a vehicle in the first place,” said Michelle Lanham, program manager for RATT.

 There are a number of ways fleets can deter smash-and-grab thefts, according to Lanham. “The darkest legal limit of tint on vehicle windows is definitely recommended when it comes to preventing burglary,” she noted. “Safety glass and shatter-resistant window film is another. Both keep a vehicle window from shattering easily if someone attempts to break in. Vehicle door lock reinforcements are another option.”

However, Frank Scafidi, director of public affairs for the NICB, noted tinted windows will only go so far in discouraging a thief. “They only deter the low achievers among the smash-and-grab crowd because you can still see inside through the windshield,” he said. “Now, metal mesh is my favorite. It is a good, secure option, but expensive if you have a fleet to consider. But, what is the risk of theft without it? Then it comes down to a cost-benefit analysis.”

Both Lanham and Scafidi agreed that vehicle caging is among the best theft deterrent options when guarding against smash-and-grab criminals. “It might be best to have a heavy-duty internal cage type protection and untinted glass; let the knuckleheads see they’d need a cutting torch and asbestos gloves to reach the ‘treasure.’ Then, even the idiots might realize that it’s not worth the risk,” Scafidi said.

Beyond investing in better windows and internal caging, there are three other approaches that fleet managers, other company supervisors, and drivers can take to protect both vehicles and what’s inside them, according to Lanham.

The first approach is the easiest — remove all contents placed in a vehicle by human hands when the vehicle is not in operation. “If nothing else, do not leave property and equipment in plain sight,” Lanham advised. “Hide or disguise contents if removal is not possible.”

For fleet vehicles equipped with toolboxes or specially built compartments to house tools and equipment, compartments built from heavy-duty steel and equipped with hardened steel-lock latches and locks will provide added security.

Finally, Lanham advised that all tools and equipment left in (or on) a fleet vehicle should be marked with permanent identifiers and cataloged to increase the chances of recovery. “Equipment should also be documented and videotaped for law enforcement and insurance reporting purposes,” Lanham added.

But, on occasion, a smash-and-grab theft may escalate to outright vehicle theft.

“Even when fleet vehicle contents and equipment are the primary targets, the theft of the entire vehicle is often viewed by a thief as the most efficient means to commit the burglary, because the vehicle can be taken to a secure location where the contents can be removed at the thief’s leisure,” Lanham said.

Using Common Sense

The most effective weapon against thieves — whether they’re after the contents of a vehicle or the vehicle itself is common sense. “The easiest and most cost-effective [protection] is to use the security that comes with the car,” Scafidi advised. “Locking the doors and keeping the windows up still works and it deters a good number of opportunist thieves.”

In addition, other common sense anti-theft methods include removing keys from the ignition.

As a further way to protect fleet vehicles, Lanham recommended fleets with drivers who share vehicles not install key lock boxes on or in a vehicle. “A key control system should be implemented inside a building where drivers have to check in and sign out vehicle keys. And, spare keys should not be left anywhere in the vehicle,” she added.

According to the Arizona Automobile Theft Authority (AATA), nearly 20 percent of all the vehicles stolen had keys in the vehicle either in the ignition or a spare “hidden” somewhere in the vehicle. (The reality: The pros know where to look.)

Other common-sense strategies, according to the AATA, include parking in well-lit areas (vehicle thefts occur at night more than half the time), parking in attended lots (thieves don’t like witnesses), not leaving a vehicle running and unattended, and not leaving valuables in plain view.

Parking a fleet vehicle in a secure environment is “the smartest thing” a driver can do to protect his or her vehicle, according to Scafidi of the NICB.

Implementing a Layered Approach

Common sense will work much of the time, but to further deter thieves the NICB, AATA, and Lanham of RATT recommend a “layered approach” to vehicle protection.

Lanham said that for fleet vehicles the next step following common sense (the first layer) is visible deterrents on the vehicles. “These are any devices or items that indicate to a thief the vehicle theft will be more difficult,” she said.

Among the ways fleets could do this is with security lights, steering wheel locking bars, and signage.

Security lights are lights indicating that the vehicle has a security alarm. These blinking or steady dash lights can be part of an alarm system or purchased and installed separately.

Steering wheel locking bars prevent the proper rotation of the steering wheel when driving and often have additional hardware attached that prevents breaking into the steering column housing to defeat the ignition or steal the air bag.

Signage can include anything that indicates the vehicle has additional security measures on board. “For instance, the Texas Automobile Burglary and Theft Prevention Authority (ABTPA) provides vehicle window static decals that indicate a vehicle is equipped with an anti-theft device. ABTPA encourages vehicle operators to put the static decals on vehicle windows, even if an anti-theft device is not present,” Lanham said.

Other warning devices the NICB recommends as options include audible alarms, brake locks, wheel locks, window etching, and micro-dot marking.

Immobilization devices, such as smart keys; high-security locks and keys; fuse cut-offs; and kill switches and starter, ignition, and fuel disablers are ways to further deter thieves. “Immobilizers are aftermarket devices fitted to vehicles in order to prevent engines from running unless the correct key or other secondary input is present. This prevents a vehicle from being ‘hot wired,’ ” Lanham explained.

The final layer of security involves something many fleets are using to help drivers do their jobs better — GPS.

“Numerous fleet GPS technologies exist in the market today, and, in many cases, the installation of such devices is not intended to prevent theft, rather to monitor the movement of the vehicles and associated personnel for productivity purposes,” Lanham said. “But, no matter the reason for installation, GPS can be used to track movement should fleet vehicles be stolen.”

Scafidi of the NICB concurred with Lanham. “Car alarms deter a certain kind of thief, but, today, there are many GPS or smartphone applications that can protect your car as well. LoJack and OnStar are examples of vehicle tracking services that will alert authorities to a vehicle’s locations,” Scafidi said.

Brian Salata, executive director of the AATA, noted that, while the initial outlay for an anti-theft tracking device can seem high, it will quickly pay for itself in peace of mind and if the vehicle is stolen. “Tracking devices have a relatively low cost — and fleets that are insured by a third party might see a savings because there’s a tracking device onboard. The bottom line is that you want to find the vehicle and find it quick. That’s your business. With one vehicle down, you’ve lost money,” he said. “You have to look at what you’d save by having a tracking device. It’s a simple cost-benefit analysis.”

Salata added that he’s been involved in situations where a fleet manager has been able to use GPS to track a vehicle — in real time — for law enforcement, helping officers successfully and quickly retrieve the vehicle.

GPS can help after a vehicle is stolen, but, it too, can be at the mercy of a thief. “Of course, if the thief determines a GPS device is present and can determine a way to defeat it, the technology can be rendered useless; so, the more covert the placement the better,” Lanham of RATT said.

Controlling Visibility

While the layered approach can work with any vehicle, one reason that fleet vehicles can be prime targets is because they are clearly identified as being company vehicles. Vehicle graphics can give criminals valuable clues to the contents of a vehicle and whether it’s worth escalating a crime to the full vehicle or other property thefts.

While an ideal way to promote the company brand, vehicle graphics can be a double-edged sword. “Of course, a company wants to market itself on its vehicles, but company information that appears on a vehicle can provide valuable clues to a thief,” Lanham of RATT said. “Not only might the thief be able to discern the type of equipment in the vehicle (e.g., a plumbing company van yields plumbing supplies), but the company markings might also tell the thief where to find additional vehicles. From a vehicle crimes prevention standpoint, it would be wise to leave company addresses off the vehicles. Company names, phone numbers, websites, and social media outlets should be emphasized rather than physical addresses.”

Scafidi of the NICB noted that the decision to brand or not to brand a vehicle can be a tough call. “If a fleet is targeted because of what it is carrying, then a decision needs to be made — does the fleet risk continued thefts or is using plain trucks the way to go? Still, if someone steals a truck with a [well-known] logo all over it, recovery is a lot easier as well. It might be an option for companies to go with a monitoring service that provides real-time tracking and surveillance,” he said.

Further complicating matters, stealing a high-visibility branded vehicle may aid a criminal in committing another far more serious crime. “You have to remember that today vehicle theft is a crime of facilitation,” said Salata of the AATA. “One of the best ways is to hide in plain sight and not draw attention to yourself.”


Protection Begins at Home

One of the biggest threats to fleet vehicle security is when they are closest to home — that is, in the fleet’s parking facility.

Making a fleet parking lot as impenetrable as possible is the best way to deter vehicle and equipment thieves, according to Lanham of RATT.

There are four possible ways to improve perimeter security.

First, fencing is probably the most basic. Lanham recommends heavy metal wire fencing that is secured in the ground by at least one foot and has gates that can be secured with hardened steel locks.

Second, in lieu of fencing, Lanham said that concrete and metal barriers can be installed. “Some barriers can be operated electronically and installed in primary entry and exit locations, so that when the normal course of vehicle business is done for the day, the barriers can be raised to prevent vehicle movement,” she said.

If at all possible, storing a vehicle in a locked permanent or manufactured structure will also help greatly diminish the possibility of a vehicle being stolen.

Third, surveillance or the appearance of surveillance is another option for securing a perimeter — fence-mounted cameras (either inactive or active) can give a thief pause before attempting a break-in. And, if the cameras are active and a theft occurs, there is good evidence of the perpetrator that will aid the police in recovering the company’s property.
Lights should be left on in adjoining buildings and building and fence-mounted, motion sensitive lights should be installed.

Finally, if it is within budget, private security can be hired to patrol the fleet vehicle location.

Whether there is electronic surveillance or security personnel or not, signage should be placed around the perimeter as an added deterrent. 

Who Watches the Operators?

Drivers and policies relating to them are another key element in any fleet anti-theft program.

And, it starts prior to a driver even sitting behind the wheel, performing background checks on potential employees. “Employee-involved crime can be found in virtually all industries and organizations, so it is important for employers to know as much as possible about the people they are entrusting with their vehicles,” Lanham commented. “All employees operating and responsible for company vehicles should be vetted with background checks and interviews to ensure they are aware about the expectations relating to their vehicle operations.”

Salata of the AATA noted there have been instances of criminals infiltrating a fleet, not to steal a vehicle outright, but to use it to commit a crime and return it to base. For fixed route operations, one way to monitor this is through careful route monitoring (via telematics solutions) or checking mileage, he added.

Policies that will help keep unauthorized individuals away from a fleet vehicle include requirements to wear company uniforms, badges, or name tags at all times.

Access control is another method to protect fleet assets. “Policies should be in place within companies operating fleet vehicles that control access to those vehicles and vehicle keys. If employees are allowed to take vehicles home, strict guidelines should be implemented regarding how vehicles are to be stored and protected when dormant,” Lanham said.

Salata also recommended having a fleet security officer — either a former law-enforcement officer or someone with a legal background — to help protect fleet assets.

Vehicle Thefts: Looking Ahead

Looking ahead, Scafidi believes that technology will continue to play a starring role in fleet theft protection. “I think the future holds a lot of promise,” he said. “Technology will continue to drive thefts down, and, while that might present unintended consequences — for example, while there has been no documented theft of a vehicle this way, there are the stories of hackers being able to gain access of vehicles through a hole in their wireless cocoon — they will not outweigh the benefits. I think we are moving quickly to an era when vehicle theft will be a manageable irritant,” he said.

About the author
Chris Wolski

Chris Wolski

Former Managing Editor

Chris Wolski is the former managing editor of Automotive Fleet, Fleet Financials, and Green Fleet.

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