How Technology Can Turn the Tables on the Criminals Behind Vehicle and Machinery Theft

August 2, 2023

Philip van der Wilt
Philip van der Wilt

Senior Vice President, EMEA


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The theft of machinery—everything from lorries and vans to diggers, tippers and cranes as well as agricultural machinery—is a nightmare for those working in physical operations.

When vehicles and plant machinery are targeted, it’s not just the cost of replacing the equipment that causes problems. In many cases, it means workers have to down tools and stop what they’re working on. Replacement vehicles and machinery can take weeks—if not months—to replace, causing delays and setbacks. 

In some instances, the thefts are opportunistic. But in many cases, they’re done to order by organised gangs targeting building sites, lay-bys, depots, and farms as they seek to cash in on this lucrative business. 

And with vehicles and machinery running into tens, if not hundreds of thousands, of pounds it’s easy to see why they are targeted. A recent report by Politico linked a recent surge in farm machinery thefts to trade sanctions imposed on Russia over its war with Ukraine. With legitimate imports of vital machinery blocked, crooks have turned to the black market for vehicles, hardware, and spares, it said.

And it’s not just farms that are being targeted. Last year, leading insurer Allianz published an article about the theft of construction machinery, which it warned showed “no sign of abating”.

“Construction sites continue to be targeted by criminals who recognise the financial value of plant machinery and equipment,” the Allianz report said. “Large items such as excavators and backhoe loaders can be worth many thousands of pounds, even if they aren’t brand new.”

Technology can help to bolster physical security

Worryingly, such events are all too common. Which is why the issue of physical security was one of the hot topics discussed during a roundtable event at Samsara’s recent Beyond Conference in Austin, Texas, which attracted hundreds of delegates from the world of physical operations. 

Alek Javier from US-based Prestons Rental, which owns some 1,600 assets and specialises in construction machinery and work platforms, spoke of his frustration from this relentless crime wave. “We deal with a lot of high-reach equipment rentals [including] boom lifts, scissor lifts and reach forklifts,” he told the Beyond audience. “I think it was maybe three months ago, we got a new shipment of 12 brand new forklifts and within two weeks we'd gotten three of them stolen." 

“Now, bearing in mind these are 40 grand apiece—brand new—obviously, management was not happy with that. This was a pretty significant wake-up call for us to take this a little more seriously,” he said. 

Preventing the theft of vehicles and plant machinery

Short of posting 24-hour guards on every single piece of hardware, one of the most effective ways to help prevent thefts—or trace stolen vehicles or machinery—is to install GPS tracking. It’s just one of a number of solutions from Samsara to protect mobile construction equipment from theft

Linked to a central control panel, staff are able to keep an eye on all of their assets regardless of their location. And if something moves, they can pinpoint exactly where it is on a map—and in real time. 

Central to this are vehicle or asset gateways, small devices attached to machinery and vehicles that act as a hub for tracking and monitoring. GPS tracking can also be combined with security cameras, augmented with artificial intelligence (AI) motion detectors that alert staff when something suspicious is happening, to provide another level of security. 

Another approach is to use geofence alerts, which instantly notify staff when a vehicle or piece of equipment leaves a predetermined location or travels offsite. It’s an approach to security that Lanes Group—the leading wastewater utility solutions provider and largest independent drainage specialist in the UK—understands fully. 

Also speaking at our Beyond Conference, Tom Earnshaw from Lanes revealed how live tracking of their stolen equipment meant that it could be successfully recovered. What’s more, knowing that equipment can be tracked in real time has become a deterrent for would-be thieves.

Which is exactly what another Samsara customer—Empyre Builders, a construction company based in Utah in the US—did to protect its fleet of construction vehicles. After a neighbouring business had a Cat Skid Loader stolen in broad daylight, Empyre Builders decided they needed a solution to protect their own equipment. “Because most machines use a single universal key,” explained Young, Empyre’s fleet manager, “these machines are easily stolen, repainted, and sold.”

With machinery commanding such a high price on the black market, it’s always likely to be a target for thieves. Which is why firms need to do all they can to protect their assets. By installing asset gateways linked to GPS technology, it’s possible to know the whereabouts of machinery 24/7. And if the worst does happen, this same technology can be used to track and trace both the equipment—and the thieves.


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