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Law enforcement

Stop! Hammer Time!

Government Tools Up to Fight Equipment Theft Impacting UK Businesses

In 2020, the Ford Transit celebrated the major milestone of being fifty-five years in production. Its strapline was that it formed part of the “backbone of Britain”—the spinal support to small and medium-sized businesses that prop up the UK economy to the point of allowing the nation to hold its head high.

Of course, the Transit, three million of which have been sold since 1965, is just one brand in the arsenal of the ubiquitous “white van man’s” go-to workhorses that carry the payload supporting the army of small tradespeople, from electricians to engineers, roofers to road repairers, and plumbers to plasterers that are seen every day driving along the nation’s highways or parked up at building sites, on the drives of customers or in the car parks of builder’s merchants. 

According to the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), at the start of 2023 there were 5.5 million small enterprises (SMEs) employing 13.1 million people—48 per cent of the total workforce, with a turnover of £1.6 trillion or 36 per cent of the UK economy. 

Breaking the figures down further, there are some three-hundred-thousand construction SMEs employing 2.7 million people across the country. They are responsible for 9 per cent of the UK’s GDP, some £117 billion per annum.

But there is a darker connection between these so-called white vans, their payloads, and the ability of the small businesses that use them to continue to prosper.

Spanner in the Works

The spanner in the works here is the industrial levels of equipment theft from all-too-often easy-to-enter commercial vehicles. This trend is driven by a lucrative and low-risk black market in stolen tools that at best disrupt the day-to-day operation of millions of tradespeople and, at worst, destroy their reputations and futures through their inability to deliver on contracts with punitive penalty clauses only to be further hit by eye-watering insurance premiums when they are forced to re-purchase equipment.

There is also a major issue around the true extent of the problem, because the offence lacks a specific crime classification and is therefore categorised as simply a “theft from motor vehicle” (TFMV), which means that expensive and often bespoke tools are lumped in alongside laptops and mobile phones left in vehicles when it comes to filing a report. 

In addition, police who may recover the tools as part of other crime operations, all-too-often have difficulty identifying them and repatriating them to their rightful owners as they may be in completely different parts of the country, or indeed overseas. In most cases, police eventually auction off the unclaimed tools and the cycle continues because of the healthy black market and the lack of consequence for those involved. 

Police may have suspicions that the tools they seize as part of an investigation are stolen, but in the absence of the rightful owners coming forward to identify them, there is no way of proving guilt or innocence—it is simply one person’s word against someone else’s.

There is also the challenge of the very tradespeople who provide the backbone of the UK economy helping to feed the trade in stolen tools through the “no questions asked” approach to purchasing unmarked equipment. A report conducted for the Home Office and discussed further on in this article highlights the scale of this problem. 

Is it “Hammer Time” for Hammer Crime?

For the last few years, the issue has exercised the thinking of law enforcement and the criminal justice system as they struggle to try and identify the scale of the challenge and how it can be tackled, not just at the point of prosecution—or not, as is the current reality—but throughout the trade supply chain, from the marking of the tools to their secure transportation and storage.

On 15 June 2022, Conservative back bencher Greg Smith MP presented his Equipment Theft (Prevention) Bill to Parliament, and although primarily focused upon the compulsory forensic marking of All Terrain Vehicles (quad bikes) used in farming and agriculture, the draft legislation was recognised as having important implications for other highly stolen items, including expensive building plant and tools.  

The scope of this Private Member’s Bill, which secured the support of Government, was therefore extended to prevent the theft and re-sale of equipment and tools used by tradespeople and agricultural and other businesses, and for connected purposes.

This followed the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) Mutual Insurance Rural Crime report which highlighted the damage caused by such thefts, which cost their customers £2.2 million in 2021. 

Greg Smith MP recognised that tool theft is also a concern for many tradespeople, and he sought consultation with industry including ORIS Forums’ DIY and Building Trade Forum which was lobbying for tougher sanctions on boiler and tool theft. 

A number of practical strategies, including the installation of tool safes at hotels to prevent car park theft and the marking of tools and equipment, have been suggested by industry stakeholders to prevent such thefts. Independent companies have also developed apps to help report thefts and discourage the resale of stolen tools from the starting point of recording ownership of tools. 

The Bill, which cleared its second reading at the end of 2022 reached committee stage in February last year and has since received Royal Assent, albeit there is supplementary legislation in the pipeline in terms of the compulsory marking of tools and who pays for its implementation, the outcome of which will be riled upon later this year following ongoing discussions between the Home Office, tool manufacturers and the retail sector after further consultation and feedback from ORIS Forums and the Builders Merchants Federation (BMF). 

Analysis of the Stolen Goods Market in the UK

In tandem with the lengthy discussions, the Home Office has commissioned far-reaching research on acquisitive crime, including tool theft. Dr Kate Tudor from the University of Durham, who conducted the far-reaching research spoke to impacted businesses, but also the perpetrators of tool theft to understand their motivations.

All of the offenders in her study were male, and all had significant and sustained criminal histories. They were, without exception, drawn from disadvantaged backgrounds and a significant number discussed their experience of broken homes, the care system, the loss of family members, and homelessness. 

Drug use was also a significant factor underpinning the criminality of the men in the study, with many reported being heavily addicted to heroin and cocaine which was described as a catalyst for their offences. 

Across the five major neighbourhood acquisitive crime types, the property category of tools and machinery was the second most frequently stolen. 

By a significant margin, tools were most frequently stolen in TFMV offences (60 per cent), followed by residential burglary (39 per cent).

“Data obtained from the insurance industry also demonstrates the prominence of tools in both TFMV and burglary claims data. Reflecting trends in police data, insurers saw the absolute number of claims for tools decline over time and the cost of claims also declined very slightly during this period,” Dr Tudor said in her report for the Home Office.

 “However, tools remained a significant proportion of the property types against which claims were made for the entire four-year period. In some insurance data it is possible to separate TFMV claims for cars from those affecting vans, and this demonstrates the extent to which vans are targeted specifically for tools. For one insurance provider, for example, the proportion of TFMV claims relating to tools increased from 26.67 per cent in 2018 to 85.71 per cent in 2021.”

Views From Tool Thieves

Dr Tudor’s comprehensive research involved extensive interviews with tool thieves, and one such exchange is replicated here. When asked about his motivation, one respondent said: “You want to go for tools, man. Tools are always good for money. We did vans for a long time, bruh.” 

Asked about how lucrative the market was, the respondent added: “People pay good money for tools. They need it so they are willing to pay for it, do you get me? You don’t get ripped off for tools like you do with other stuff.”

Asked about its low risk compared to trying to move stolen items from shops, the respondent said:  “You don’t have to deal with those people from those shops that are always having your life, trying to knock you down… trying to say we can’t take this ‘cus it ain’t legit, ‘cus it’s got this, it’s got that…no-one wants ‘em…you know? You don’t bother with that stuff, man.”

In terms of the market, the respondent added: “We sell ‘em. Straight off to other builders. They always want them. They don’t care where they come from—they never ask no questions.”

The vast majority of people interviewed had experience of selling tools via local informal networks and reported that those working in the construction industry made up the vast majority of their customer base. 

Some sold in local pubs, via acquaintances, or sometimes in local car boot sales and markets. All accounts of these informal sales networks detailed the way in which local tradespeople provided a constant source of demand for their stolen tools. Furthermore, a significant proportion of those stealing tools in TFMV offences used online sales platforms to move equipment, citing a range of different outlets in their accounts. 

Again, when selling tools online, the respondents suggested that tradespeople constituted the vast majority, if not all, of their custom. They also suggested they often created seller profiles which inferred that they too were tradespeople, but many said that this was often not necessary as buyers were fundamentally unconcerned with this level of detail. In their accounts of selling tools online, respondents most frequently cited using Facebook Marketplace and Gumtree to list goods. 

There appeared to be a common belief that there were less stringent requirements when listing items and that the platforms allowed local markets to be served with relative ease. The fact that fees were not incurred for selling items was also considered desirable to respondents. Others used eBay to advertise their goods and suggested that this was often preferable when selling tools with distinguishing features, as those buying the goods tended to be more geographically dispersed. Cash on collection was preferred by all respondents as a means of payment, but postal services were also routinely offered for goods.

Industry Perspectives

Dr Tudor’s report adds: Participants were drawn from various areas of the tool industry, including manufacturers, merchants, those offering marking and security services, and broader forums and interest groups. The research was timely in the sense that recent conversations about increases in tool theft and possible legislative reform within this market meant that tool theft was very much at the forefront of discussions within this industry.

Throughout these conversations, the issues of marking, registration, and insurance repeatedly came to the fore as being of central importance. Police officers sought to highlight the problem, discussing the frequency with which recovered tools could not be returned to their owners because they lacked identification marking, nor was their ownership registered.

At present, several mechanisms for the marking and registration of tools exist, though they vary greatly in nature. In the first instance, several manufacturers offer extended warranties if a product is registered. In these schemes, the standard warranty can be extended by a period if a customer enters their details on the company’s website, but throughout interviews, take up for these schemes was universally understood to be very low, usually under 10 per cent of sales.

A range of post-sale registration schemes also exist which tool owners can elect to participate in, some of which involve a nominal fee, while others offer free registration options. Representatives from these companies were very keen to communicate the importance of creating a repository of information on tool ownership but were also very open about the fact that that their model was unlikely to prove successful in doing so, given the very low levels of participation in their products and services.

They were all too aware of the problems in motivating tradespeople to register their goods. All such companies that participated in the research had very low numbers of registrations, sometimes with numbers totalling as low as two hundred.

Among those involved in the sale of tools, there was substantial appetite to find solutions to the issues they faced in relation to theft in transit, employee theft, and theft from stores. 

As retailers, there was an awareness that many of the measures which may be implemented to tackle neighbourhood tool theft may also be valuable in assisting with criminality in the commercial sector. There was, therefore, significant interest in forensic marking in the tool sector in order that stock might be traced more effectively throughout the supply chain. 

Some retailers report having attempted to secure greater support from product manufacturers in addressing theft. However, there was a perception that some manufacturers were reluctant to assist in addressing thefts, citing a belief that it lay beyond their sphere of responsibility. 

During interviews with product manufacturers, some drew attention to the possibility that thefts may be a positive force within particular areas of the sector, such as in the hire industry where thefts allowed stock to be replaced on a regular basis and among those with insurance who may also wish to replace their equipment with newer models. There was also some recognition of the fact that thefts inevitably drove tool sales as those affected replaced what they had lost. 

In these conversations, the details of insurance policies were identified as significant barriers to making positive change within the sector as there was a commonly held perception that insurance companies failed to incentivise good security practices.

Discussions around the implementation of industry-wide marking and registration schemes were extensive and, whilst the commercial implications of potential reforms appeared to generate areas of disagreement among respondents, there was widespread agreement around the need for registration at the point of sale, and for marking processes to precede this, most likely at the point of manufacture. 

Several competing commercial interests serve to complicate discussions in this area, and the need for measures to be sensitive to the requirements and capabilities of technology used throughout the sector is very real. Inevitably, those within the tool industry who will be charged with the implementation of change hold some of the most relevant and accurate information regarding the barriers to, and opportunities for, change and these must be central to discussions going forward. 

During the research, several industry representatives brought forward ideas of potential solutions to improving tool security, such as the incorporation of QR codes on products, but these must be brought to roundtable discussions so that their feasibility might be considered by all of those affected.

National Business Crime Centre

The conduit between the law enforcement community, the Home Office, and the wider industry has been the National Business Crime Centre (NBCC) which has been taking evidence from the sector for more than a year.

Inspector Paul Fagg of the NBCC, who has been driving the collaborative approach, is aware of the sensitivities involved in the marking process, as the Government forges ahead with the legislation later this year.

The potential sticking point is the actual process of marking and who pays for it. The tool manufacturers, many of which are global brands, believe source tagging would be too costly to implement across their wider supply chains and want to pass the marking process to the retailers. The retailers argue that whatever marking regime is implemented would have to be at the point of manufacture because for a merchant to open a box of tools to provide a unique identifier would in effect invalidate the guarantee rendering the product unsaleable.

“The system we ultimately envision is one where the product is marked at source and that the retailer simply registers at the point of sale through the scanning of a QR code, for example, so that the item is registered to that customer before they leave the store or merchant—it would be a thirty-second process,” said Paul.

“Then, if an item is stolen, it is easier to check the provenance of the product, where it was registered and to whom, and whether it has been reported as stolen. Also, anyone trying to buy it on social media, or an auction site will be able to check the code to see whether it is stolen.” 

“At the moment we await the outcome of that discussion, but the Government is fully behind this scheme because it reduces the pay-off and reward for tool thieves—it effectively kills off their market because the risks suddenly become much higher because they will have to be able to prove it is theirs to sell in the first place,” added Paul.

The NBCC is also working with Thatcham, the automotive research centre to investigate more secure locking for commercial vehicles and the Criminal Prosecution Service (CPS) to work on tougher sentencing regimes.

Whatever the outcome, hammer crime could soon be knocked on the head by simply killing off the market for stolen tools. It is a good example of turning the screw on a black economy that has for too long offered high rewards at low risk. The power is now switching in the favour of the legitimate tradesperson as the argument that something “fell off the back of a lorry” is now safe, secure, and traceable.

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