Protecting vehicle assets from vandalism and theft is a growing problem for many fleets. “One of my biggest challenges is the vandalism of our trucks left at the office overnight and on weekends,” agreed Ginny Liddle, corporate fleet administrator for Terracon, a 1,327-truck fleet headquartered in Olathe, Kan. Industrywide, these thefts run the gamut from catalytic converters, tailgates, and spare tires, all the way to the vehicle itself. A majority of fleets experience an average of two vehicles stolen per year. As fuel prices increase, fuel theft becomes more common, especially fuel siphoning. Trucks parked overnight are found the next day with holes in the fuel tanks to steal the drained fuel. Also, increasing in frequency are acts of petty (but expensive) vandalism, such as graffiti, smashed windshields, and slashed tires. At urban locations, vandals graffiti the sides of trucks and vans, which requires either repainting or reapplying new decals or wraps. Those fleets that are insured find themselves in a Catch-22 situation. If claims are submitted to the insurer for these incidents, invariably, their premiums are raised.

Theft is Easy, Let Me Count the Ways

Stealing Tailgates: Insurance records show that tailgate theft has been increasing every year since 2009, based on a report issued by the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB), a nonprofit organization funded by insurance companies to investigate thefts and fraud. The top five states for tailgate theft, in order of frequency, are Texas, California, Arizona, Florida, and Nevada.

When a tailgate is damaged in an accident or by severe use, thieves steal a similar tailgate and re-install it on their own pickup or sell it to unscrupulous repair shops for resale. What is making tailgate theft more lucrative is the proliferation of integrated backup cameras and sensors. A traditional no-frills tailgate can cost about $1,200 to replace. But, if it is equipped with a camera or other electronics, the retail price jumps to more than $3,500. Since OEMs do not inscribe serial numbers on tailgates, they are virtually impossible to trace.

Almost all tailgates can be removed without the use of tools. An experienced thief can steal a tailgate in 20-30 seconds. Locking a tailgate is a simple, but effective deterrent since a thief can’t steal the tailgate without first opening it. Instruct drivers to always lock the tailgate whenever leaving the vehicle unattended. Another anti-theft strategy is to park close to an object or structure so that there’s no room to open the tailgate. It is also recommended to etch the vehicle identification number (VIN) into the tailgate, so it can be traced if recovered following its theft.

“Missing” Spare Tires: Increasingly thieves are stealing spare tires under pickups or on the rear of SUVs, which, sometimes, may not be discovered until the spare is truly needed. Spare tires are easy targets and thieves can quickly sell them, using online sites such as Craigslist. Tires do not have serial numbers, so it’s nearly impossible to find a spare tire once it’s been stolen. One way to deter the theft of spare tires is to use locking lug nuts.

Theft of Catalytic Converters: For a number of years, thieves have been stealing catalytic converters from high-clearance vehicles parked overnight in secluded parking lots. The theft results in immediate downtime for the vehicle since it is illegal to drive without a catalytic converter. A thief can slip under a vehicle and, with a battery-operated saw and metal-cutting blade, make two quick cuts and remove the catalytic converter. The theft can take as little as five to 10 minutes. Some catalytic converters are bolted on, which makes them even easier to steal. Installation of a replacement catalytic converter costs between $600 and $1,400. One way to deter theft is to etch the vehicle’s VIN on the converter. However, most times, thieves aren’t interested in the catalytic converters themselves; rather, they’re interested in the expensive precious metals inside — platinum, palladium, and rhodium — which are easily recycled. Many thieves are drug addicts looking for quick cash, but sophisticated thieves have buyers lined up in advance for the stolen catalytic converters. Some converters are shipped to recycling companies in Poland, Canada, China, and Latvia, where they undergo a carbochlorination process that extracts the precious metals.

Vandalism: In extreme situations, vandalized vehicles can disrupt business operations. For example, a small fleet of vehicles parked behind a store whose tires have been slashed cannot deliver pizzas, furniture, or other commodities required to operate the business. Similarly, it is not uncommon for unsophisticated thieves to damage service vehicles while trying to break inside to steal stored tools. Likewise, tobacco company fleets are vulnerable to smash-and-grab thefts while the driver is away from a vehicle making store deliveries, since tobacco products can be easily fenced on the black market.

Don’t Make it Easy

Companies need to reassess fleet policy on how to secure company vehicles after work hours. It is necessary to alert drivers of the increased frequency of criminal incidents and ask them to garage vehicles when possible. Stress to employees that it is critical to secure unattended company vehicles. Let’s not make it easy for thieves.

Let me know what you think.

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About the author
Mike Antich

Mike Antich

Former Editor and Associate Publisher

Mike Antich covered fleet management and remarketing for more than 20 years and was inducted into the Fleet Hall of Fame in 2010 and the Global Fleet of Hal in 2022. He also won the Industry Icon Award, presented jointly by the IARA and NAAA industry associations.

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