ISSUE: Jul/Aug 2007
By Elizabeth Ferrin
Criminal Activity Beyond The Numbers
Whether increasing, decreasing, or flattening out, the numbers and types of crimes at self storage stores are constantly changing. Just like clothing that comes in and out of fashion, trends come and go in the world of crime. Unit break-ins may be popular one month, while office theft may be widespread the next. The targets of self storage crime are also constantly changing. It is not uncommon to find one facility that is hit several times in a single year, but a neighboring store somehow remains crime-free. A self storage facility on one corner of a street may have several reported incidents of theft, while the facility just across the street reports no robberies but struggles with graffiti almost nightly.
This leads managers to wonder just exactly what types of crimes are being perpetrated at self storage stores and what makes one store more vulnerable than another. Although statistics provide a good starting point for answering these questions, they do not paint an entirely accurate picture. To get the whole story, managers must look beyond the numbers to thoroughly assess the criminal activity and crime risks at play in both the self storage industry as a whole as well as at their individual self storage facilities.
Identity Theft Is Hot
If anyone ever created a hot list for crime, identity theft would probably head up the list as the offense with the most buzz. While this crime gets top billing in the press, self storage managers have to do more than read about it—they must deal with it on a daily basis. “Over the past couple of years, more identity theft is being reported,” says Mark Byrne-Quinn, marketing manager of Scottsdale, Ariz.-based PTI Integrated Systems. “Managers are trying to protect identifying information with software solutions, but there are still those who are hacking in. We’re also seeing dumpster divers when stores are not shredding information.”
Self storage is a prime target of identity theft because customers often store personal records and old computers in their units. “Thieves are breaking into units and taking old computers,” says Tom Litton, president of Litton Property Management and Consulting headquartered in Lodi, Calif. “They go into the hard drives and recover passwords to perpetrate ID theft. They also look for tax records and old IDs.”
Litton is quick to recall an incident where a customer’s unit was burglarized. “After the crime, the customer came to me and said ‘Wow, I’m surprised they didn’t take anything of value.’” The customer was mistaken. After reviewing the surveillance camera footage of the incident, Litton saw the thieves carrying out record boxes filled with income tax returns, cancelled checks, and bank statements.
The customer eventually received a telephone call from the bank that no one wants to answer. The bank explained that they believed a fraudulent check was cashed using the tenant’s account. The customer quickly called all credit card and bank accounts only to discover that the thieves had already charged $1,200.
A Dangerous Trend
Drug activity is also a growing trend at self storage facilities, especially when it relates to methamphetamine production. Few crimes committed at self- storage sites are as dangerous as this crime. “Meth labs are a big problem,” says Timothy Zehring, executive director of Mesa, Ariz.-based International Crime Free Association. “Some facilities never have any problems, but others have had several meth labs.”
Methamphetamine production is an especially disturbing problem because of the unstable aspects of the drug. “The most important thing you can do is not disturb a meth lab,” warns Zehring. “Number one, it could be booby-trapped. Second, if you go in when it’s at the chemical transition stage and you stop the process, the cooling can cause a devastating explosion. Simply turning on the light switch can be enough to blow away the entire building.”
Although methamphetamine labs can be extremely dangerous, there are some signs that can point self storage managers toward any potential meth lab. First, there will be a strong smell. Depending on the particular recipe, meth labs can produce a variety of odors including sweet, bitter, solvent, or ammonia. Whatever the odor, the smell will be obviously out of place.
“You can always smell it when someone’s cooking meth and there will be evidence of it in the store’s refuse container,” says Steve Cooper, director of marketing at Digitech International headquartered in Asheville, N.C. “If a self storage store gets in one of these situations, it’s an expensive cleanup.”
Office burglary is another type of crime that is slowly becoming more prevalent at self storage stores. “We had an incident where someone pulled up in front of our facility, threw a brick through the front window, went into the office and rifled through our petty cash,” recalls Litton. “In Northern California, there were five facilities hit in one night and the burglars hit five more the next night.”
The police later explained the reason behind the sudden increase in self- storage office theft. Officers told Litton that the hauls the criminals were getting off the self storage burglaries were much better than the average take from a convenience store theft, and the self storage stores carried with them a much lower risk of being caught. In general, these criminals could go into an empty self storage store and have a good five to seven minutes before law enforcement would be on the scene.
In addition, most stores have anywhere from $200 to $500 in petty cash on hand in the office. Convenience stores, on the other hand, often use drop safes so they rarely have large amounts of money in the registers. Also, convenience stores are never empty and clerks are usually well trained when it comes to responding to burglars.
Fortunately, there are steps managers can take to avoid being the target of an office burglary. Those who securely lock their books and deposit their cash every night will be less enticing to criminals. As Litton explains, criminals go where there is money. “Find out why a facility is being targeted and take appropriate steps,” he suggests. “Once they break into a couple of facilities and don’t get anything, they won’t bother to do it anymore.”
Storing stolen items is also a problem. “Burglary and theft is not as prevalent in self storage as you might think, but it does happen,” says Cooper. “Self storage units are not very good targets because there is no cash available. Everything that’s stolen has to be fenced and turned into cash, which is too much work for most thieves.”
It is rare, but there have been reported cases of organized groups robbing self storage units and selling the stolen items at flea markets. Cooper recalls a small gang who broke into a series of self storage facilities and used the goods to feed a booth at a flea market two states away. The group was apprehended.
This crime seems to be on the decline as the barriers to set up shop at flea markets seem to be increasing. Many states now require vendors to pay sales tax on all flea market transactions, which helps to inhibit many criminals as most offenders shy away from giving personal information.
While some offenders still overtly break into self storage facilities, today’s smarter criminals will try to become a part of the inner workings at the site. “Criminals don’t spend time trying to circumvent security systems. Instead, they try to become a part of the operation,” says Litton.
“They’ll walk in, rent a unit, get a legitimate access code, and have a legitimate reason to be on the property. Rarely in storage do we see people who cute a hole through the fence and hot-wire the security cameras. It’s so much easier to become a part of the system.”
There are many examples of this type of customer-turned-burglar crime throughout the self storage industry. “At Arizona Storage Inn in Mesa, Ariz., there was a manager who went to a class and learned that when a customer enters the code in the gate, they should make sure they’re going to the right locker,” says Zehring. He recalls that this particular customer made a right-hand turn inside the facility when his unit was toward the left.
The manager followed the customer and watched as he cut a lock on another unit and went in, rifling through another tenant’s belongings. This manager acted quickly. He took the lock off another unit, pulled the door down behind the unsuspecting criminal, and locked the would-be burglar inside the unit. “Then, the manager went back to the office and called 911. When the police came, they found the manager sitting in his chair singing ‘Bad boys, bad boys, what ya gonna do?’”
At another facility, two parents were making regular trips to their unit while their son broke into other customer’s units and grabbed valuables. When the manager saw what was happening, he locked the gate. The trio rammed the gate with their truck and escaped.
Other Crime Trends
In addition to keeping an eye out for criminals on site, vandalism continues to be a struggle for many self storage stores. Although this crime is becoming less common, vandalism remains a top problem for the industry. “One of the most bothersome and noticeable crimes is graffiti,” says Cooper. “It’s not limited to large markets or urban areas and it can be a real nuisance for the manager. It takes time and effort and can be expensive to correct. It’s a big deal for managers who have to take care of it. If they don’t, it sends a signal that you’re a potential target for crime.”
Other crimes that are still plaguing self storage facilities include the midnight move out in which a delinquent tenant vacates a unit without paying. Also tailgating, or following another car trough the gate without entering the access code, is still prevalent within the industry. The jilted lover also occasionally hits the scene, attempting to break into a unit that holds their personal property but legally is leased to a former partner or spouse who is refusing them access. In general, these crimes are less glamorous than theft and burglaries, but they remain on the radar for most self storage managers.
Managers at RV and boat storage stores are also seeing their fair share of burglaries. “A lot of facilities have RV and boat storage where people are also storing their toys, like four- wheelers and ATVs,” says Byrne-Quinn. Unfortunately, these “toys” are often prime targets for thieves. “I know of a facility where someone took a truck, drove through the desert, and crashed through the back wall,” he adds. The wall was an older block wall that had started to wear and a perceptive thief quickly picked up on the weak spots. After the burglar cleared the wall, he drove his truck with a trailer right into the self storage facility and drove out with six four-wheelers.
Another trend is robbery by former employees. One owner in Washington state reports three such incidents in the last year. Two occurred shortly after relief managers were terminated, and the new relief managers were robbed at gunpoint. These two incidents were unrelated. It cannot be stressed enough that background checks are imperative before hiring any employee.
Excluding RV and boat storage, most specialty and high-end facilities deal with few if any burglaries. These self storage stores are often equipped with the best, high-tech, state-of-the-art security systems available today. “The average new self storage store spends more than the average new bank branch on security,” points out Litton. “It’s not unusual for a facility to spend $100,000 or more on security alone.”
In other words, managers at stores with fences, gates, lights, access control systems, and video systems can breathe a small sigh of relief as criminals are likely to bypass their sites for less secure alternatives. However, self storage facilities that lack some of the security basics may want to keep an eye over their shoulders at all times.
“I got a call one Monday morning from a lady in Texas who owns a self storage,” says Cooper. “She said to me, ‘I can’t stand all these break-ins. I need some help.’ She had a multi-use facility with drive-up storage along with RVs and boats.” The woman described how the burglars were climbing up on the RVs and then breaking into the self storage facility through the skylights. They were stealing several items, including TVs. “I asked her to explain how they’re getting past the fence and she said ‘Oh, we don’t have a fence.’ My advice to her was to put up a fence with a gate access system. She did and the problem went away.”
Improved security measures are helping to push the overall crime level down on an industry-wide level. Even with an overall decrease in crime, there are still those who will target self- storage. Criminals who see opportunity in these trendy crimes are going to take their chances at self storage facilities. However, properly equipped stores can help deter or catch any criminals who commit crimes at these sites. This means that managers can take comfort in the fact that offenders who go after their facilities will likely end up being caught and punished for their deeds.
Elizabeth Ferrin is a freelance writer and Editor based in Maple Grove, Minnesota. She is a frequent contributor to Mini Storage Messenger magazine.