IT WAS JUST a routine call that snared two thieves with nearly £50,000-worth of stolen plant at Dover last December.
Two Bulgarians destined for the Continent pulled up with four mini-excavators on a semi-trailer and presented paperwork to a Port of Dover police officer.
But something didn't ring true when the constable, PC Arthur Webb, called in the registration numbers to the National Plant and Equipment Register (TER).
TER checks found that the registration numbers for two of the JCB 801 machines matched plant recently sold in Denmark and Italy, and one matched a machine still registered with its owner. The other was entirely bogus. Closer inspection of the excavators showed that their real numbers matched four machines ? worth £11,000 each ? stolen from a JCB dealer in Braintree, Essex, 10 days previously.
Two thieves caught and four expensive pieces of kit returned. But this is a rare detection in the battle to combat theft worth tens of millions of pounds every year in the face of large-scale indifference from the police.
A Construction News investigation has compiled the first ever national figures from the UK's 52 police forces detailing thefts, the value of goods stolen and detection figures in 2005 (see below).
Our survey found:
There were more than 14,300 incidents of theft across 41 forces;
£23.8 million in goods were stolen across 33 forces ? an average of more than £721,000 per force;
Just £1.2 million-worth was recovered by police;
There was a shockingly low detection rate ? only 5 per cent ? for the 23 forces that provided theft and detection data. In total 6,906 crimes resulted in just 363 detections;
A handful of prosecutions ? just 32 in 2005.
An officer at Lancashire Constabulary said: 'There is serious organised crime in this field on a regional and national level. These are intelligent people with a security background who will exploit any area of the market if it is not well policed.
'Plant and construction theft just isn't a priority for police forces and there is a minimal chance of recovering goods. The police's priority today is terrorism, but there is growing evidence linking plant theft to the funding of proscribed organisations.' No UK police force has a dedicated plant theft squad, not even in Kent, the principal route to Europe, and a county in which equipment worth £6.6 million was stolen last year. Only six forces have a dedicated vehicle theft squad of any description.
Clancy Docwra managing director Kevin Clancy, who chairs the Home Office-sponsored Plant Theft Action Group of manufacturers, insurers and police, said: 'If I was a rogue I'd go into plant theft, because the chances of getting caught are minimal.
'The major problem is that it is not being recorded nor measured properly, and the police have other priorities so there is no incentive to improve things.' TER put dealers on alert last month after a spate of thefts from forecourts.
Manager Tim Purbrick said: 'Our latest figures are suggesting the actual incidence of plant theft is up 20 per cent on last year. We estimate £41 million-worth of plant is being stolen annually.' But he added: 'Poor crime recording makes a lot of police data unusable. We rely on manufacturers registering their equipment with us. The big boys like JCB and Case do ? but universal registration would drastically improve recovery rates.' Some manufacturers use tracking devices and immobilisers on plant, as well as registering it with TER. But criminals are growing more resourceful when it comes to side-stepping the tracking technology.
Mini-excavators ? with one stolen every working day ? are top of the criminal shopping list because they can be easily transported in steel containers, which hides the tracking radio signal.
Some thieves are more ingenious. Haydn Steele, the Construction Plant-hire Association's training and safety manager, said: 'There was one case in which a dealer had five new machines taken off his forecourt but didn't even realise they had gone because the thieves had removed the trackers and hidden them in a hedge.' The CPA encourages owners to register plant with the DVLA, whose database feeds into the Police National Computer. Mr Steele added: 'A lot of hirers are put off TER registration because if somebody gets their digger stolen an insurance company will pay out the market cost. But he will have to pay TER 30 per cent of the market cost to recover his machine. The DVLA is free.' Criminals are also becoming more adept at disguising stolen plant, giving them cloned identities from machines made as far away as Australia.
Police sources have also told Construction News of a current investigation into large networks of fraudulent companies set up purely to hire plant, which is then broken down and shipped out of the country, often on the same day.
It is a constant battle in which the construction industry struggles with a lack of police resources and the practical considerations of securing expensive machinery on isolated sites.
CPA chief executive Colin Wood said: 'A lot of the bigger firms are working on larger sites, which are easier to secure, but the problem is mainly with small and medium-sized sites.' Mr Purbrick reckons the insurance industry also shares the blame. He said: 'When you insure a car you're asked dozens of questions, but if you want to insure a plant f leet you don't have to register with anybody and insurers hardly ask any questions. They don't want to know where it comes from. Criminals are making money hand over fist because there is so little due diligence and people don't take enough care of their kit. I can guarantee that insurance companies up and down the country are insuring stolen plant.
'The bigger companies get their stuff new, but many smaller firms in the second-hand market will inevitably be dealing innocently in stolen goods.' Until the Home Office and police listen to the pleas of the industry to push theft up the political agenda, the odds look set to remain stacked heavily in favour of the criminals.