Grand Theft Earthmover

Plant and equipment theft remains is a growing concern in the construction, mining and associated industries. Rebirthing is common and recoveries are rare.

Insite-(1).jpgTo a plant or equipment owner, the theft of a machine carries serious commercial implications.

Beyond significant inconvenience, time wasted and money lost, there is potential for long term damage to reputations and a business' bottom line.

Parked in publicly visible places, often with limited night and weekend security, the presence of a large brightly coloured piece of equipment at a job site, on the street or outside a house is hard to miss.

Research and analysis performed over 10 years by the Comprehensive Auto-theft Research System (CARS) and the National Motor Vehicle Theft Reduction Council (NMVTRC) found that between 2004 and 2014 Australian motor vehicle thefts declined by 38 per cent.

In the same period, heavy vehicle thefts increased by 23 per cent, a rise driven by a jarring 45 per cent surge in stolen plant and equipment.

A median estimate of $27,920,000 worth of plant and equipment theft was recorded in 2014 with 682 thefts, compared with 482 thefts in 2004.

NMVTRC executive director Ray Carroll believes the continued growth of thefts is attributable to plant equipment's high visibility, increased profitability and ease of rebirth and resale.

"Cars have become more difficult to steal and to make a profit from," Ray says.

"The vast majority of equipment isn't registered for the road, so there is no permanent record of ownership.

"There is no universal VIN system like on a car, and being able to identify stolen machinery is a real problem.

"They are very easy to sell in the second-hand market. If you take one interstate and sell it the potential buyer would never know it was stolen," he says.

"An excavator being loaded onto the back of a truck by men in fluoro vests is a common sight and it is almost impossible for the average citizen to identify it as theft, unlike someone breaking the window of a sedan.

"Earthmoving equipment can be stolen in plain sight, with few citizens having reason to call 000," Ray said.

Inconsistencies in crime reporting also mean that reported figures might not account for the actual rate of criminal activity in the industry.

"It depends on how police are recording the crime," explains Ray. "Plant and equipment thefts are often simply incorrectly recorded as general property thefts, which can distort the real numbers significantly.

"The real figure might be a couple of hundred more than recorded."

Thieves focus their attention on newer vehicles, with 43 per cent of plant and equipment stolen being less than nine years old.

Nearly 42 per cent of plant and equipment thefts were from businesses, followed closely by thefts from residences at 14 per cent and 10 per cent nabbed from the street.

Unsurprisingly, CARS and NVMTRC data found the motivation for plant and equipment theft is profit, while short term plant and equipment thefts are often used for joyrides, or to play a role in other crimes.

In late 2014 an excavator believed stolen from a West Australian council depot was used to forcibly remove an ATM from a wall. Domestic and international news archives reveal a number of similar ATM thefts in recent years.

Rising thefts have come with a rise in the number of machines that are not recovered.

Currently only 38 per cent of plant and equipment stolen is returned to its rightful owner, with a reported recovery not necessarily indicating the machine will be in useable condition upon its return.

This is another figure that may be subject to variance by reporting inaccuracies.

"Generally, once it's gone it's gone. The recovery rate for equipment that is stolen by professionals is very low," explains Ray.

"Most of the equipment that is recorded as recovered is likely to have been stolen out of the yard, driven through the fence and abandoned a couple of hundred metres down the road. The motivation in these thefts is more likely to be vandalism rather than profit."

If a professional thief has stolen equipment in order to sell or break it up for parts, it is very unlikely to be found. However, NSW Police in particular are saying that GPS systems are starting to pay dividends.

Some of the more sophisticated thieves are stealing equipment, leaving it for a few days in an out of the way area and waiting to see if it is recovered. If it's not recovered they come back and take it again.


Komatsu machines equipped with KOMTRAX satellite monitoring had a recovery rate of 72 per cent in 2014, well above the current 38 per cent average.

In 2014 eight KOMTRAX-equipped machines were targeted and taken in Australia and New Zealand.

Of those eight, seven were returned, in full working order, to their rightful owners.

Fitted as standard on Komatsu Tier 3 Construction machines and provided free of charge, KOMTRAX is designed to monitor performance and assist with fleet management, rather than as a tool in theft recovery. As a side benefit to its initial purpose, KOMTRAX provides up to date location and security data on Komatsu equipment.

Communicating between GPS satellites, the KOMTRAX unit and the KOMTRAX data centre, Komatsu is able to provide accurate location data to owners and police.

Echoing CARS and NMVTRC data, Komatsu owner reports also indicate the most common intention for theft was rebirth and resale to an unwitting third party.

Owner of West Australian hire business Stretch Industries, James Stretch's Komatsu PC18MR-3 was stolen from an operator's house in WA.

Mr Stretch explains that the company felt the impact of the theft from the second the machine was noticed missing in action.

"My immediate thought was obviously about that days' work," he said.

"Then I considered the flow on from that as well. It had the potential to have a huge, adverse impact on our business, and I knew I needed to track it down straight away.

"Excavators and utility machines are our business' life-blood. Without the machines Stretch Industries wouldn't exist," he said.

After contacting Mary-Jo O'Donovan from the KOMTRAX department a trail was noticed and leads were quickly provided to police.

"We repossessed the excavator on a Thursday and had it back at work on Monday. I can't thank the KOMTRAX department enough for the service they provided; we wouldn't have found it without them."

Ray believes rates of theft would be reduced if more suppliers and operators adopted GPS systems.

"The best way forward at the moment would be if the industry had wider adoption of GPS tracking technology. Being able to identify the location of missing plant and equipment quickly significantly increases the chance of effective recovery."