"The police told me in my area that the rise in thefts is largely based on the meth epidemic," one Midwest shop owner said. "I don't know if that's it or not, but after we got broken into last week, I've talked with three other shop owners around the state who've had thefts in the last six weeks."
Dave Biancalana of Mulholland Auto Repair in Eugene, Oregon, said a weekend burglary of his shop in August resulted in a loss of about $40,000 in tools, equipment and parts. He said he was aware of at least four other burglaries of automotive businesses in the Eugene area within about a month.
Thieves cut through the chain on the company's gate to gain access to the property, he said, then used a pry bar to bend a steel door on the building, popping the lock through the jamb. Once inside, they loaded the company's shuttle van with scan and air tools, a welder and tank, tires, batteries and other items, and cut the lock from a bay door in order to drive the vehicle away.
"It looked like they were loading up a customer vehicle as well, but couldn't get that bay door open," Biancalana said.
He said the burglary could have been even more costly had the thieves known more about automotive equipment. The thieves took one low-end scanner, for example, but bypassed two others worth more than $10,000. They took two dozen adaptors for the shop's radiator pressure tester - but didn't take the tester itself.
Biancalana said the company's van was later recovered - empty and with some damage - about two miles from his shop, within a block of where two customer vehicles stolen from another shop also were found several weeks later.
He warned that shops will only contribute to the problem if they or their employees purchase second-hand tools and equipment when it's not clear those items were obtained by the seller legitimately.
"Don't get swept up by the idea of getting a great deal," he said. "You wouldn't want someone else benefitting from equipment stolen from your shop."
He also had a number of other suggestions for shops looking to protect themselves from thieves.
• "Make sure on your shop insurance that you have replacement coverage, otherwise they'll do a discounted rate on payment," he said. "That's a big issue. Our insurance policy is replacement coverage, so they have to pay whatever it costs to replace. But that's something we had to add. It's not what the agent was going to give us originally."
• Make sure you have adequate insurance coverage as well. "If you have a seasoned tech with 10 years in the field, $15,000 isn't enough if they take his whole box," Biancalana said. "You need around $25,000 or $30,000 a box."
• Bolt top tool boxes to the bottom boxes. "They took a top box and were trying to take a bottom box but couldn't, probably because it was too heavy," Biancalana said. "My guys are now also making some steel 'L' brackets to bolt their boxes to the floor."
• Maintain an inventory of all equipment and tools - and have technicians do the same. Photographs of the inside of tool box drawers can help as well in documenting a loss after a burglary.
• Secure high-value tools in a locked cabinet or room. "If they want into your building, they'll probably get in," Biancalana said. "That's why it makes sense to make it harder and time-consuming for them to steal stuff once they're in. We're putting all our test equipment on shelves in a chain-link cage that's locked, so there's one more thing they have to go through to get to anything."
Scamming the techs
The theft of two vehicles from Weston Pontiac-Buick's service department in Gresham, Oregon, suggests a different set of precautions. In the most recent case this summer, a man walked into the 53-bay shop and told a technician he was there to pick up his car, according to Dan Schofield, service manager at the dealership. The technician told him the only thing left to do on the 2002 Pontiac Firehawk was the oil change.
"The guy said, 'I'm running behind. I'll have to pay my bill and reschedule the oil change,'" Schofield said. "He walked around the corner, was gone for about 5 minutes and came back, and the tech figured he'd paid his bill and let him leave with the vehicle."
The car was eventually recovered, but with about $7,000 in damages, Schofield said. The thief was later arrested - after he had also stolen a vehicle transport truck carrying nine vehicles, abandoned it, and driven downstate in a $50,000 Mercedes that had been on the truck.
Schofield said it was the second time a customer vehicle had been stolen from Weston's service department and has led to an end to its "open-door policy" of allowing customers in the shop.
"The techs also used to be allowed to give the customer back the car," Schofield said. "It was a courtesy, a way for our customers to get to know the techs. Now no tech can release a car to the owner. It has to go through the cashier. The cashier rips off half of the key tag which gets matched up as the porter pulls the car around for the customer. That way the porter knows the customer has visited the cashier and paid their bill."
Schofield said he has heard from other dealerships that have had similar situations in recent months.
"All repair facilities need to start being a little more proactive in taking care of their customers' vehicles," he said.
John Yoswick is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon, who has been writing about the automotive industry since 1988.