Why construction plant theft is still a problem

Construction sites continue to be targeted by criminals who recognise the financial value of plant machinery and equipment.
Large items such as excavators and backhoe loaders can be worth many thousands of pounds, even if they aren’t brand new. However, smaller items like tools are also a lure for thieves since they’re relatively straightforward to steal, not easily identifiable and can be sold on resale websites for a good price. According to a study carried out by Herts Tools, nearly £17.5m’ worth of tools were stolen in London 2020 and the situation isn’t improving.¹

According to the police plant theft unit ‘Agriculture & Construction Equipment’ (ACE), October 2021 saw a peak in incidents of theft across the majority of machine types.²

What is the Agricultural and Construction Equipment (ACE) specialist unit?

‘ACE’ was set up to form part of Opal, the national intelligence unit focused on serious organised acquisitive crime. The ACE unit specifically targets construction plant and agricultural machinery theft.

The Unit is funded with donations from the Construction Equipment Association (CEA) the Agricultural Engineers Association (AEA), construction and plant hirers, and a group of insurance companies, including Allianz.

Opportunistic versus organised theft

Some theft is spontaneous and occurs because of an opportunity that’s suddenly presented, such as an unattended van with doors left open revealing tools.  However, much construction related theft is premeditated, especially where larger items of machinery and equipment are concerned. Some criminals even make a ‘career’ from the theft and resale of construction plant. After illegally acquiring the equipment, arrangements are made for it to be rapidly exported and sold abroad, either in its existing state or for parts. Alternatively, the stolen items may be hidden in shipping containers or storage units until it’s possible to move them to foreign soil. Once equipment has left the UK it becomes very difficult to locate and repatriate. According to CESAR (the UK’s Official Construction Equipment Security and Registration Scheme), as little as 5% of unregistered plant is recovered.³

Faked identity

Another ploy for those who hire out plant to be aware of, is criminals posing as legitimate organisations such as construction or security guard companies, in order to get their hands on equipment. These fraudsters can be particularly sophisticated in their deception, appearing to have authentic proof of identity and documentation. They may also use tactics such as using cloned telephone numbers from genuine construction companies and citing information they’ve found on company websites.

Case Study

In January, criminals fraudulently ordered £500,000 of plant machinery by posing as a legitimate construction company.

Three deliveries of plant machinery, including a three-tonne dumper truck and 17-tonne excavator worth £185,000, were delivered to addresses in Surrey, before being removed from the area. The theft was only discovered when the company that provided the machinery followed up with the construction firm.

(Source: BBC News)

Factors contributing to construction theft

Increased demand

Demand for equipment is currently at a high, with construction and earthmoving machinery sales rising by 75% in 2021 compared to the previous year.4 Demand is so high that some manufacturers of construction and agricultural equipment are running extensive recruitment drives; JCB has increased its shop floor workforce by more than 25% since March 2020, commenting that most new machines were sold out for the next six months. Some reports have cited major infrastructure projects, including HS2, as a factor in the increased demand for telehandlers and larger machines. However, demand has also largely been driven by many construction projects starting or resuming following the lifting of lockdown restrictions, as the economy starts to recover.5

Supply chain disruption

The UK has recently experienced widespread supply chain disruption across many sectors, and the construction industry is no exception. A combination of the Covid-19 pandemic, border closures and Brexit-related checks and administration for imports and exports have all contributed to the issue. These supply chain shortages, coupled with high demand has resulted in a buoyant market for construction machinery and equipment; and criminals are taking advantage.

Appetite for second-hand equipment

In the wake of the pandemic and a time of financial instability, some businesses remain cautious about investing in new machinery. This, plus longer lead times for new stock, has driven up demand for used equipment.  Auctions, whether face to face or online, are a popular way to sell used construction plant and so provide criminals with an easy and lucrative means of unloading their stolen assets. Euro Auctions, a Leeds auction site reported that 40,000 lots were sold in 2021, amounting to £260m.6

Easing of travel restrictions

It’s suspected that the easing of travel restrictions following the various lockdown periods is a factor in rising theft cases. This has made it easier for criminals to transport items to overseas markets. Police have warned that crime and theft could rise in rural areas due to increased movement of individuals.

Repercussions for the construction industry

The most obvious consequence of theft is the cost of replacing the equipment. However, there will likely be knock-on costs, including delays in projects as workers have to literally ‘down tools’, plus any potential residual damage to the construction site or area. Whilst all sizes of companies are affected, this can be particularly damaging to SMEs who are less likely to have the financial resources to survive.

Tips for keeping equipment safe

  • There are a number of measures that can be put in place to reduce the risk of construction plant theft.
  • Ensure that unattended equipment is kept securely in a padlocked compound, building or container
  • Remove any ignition keys and immobilise equipment
  • Install perimeter fencing (either Heras, chain link, metal mesh or palisade fencing)
  • Install controlled entry and exit systems on sites, such as turnstiles, swipe cards and fingerprint recognition systems
  • Where possible, appoint security guards to monitor the site when unattended/overnight
  • Ensure the site is well lit to discourage unauthorised visitors
  • Install CCTV, security cameras and alarm systems
  • Take regular inventory of equipment
  • Consider checking equipment with the National Plant and Equipment Register
  • Ensure staff are trained in security measures and practices

For individuals hiring out equipment, it’s recommended to:

  • Check the hirer’s identity can be verified via at least two separate documents bearing trading name and contact details
  • Carry out credit checks
  • Ensure the hirer has a valid insurance policy covering their liability in the event of loss damage


The current trend of construction machinery and equipment theft shows no sign of abating. In fact, there are concerns that the situation could even intensify at a time when construction companies are already facing significant increases in the cost of building materials. Criminals continue to exploit both these high prices and long lead times for their own gain. Being familiar with their tactics and using a combination of security measures is the best way to deter thieves looking to profit from plant.

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1   London’s Tool Theft Hotspots According to the Met Police | Herts Tool Co. (hertstools.co.uk) 

2   Agricultural and Construction Equipment November 2021 report.

3   The Benefits to Police, Law Enforcement, Border and Port Authorities (cesarscheme.org) 

4   UK construction equipment sales increase by 70% – Construction Europe 

5   ‘Never seen anything like it’ says JCB as demand bounces back (theconstructionindex.co.uk) 

6   2021 set to be record year for Euro Auctions (theconstructionindex.co.uk) 

This article was adapted from an article by Allianz which can be found here.