11/09/10 — Businesses take losses from equipment thefts

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Businesses take losses from equipment thefts

By Gary Popp
Published in News on November 9, 2010 1:46 PM

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Russell Aycock of Aycock Tractor Co. is the owner of one of several businesses that have had lawn equipment stolen from their property. More than $25,000 of lawn equipment was stolen from the family-owned business. Police are investigating the recent thefts.

A rainstorm that left ankle-deep mud in many areas of Wayne County did not stop someone from cutting a rusty, chain-link fence that surrounds the yard of Aycock Tractor Co. on U.S. 117.

An overhead light was broken, and when the thieves were gone, two zero-turn commercial-grade lawn mowers were taken from beneath an outdoor canopy.

Owner Russell Aycock remembers the deep tire marks the machines left in the mud as thieves hauled off more than $25,000 worth of machinery.

The Sept. 30 theft that left Aycock with a hole in his fence is not a rare occurrence.

The majority of tractor and commercial-grade lawn mower dealerships in Wayne County have experienced the same type of loss.

"We have been hit three times this season," said Bill Lane, owner of Quality Equipment on U.S. Highway 70. "Once in June, July and October."

In less than six months, Lane has seen nine machines, valued at nearly $45,000, vanish from his dealership because of break-ins.

Across the county, criminals are targeting the highly popular zero-turn mower, law enforcement officials say.

"Nothing probably steals as easy or sells as easy as a zero-turn mower," Lane said.

The way farm machinery is best sold contributes to the thefts, dealers say. Customers want to see the machinery in an open yard environment. It is not uncommon for dealerships to have a chain-link fence as the only barrier protecting the machines from theft.

"If they get in the building, it sets off the alarm system, but there is often no alarm system outdoors," Lane said.

Aycock said the break-ins will impact how he conducts business in the future.

"We are going to have to change the way we do things," Aycock said.

Many of the people who purchase the equipment sold at these dealerships work during the day. Part of Aycock's business model was allowing people to see his merchandise after hours at their convenience.

"You want people to be able to window shop," Aycock said.

Until recently, Aycock left several machines outdoors, locked behind a chain-link fence beneath a light.

For now, Aycock is keeping his machines indoors.

Many Wayne County dealerships have had criminals cut though fences to reach their mowers and tractors. The criminals often exit the property with the stolen machines through the same hole in the fence.

The high costs associated with protecting themselves from theft leave some of the proprietors feeling helpless.

Some of the methods used to deter break-ins include outdoor motion sensors, beam detector, camera systems, enhanced lighting and contact pads that sit under a machine and become activated when the machine is moved.

A less expensive option is immobilization, which makes it difficult for thieves to move the machines. Immobilizing the machines is inconvenient for proprietors, though, because it also makes it difficult for employees to show a machine to prospective buyers.

Anthony Sauls, owner and president of Musgrave Equipment Co. on U.S. Highway 70, is forced to deal with theft a regular basis.

"We have our yard broken into four to five times every year," Sauls said.

Most of the thefts are limited to relatively inexpensive merchandise, he said.

"People come in and steal tires and fenders off of trailers," Sauls said. "The theft is rampant, but we have been lucky."

Sauls' luck might stem from his decision to install $10,000 in theft prevention systems at his property.

A 2008 break-in at Musgrave ended in a chase down U.S. 70 involving the Wayne County Sheriff's Office and Goldsboro Police Department, Sauls said.

During the break-in, suspects loaded three zero-turn mowers onto a trailer and left the property with a pick-up truck that was stolen from another location, Sauls said.

In the court proceedings that followed, Sauls identified the suspects as men who had visited his dealership and test drove similar machines.

In this case, Sauls recovered all of the stolen property, but was not reimbursed for repairing the fence that the criminals cut to enter the property, the damage to the mowers that occurred during the theft or the time he spent in court.

Sauls' scenario confirms the concerns of other local proprietors -- that the people who are involved in thefts come into the stores before committing the robbery.

Proprietors and law enforcement officials agree that some portion of the machine theft occurring is part of a criminal network that reaches beyond Wayne County and the state.

"Some of these high-dollar thefts are the work of an organized effort," said Capt. Tom Effler of the Wayne County Sheriff's Office. "We believe that there are people who place orders for machines, people who work as spotters by going into dealerships seeking specific merchandise and people who transport the machines after the theft occurs."

After the merchandise is stolen, proprietors must deal with insurance companies -- or choose to absorb the loss as a cost of doing business.

Because of the high rate of break-ins of inexpensive merchandise at Musgrave, Sauls opts not to file claims with his insurance provider.

Lane has more experience filing claims on expensive machines.

"Insurance doesn't reimburse you like you would like for them to," Lane said. "If you can recoup 75 percent to 80 percent of your loss, you are doing pretty good."

Lane said the stolen machines can end up in the hands of innocent people.

"People will bring their mower into a dealership to have it serviced, and the dealership will inform them that the mower is stolen," Lane said.

There are steps that people can take to make sure they do not purchase a stolen mower.

"Make sure the machine has its serial tag is in place," Aycock advised.

A serial tag is easily removed, and when it is removed, the machine's ownership history is more difficult to trace.

Common sense is also relevant when trying to legally purchase a used, high-dollar mower.

"If you are buying a nice mower at a great deal, it is probably a great deal for a reason," Aycock said.