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Key strategies for protecting commercial fleets

January 18, 2022

Commercial fleets are an important part of many businesses; yet they also carry significant exposures, such as risk of theft. In fact, 880,595 instances of vehicle theft took place across the country in 2020 alone, which equates to a vehicle being stolen every 36 seconds.1

Thefts may involve entire vehicles or valuable parts or contents. Theft can lead to serious consequences for impacted businesses, such as significant vehicle recovery or replacement expenses and the potential for major operational disruptions.

“On average, vehicle theft costs the nation more than $6 billion each year, totaling over $8,800 for each theft.”2

Understanding the main forms of vehicle theft and developing strategies to protect commercial fleets can help organizations avoid costly losses and disruptions to their operations. Below are some of the key types of theft and best practices for staying safe.

Vehicle theft

There are a variety of methods that thieves may utilize to steal vehicles. Vehicles are generally stolen when they are unattended. Carjacking (also called armed auto theft — when a criminal utilizes violent tactics to steal a vehicle while the driver is behind the wheel) composes a small percentage of total vehicle thefts. Nevertheless, businesses shouldn’t ignore the risk of carjacking.3

Primarily, criminals look for vehicles that seem like simple targets. For instance, vehicles that are left unlocked, still have keys in the ignition or lack anti-theft technology may be more attractive to thieves, as they will probably require less effort to steal. While the risk of stolen vehicles usually comes from external individuals, businesses need to keep in mind that such theft can also stem from deceitful employees. In some cases, employees may even conspire with criminals to steal vehicles.

Businesses should consider the following measures to minimize the likelihood of vehicles being stolen4:

  • Conduct employee background checks. To prevent vehicle theft at the hands of dishonest employees, businesses should conduct detailed background checks on all staff members before permitting them to get behind the wheel.
  • Train employees on theft-prevention protocols. Businesses should provide their employees with routine training on proper theft-prevention measures. Such measures include parking in well-lit areas, keeping all windows closed and doors locked when leaving vehicles unattended (even if only for a few minutes), refraining from storing valuable personal items in the vehicle and never leaving the keys in the ignition after parking.
  • Equip vehicles with anti-theft technology. There is a range of anti-theft devices that businesses can utilize to better protect their vehicles. These devices include alarm systems, steering-wheel locks and immobilizing technology — the latter of which can stop thieves from manipulating ignition systems and hot-wiring vehicles. There are also recovery devices that can assist businesses with locating vehicles after they have been stolen, helping to catch criminals in their tracks.
  • Educate employees on carjacking response steps. Although carjacking is less common, businesses should inform their employees how to respond to such an incident safely. Specifically, businesses should instruct drivers to comply with carjackers and avoid fighting back, as protecting a vehicle is not worth risking their lives. Employees should be encouraged to trigger their vehicle alarm systems (if applicable) and call 911 immediately if they feel threatened behind the wheel or have been involved in a carjacking.

Vehicle contents theft

Apart from the vehicles themselves, thieves may try to steal the contents within them. This is an especially prevalent concern for businesses that transport valuable cargo to other parties or carry specialized tools and equipment in their vehicles. Such theft can occur at various stages. For example, a criminal may break into a vehicle when it’s left unattended to steal its contents or attempt to steal items as they are being unloaded. Similar to carjacking, a criminal may even utilize violent tactics to steal contents from a vehicle when the driver is stopped in traffic.5

Dishonest employees can also steal contents from vehicles, which is again why background checks and training protocols are vital. Here are some practices to help protect vehicle contents:

  • Keep contents secure. Vehicle contents should be kept as secure as possible through additional locks and other security devices. If possible, these contents should be hidden from plain sight when stored in vehicles to deter potential thieves. Businesses should also keep track of vehicle contents by having drivers maintain up-to-date logs for all items. This documentation will help better identify missing content.
  • Personalize tools and equipment. To further prevent criminals from stealing vehicle contents — such as tools and equipment — businesses should consider personalizing these items. Personalization may entail painting the items a bright color or engraving them with a name or unique code. Such personalization may make these items seem less attractive to thieves, as they would be easier to recognize amid recovery efforts.
  • Safeguard cargo. Businesses that carry cargo within their vehicles should restrict access to these items during transportation. In particular, cargo should be protected by cut- and tamper-resistant padlocks. If vehicles containing cargo are going to be parked for an extended period, they should be backed up against an exterior wall within a secure location to limit criminals’ ability to break in. This step is especially vital for vehicles that contain access points from the rear.
  • Leverage tracking technology. By equipping vehicle contents with GPS devices or other tracking technology, these items will be easier to trace if stolen, increasing the likelihood of recovery. Simply put, this technology can save businesses from the costs of replacing stolen items.

Catalytic converter theft

Some vehicle parts may also attract the attention of criminals. Specifically, catalytic converter theft has become a rising threat across the country. A catalytic converter is a vehicle component that helps filter the exhaust system by removing harmful pollutants through chemical reactions. This component is slightly larger than a toaster, and it is located underneath the rear of a vehicle, just before the tailpipe.

Catalytic converters have become increasingly lucrative items among thieves, as they can be stolen quickly and contain highly valuable metals, such as palladium and rhodium, that can then be recycled. The prices of these metals have surged in recent years, contributing to a sharp jump in catalytic converter theft.

“While fewer than 1,300 instances of catalytic converter theft occurred in 2018, more than 14,400 incidents took place in 2020, representing an increase of more than 1,000%. What’s worse, catalytic converters can cost businesses as much as $3,000 to replace.”6

To steal a catalytic converter, all a criminal has to do is jack up the vehicle (if necessary), slide below it and cut out the component with a reciprocating saw. With the right tools, the process can take as little as a few minutes. While any vehicle can be targeted, criminals usually aim to steal catalytic converters from vehicles that will make the theft as easy as possible. In particular, vehicles that are more elevated from the ground (e.g., trucks) may be more vulnerable to this form of theft, as they allow thieves to slide underneath the rear with ease. Because metals degrade over time, new vehicles or those with reduced emissions (e.g., hybrids) may also be primary targets for catalytic converter theft; the catalytic converters within these vehicles are likely to possess less broken-down and therefore more valuable metals.

To help prevent catalytic converter theft among their commercial fleets, businesses should encourage drivers to always park vehicles in secure locations. Specific guards can also be placed over or around catalytic converters to protect them when vehicles are left unattended. Although these guards are relatively new, they can help deter potential thieves or at the very least make the theft process more difficult. Finally, businesses should consider marking vehicles’ catalytic converters with their associated vehicle identification numbers (VINs) with high-visibility paint. Displaying these VINs — especially next to a noticeable swatch of paint — may further discourage criminals from stealing them. Most reputable recyclers will utilize catalytic converters’ marked VINs to determine ownership of these vehicle components, thus increasing thieves’ chances of getting caught in the act before receiving payment.

Other vehicle parts theft

Aside from catalytic converters, various other vehicle parts may be susceptible to theft. Essentially, any vehicle parts that present value and seem relatively easy to steal are at risk. These parts include batteries, wheels, radios, truck tailgates (if applicable) and stereo or communication systems.

Fortunately, many of the aforementioned anti-theft devices can be utilized to protect these vehicle parts. For instance, batteries, wheels and tailgates can be secured by alarm features and specialized locks. In the case of stereo or communication systems, it’s wise for businesses to equip these systems with detachable faceplates. That way, criminals will face increased challenges in locating them amid a theft incident, potentially keeping them from being stolen.

Vehicle theft is a pressing risk that all businesses with commercial fleets should take seriously. By staying updated on vehicle theft trends and top mitigation strategies, businesses can successfully safeguard their fleets and avoid the costly ramifications of a theft incident.