Web-Exclusive! Survey Equipment Theft

January 1, 2007
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POB readers share their personal experiences with survey equipment theft.



In recent years, survey equipment thefts have swept the nation. The days of keeping doors unlocked and leaving equipment unattended are long gone. In the past few months, POB has been notified of several thefts that have occurred throughout the United States. In September, one local survey crew in Miami, Fla. stopped for lunch and returned to work to find their truck broken into and $10,000 worth of survey equipment stolen.

In October, another crew in the Miami area was running a bench loop up to a local school and was held at gunpoint for their equipment. The thieves made off with the crew’s level and radio. Additionally, in Estero, Fla., thieves stole a robotic total station from another crew that had stopped for lunch.

An even more tragic story occurred on October 17 in Chicago. While surveying for the Dan Ryan Expressway renovation, a man was hit by a car speeding off with his stolen equipment.

In the November issue of POB, Mike Maxwell discusses the growing problem of equipment theft and offers solutions to safeguard instruments and workers both on and off the jobsite. In “Combating Survey Equipment Theft,” Maxwell urges surveying professionals and equipment manufacturers to fight the battle against equipment theft. For the full story, click to www.pobonline.com and search Point of Beginning for “Combating Survey Equipment Theft.”

The October 25 edition of the eNews also focused on the increasing number of survey equipment thefts. In the eNews closing, readers were invited to write POB and share their personal experiences of equipment theft. The responses from readers were overwhelming. Many members of the surveying profession have either been directly targeted by thieves, or know a friend or colleague who has had equipment stolen.

We urge you to take all necessary precautions to protect your crews and instruments. Read on to learn how several POB readers have been affected by equipment theft and the preventive measures they’ve taken to ensure safety on and off the jobsite.

A Rash of Thefts

  • Our firm works in the Atlanta, Ga. area. After nearly 30 years of surveying without having any equipment stolen, we had a total station and tripod stolen in broad daylight in a wide-open new subdivision. My crew was within 200 feet of the equipment but it was to their backs. The thief evidently ran out of the nearby woods on foot, grabbed the equipment and ran back and disappeared into the woods. The crew never heard or saw him.

  • The same incident happened to another firm here in Atlanta around the same time. They tracked their equipment to a pawn shop where they noticed other survey equipment. They let a common vendor of ours know, who in turn, notified us. It turned out to be our equipment. The thief wasn’t too bright, however, giving the pawn shop owner a copy of his driver’s license. He was subsequently arrested. I don’t know what else you can do to protect your equipment other than instructing your crews to keep the equipment locked up and never take your eyes off of it. – C. Jackson, RLS, Georgia

  • We have not yet been targeted by thieves, but I know of two local surveyors (one here in Spokane, Wash., and one across the state line in Post Falls, Idaho) who have had static GPS stations stolen . We have discussed using the POB forums for notifiying others of the thefts (one of the targeted surveyors did plan to notify you) and of the need to USE CAUTION WHEN PURCHASING USED EQUIPMENT, ESPECIALLY OVER E-BAY.

  • I know of an otherwise reputable dealer who purchased a total station over E-bay and did not verify the origin of the equipment. A customer who was interested in purchasing it did some background checks [and] found out that the equipment had been stolen in another part of the country. The dealer did return the total station to its rightful owner (the insurance company that covered the loss), but came close to dealing in stolen merchandise--not only letting themselves in for legal trouble, but putting a big stain on their reputation.

  • [I] look forward to hearing what you come up with and any ideas on streamlining/centralizing the reporting process, so that surveyors and dealers can easily check used equipment for potential involvement in a theft and can easily report their own losses. Thank you for your help in this matter. – M. Whitman, PE, Washington

  • Our company has had two incidents of theft in Texas. This September in Houston, we had a truck stolen and found everything was gone--even the flagging and spare equipment cables. They also took off the back shell. Another crew went into a gas station/eating place and had their truck robbed. In Texas and Louisiana, in the past four years we have had 22 four-wheelers stolen, some with the trailers. I’m looking forward to your November issue. – M. Fenstermaker, Texas

  • Several years ago one of our party chiefs was approached on a jobsite by a person who wanted to sell them a used total station. Having been in the business for close to 30 years and never once approached in this manner, the chief made conversation with the person and was told he could have it for 3,000 dollars. Pretty good deal for a fairly new instrument. The chief tried to get some contact info from the person (which he wasn’t about to give) and told the person that he would have to check with his boss about it. The person with the instrument took off. The chief called the office to let the director of our department know about the incident and told him that the instrument had the initials TCC scribed on the side. When the director brought this up with me I told him that those initials could only stand for [two] places in our area, either Tidewater Community College, or Tidewater Construction Corporation. Having been a student at the first, I made a few calls and found that they were not missing any instruments from their department. I then called a relative whom worked for Tidewater Construction at the time. They called their field office and found out that their storage shed where they kept survey equipment had been broken into over the weekend and they were missing an instrument. The person who had taken the instrument later tried to have one of his relatives pawn the instrument and was subsequently caught and prosecuted. [This person] was a disgruntled employee who had been fired the week before and thought that he could get some severance pay [by stealing and selling] the instrument.

  • With the current situations brought up your article, one good thing about our profession is that we are a small community in our respective areas in which we work. I just hope in all of the cases that you brought up that the [people] who stole in Florida and the person whom maimed or killed in Chicago will be caught due to the fact that surveyors in the area will report someone trying to cash in on the stolen property! – G. Briggs, CST III, Virginia

  • Our firm recently had two GPS receivers stolen in an area of North Idaho. The area was within 15 miles of town along a dirt road that provides access to several country homes. Until recently, North Idaho surveyors were spared this kind of theft but unfortunately those days are gone. GPS gear is difficult to monitor because of the distances and often difficult terrain between setups. Short of extra manpower just to watch the equipment (silly idea, not cost effective, etc.) I’m at a loss for a good protective measure. For now, we just keep paying the insurance premiums and figure it a cost of doing business in today’s society. – R. Honsaker, Idaho

  • I am a local surveyor [with a] 1-2 person company--my wife and I. Unfortunately, I don’t have any good suggestions other than somehow wiring a 12 volt charge system to a tripod. I have had two full backsights stolen. One was on a construction site and it was gone in 30 seconds, the other I had left on a section corner in an intersection and was returning to pick up the backsight to traverse ahead only for it to be gone.

  • I am moving into the robotic world soon… “Do I really want that automated backsight?” Others have told me they do go back and re-shoot their backsight point for a check in lieu of the backsight pod, and maybe in this day and age that may be the safest way to go. I guess I will utilize it on my rural surveys where I cannot get [into] GPS. I've been shopping [on] eBay for a robot but just wonder every time I see one without manuals or data collector just how valid the ownership is. I’ve elected to play it safe and purchase a used one from a reputable dealer. – R. Borden, OKPLS

  • Just to let you know that I have had two total stations and a laser level ripped off from my jobsite in Miami in the past year! One instrument was recovered after the thief tried to obtain a battery charger for the total station. The thief brought the total station into Lengemann of Florida, a surveying supply store located in southern Florida. They checked the serial [number] on the instrument and made a match! Lengemann's employees wrote down the thief’s licence plate [number] and contacted the police. An arrest was made a week later. I think he got a couple of years in the slammer! If the thief would have taken the battery off the instrument and brought it in, I would have never seen this instrument again!… Maybe the survey community needs to place serial numbers on the batteries also. – Anonymous, Florida


Tips to Combat Theft

  • It would be a good idea to publish the make, model and serial numbers of the equipment just in case it ever shows up in a used equipment ad or if anyone is approached regarding buying some used equipment. – W. Welk, PE, South Dakota

  • After [someone] stole my backsight (consisting of a tripod, tribrach, single prism and target) off a busy Albuquerque boulevard several years ago, I resorted to a system of cables, chains and padlocks. It’s not fool-proof, but I figure it is a pretty good deterrent. I use them for backsights, robotic total stations and GPS base setups. – Anonymous

  • Most people who [have] worked in the field have experienced equipment theft. A national or better yet international registry should be established where surveyors can post their missing equipment with serial numbers. Most surveying equipment needs to be serviced at some time. It should then be mandatory for dealers and other people who service instruments to check the serial numbers of all equipment left with them for servicing. Any surveyor caught with a stolen instrument should have to prove that they purchased the instrument from a dealer or lose their license. If thieves cannot convert stolen items into cash quickly they will look for something else to steal. Stiff penalties for possession of stolen items will reduce the market for these items and thereby reduce the theft. – P. Slater, PLS, New Jersey

  • We have been victims of equipment theft on several occasions. Just recently, we had to hire policy protection to stay with our field crew on two different jobs. In both projects, the owners (governmental agencies) paid for the police escort. – M. Weidener, PLS

  • All [of] this equipment eventually returns to a service center somewhere. Would the victims of these thefts be willing to post the description and serial numbers of these items along with other relevant information? – Anonymous

  • We have zero tolerance for stolen equipment. We lose sales due to buyers getting a “great deal” and we cannot or will not compete with this. We notify the authorities if we suspect or know that the equipment is stolen. A police report does help. – C. De Leon, New Mexico

  • I too had a level, total station and prisms stolen from a coffee shop in Toledo, Ohio, about 10 years ago. Now, whenever I stop for lunch or coffee, I park so that I can see the vehicle from where I am sitting. [This] makes me feel a little more secure. – Anonymous

  • Just a couple of weeks ago we ran into Home Depot for a box of 60d nails and came back out to the van to find our Topcon 8003 robotic total station, all the robotic accessories, data collector and my drill all gone. In the 10 [minutes that] we were in there, someone managed to punch our lock out and grab anything in the van that had a handle on it. I think that is the most expensive box of nails anybody has ever bought. We have implemented a policy that anytime we run in some place for supplies or where the vehicle cannot be seen, one person must stay with the vehicle. We are also looking into a more secure storage system for the vehicles. – C. Biddle, California

  • I have an idea that might be an easy way to help prevent your GPS or robotic instrument from getting stolen. The idea is to use two of those corkscrew things used for dog leashes. Put them in the ground about 10 inches from each other. Then you would need to make something that essentially locks the two top handles to each other to prevent them from being unscrewed. Then have a cable with a lock going up to the instrument. Have the lock and cable in clear plain view; this should act as a deterrent. – T. Brady, LS

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