By Tracy Hanes

From copper piping to kitchen appliances to tools and heavy equipment, construction sites provide a treasure trove of goods for opportunistic thieves.

“Theft has definitely been a problem over the years for most builders, especially builders that have larger community sites where it’s tough to control access,” says Paul Golini Jr., vice-president of Empire Communities. “If you are building 20 houses on a street and there’s only one access into the project, then it’s easier to control. But if you’re building a master-planned community and 200 to 300 homes in a larger format, it’s difficult to control.”

At Empire’s sites throughout the GTA and beyond, Golini has found thieves will “steal anything that can be extracted from a home and put in a truck, including furnaces, fireplaces and appliances. It’s very rare that you have theft in terms of lumber and bricks—it’s the high-value items. As soon as copper prices went up, we saw an increase in copper thefts.”

Not even charitable organizations that help low-income families achieve home ownership are immune. Terry Petkau, director of building services for Habitat for Humanity Canada, says theft is common at many Habitat build sites. “This has always been a problem, but it’s increasing,” says Petkau. He said theft and vandalism on build sites has forced Habitat affiliates to take action, including installing cameras, alarm systems or additional lighting.

“Why would someone do such a thing to a Habitat project?” asks Petkau. “There is signage at our sites and our identity is very clear from Day One. The culprits are quite aware of who they are impacting.”

Petkau says thieves may justify their actions by believing that Habitat didn’t pay for the materials, so it’s not a real loss. He says more than 50% of Habitat affiliates (there are 31 in Ontario) have reported some kind of incident.

“Those costs are real and when materials are donated, we can’t go back to the supplier and request replacements. We have to purchase those materials,” says Petkau. “Or we can go to our insurance company and make a claim, but often we have to pay a deductible of up to $2,000 or more or face a higher premium, and that means we have to make a decision whether to make a claim, pay the deductible and face higher premiums, or pay out of pocket for new materials. Then we have to have volunteers come in to clean up and do the added work.”

With up to 200 Habitat builds occurring at any time across the country, whether it’s the renovation of older homes or new builds, Petkau notes that the costs of theft can add up. Anecdotally, the price of preventative measures, whether it’s security guards, monitoring cameras, fencing or other means to prevent theft, could be in the range of $5,000 to $10,000 per build. When the cumulative costs are compiled, that kind of money could provide up to 10 more Habitat homes for families across Canada, says Petkau.

“It affects your insurance rates and it also affects closing dates,” says Golini. “It’s not a strike or an act of God, so Tarion typically doesn’t look at theft as an excuse to delay a house unless it’s a major theft. If a furnace gets ripped out of a house, it can affect a closing by two weeks. It’s something that affects the homebuyer too. They are not in possession of the home yet, but they feel violated.”

Building materials, appliances and tools are not the only targets. The Ontario Sewer and Watermain Construction Association (OSWCA) equipment theft consultant George Kleinsteiber, a retired OPP constable who worked in the auto theft section, specializing in heavy equipment theft, has seen everything from backhoes to large graders stolen from sites. The OPP estimates that that between $15 million and $20 million worth of construction equipment goes missing every year in the province.

“The stories are unbelievable,” says Kleinsteiber, who has gone as far as Dubai to recover purloined machinery. “Some thieves steal right in front of people’s eyes in broad daylight. One guy pulled up to a site where four different builders were building. He started a grader and loaded it on to a truck. Everyone thought it was the other company’s machine. Nobody could even identify the guy who stole it other than saying he drove a red truck! The owner lost $360,000 in one machine.”

Eye in the sky

New technologies, however, can help curb the problem. “Construction site theft is certainly something that has to be looked at,” says Jim Ritchie, vice-president of Tridel, a major Toronto area high-rise builder. “We had traditional security, but we’ve moved to new technology with a company that uses motion sensor cameras. It’s quite effective.”

Empire Communities also uses video monitoring, says Golini. “Those companies are able to monitor sites 24 hours a day and they typically alert us as soon as a theft happens and call the police. It has served us well. Typically in the past, the industry would hire security guards, but the cameras work well for most builders.”

Tridel is one of about 80 builders across Ontario that uses UCIT Online Security, a company founded a decade ago. Managing director Sidney Sommer, who previously worked for a German aerospace company that was designing a video black box to record flight data, used his acquired knowledge of digital video to create UCIT. His company uses high-tech surveillance cameras with motion sensors and real-time monitoring and works with local law enforcement. UCIT’s Toronto monitoring facility employs more than 60 operators and has natural gas generators on hand in case of a power failure. His services are approved by major insurance companies as a valid replacement for onsite guards.

“A lot of builders use security guards to keep their insurance companies happy,” says Sommer. “But realistically, for low-rise construction, it’s hard for a security guard to secure a site properly because of the sheer size. And things can get stolen during the day when the guards aren’t there.”

Sommer says costs vary for his company’s services, depending on the size of the site and the number of cameras installed, but video surveillance will set you back 25%-50% less than hiring security guards, he claims. UCIT won’t have cameras on every house, but will cover all walkways and entrances. “We have a lot of sites with 12 cameras or some with 60 or 70 cameras if it’s a huge site. We have one site in Upper Unionville with four builders who are building 600 to 700 homes.”

Those countermeasures are worth the investment. “We have on average four arrests a week,” says Sommer.

Their primary target? Copper, says Sommer. In 2013, the Electrical Safety Association describes copper theft as the fastest growing crime in Canada. “It’s as good as cash,” Sommer says. “Any scrapyard will give you cash for it (they are currently paying around $3 a pound for copper wire). Guys will rip wiring out a house and may only get $50 for it, but they’ve created $5,000 worth of damage.”

No. 2 on the hit list is lumber, with lighting fixtures and tradesworkers’ tools as other common targets. “We see so many thefts and it’s pretty exciting when the police show up and catch them in the act,” says Sommer. “The most memorable ones are guys who hide onsite and the police bring in the canine unit to find them.”

He says most thieves are small-time crooks, but “we definitely come across big rings, but they tend to stay off our sites because they have figured out that our system works.” Surveillance provided by UCIT helped police crack a major copper theft ring operating in the Hamilton area.

While it definitely helps with after-hours theft, Sommer says most clients have also reported a dramatic drop in daytime thefts on sites monitored around the clock. The OSWCA is also finding that new technologies are successfully thwarting thefts of machinery from sites. “Touch wood, but right now the theft rate is at the lowest it’s been for a long time,” says Kleinsteiber. “First of all, manufacturers have started to install GPS and other anti-theft devices on new equipment. Second, owners have finally seen the light and are doing pro-active things like installing GPSs.”

Kleinsteiber says the GPS systems are well hidden and built into the electronic control module system, which makes them difficult to disable. With other equipment, owners can pay about $400 to have a GPS installed that can notify their cell phone if the machinery is moved more than a specified distance. The technology will also allow owners to immobilize their equipment remotely.

The OSWCA has been actively working to promote theft prevention and recovery through information it shares with members, offering rewards to report thefts that lead to arrests and through a guidebook it distributes to law enforcement agencies.

“Finally contractors are listening to us,” says Kleinsteiber. “The worst guys are landscapers and pool installers, who have only one or two machines and think no one’s going to steal them. But we see more little backhoes going than big pieces of equipment. Whether it cost $3,000 or $30,000, it’s worth spending $399 and installing GPS.”