At the end of a workday in March, on a construction site in Salt Lake County, Mason Harvey, a project manager with Okland Construction, was locking up for the evening when he noticed something out of place.
Two men at the opposite end of the job site were handling materials after hours and not wearing mandatory reflective gear and hardhats.
But as he approached he quickly realized they were violating more than company policy: The men, faces hidden behind black ski masks, were rapidly loading materials into the bed of a pickup.
“You see ski masks in action movies, but here when you only see someone’s eyes and mouth you know it’s a bad situation,” Harvey said. “I wasn’t sure if they were armed or if they might be a threat to me, so I hurried back to the office and called 911.”
Five minutes later police arrived, but the bandits had already peeled away.
The thieves made off with about $10,000 worth of thermoplastic polyolefin (commonly called TPO), a high-density roofing material and critical construction input — which, like many building materials, is in slim supply.
The scarcity of TPO and other construction essentials — like copper, aluminum and lumber — has led to price spikes that heighten incentives for thieves, and it’s causing bad actors to become more audacious, according to half a dozen Utah contractors interviewed for this story.
“I’m surprised at what people do to get something like roofing membrane. I know it’s hard to come by, but the fact that individuals will go to the measures of taking off license plates, wearing ski masks and dark clothing, and risk coming onto a busy job site like ours where we have over 100 employees working every day to get a few rolls of TPO — that’s surprising,” said Harvey.
Though Harvey described the moment as “surreal,” the phenomenon itself — construction site theft — is far from unusual. In fact, the March incident was only the latest in a string of thefts at Okland sites, which this year alone have seen over $100,000 worth of material stolen from its projects.
“When material gets stolen off our site, it increases our procurement costs and it especially affects our schedules. Our employees aren't able to do their work and it makes it hard to do a job within a time frame. It has a trickle down effect on our whole team,” said Austin Hunsaker, risk and safety manager with Okland Construction.
‘Passed on to the consumer’
The losses don’t impact builders alone.
Stolen tools and materials have contributed to a rising cost in development — creating project delays, pushing up premiums for risk insurance and increasing outlays for site security — all of which gets passed on to the consumer.
“It’s just cause and effect. As theft rises, insurance claims rise, and insurance premiums will rise correspondingly. This happened a lot in the post-2008, 2009 downturn of the economy, and we’re experiencing it again right now,” said Mark Hunter, a builders risk insurance broker with Summit Risk Management and Insurance.
“At the end of the day, the consumer is the party who suffers because insurance companies and construction companies have to pass along those costs,” Hunter said.
While it is a systemic issue, there is yet to be a systematic or concerted plan to address it.
Lack of leads
In Salt Lake City, construction site theft is pursued by the property crimes unit of the Salt Lake City Police Department. However, successful prosecution in construction site property crimes are few and far between, as the incidents rarely produce quality leads, and the unit’s detectives — a grand total of three — are up to their elbows in cases.
“Our property crimes unit has the least amount of detectives and the highest queue of cases. People care more about crimes against a person, like homicide, sexual crimes and robbery,” said detective Marie Stewart, public information officer with Salt Lake City police.
Stewart also explained that internal resources aside, the bigger problem is that actionable evidence is exceedingly uncommon with construction site theft. Fingerprints or DNA, she says, “a defense attorney would destroy in court” due to the easy accessibility and high finger print volumes on construction sites, and video footage doesn’t often lead to identification.
“It comes down to leads, we are going to focus on cases that have leads, big or small. A lot of (victims) don’t have serial numbers on their equipment, so even if their power tool is at a pawn shop we can’t prove it’s theirs. If there is no video and no serial number than there is no way to follow up.”
‘Progressively worse and more brazen’
With a building boom along the Wasatch Front and demand for materials heightening by the day, some worry the problem is likely to get worse.
Jason Robichaud, of United Contractors, says he’s seen site theft in recent years become more sophisticated and prevalent.
“It is a systemic problem in our industry, and anybody in general contracting you speak with right now will say that they’ve been experiencing theft,” Robichaud said.
“In the past it was a lot of smaller, one off crimes where people break in to take copper wire and pocket any tools left out. But we’re seeing that it's gotten more sophisticated. They’ll enter the site and cut the hinges off the Connex trailers so the doors completely fall off, then back up with multiple vehicles and load as many things off as they can fit,” he said.
In 2021, Robichaud was managing a project in west Salt Lake City that saw the loss of over $100,000 worth of tools and materials stolen on a single night.
“We saw a big shift in 2019 when it got progressively worse and more brazen. It’s gotten to the point where (thieves) are cutting water lines to completely take out an entire commercial building plumbing system for the copper,” he said.
He says it's not uncommon to find people on site wearing generic construction attire and pretending to be there for a shift when they are not actually employees, which leads him to believe they are casing the property.
As threats of theft have increased, Robichaud has taken on additional security measures. He says different types of jobs require different levels of security, and that later stages of a construction process are the most vulnerable.
He’s had limited success with 10-foot perimeter panel fencing and camera systems. However, at certain times even expensive security measures fail to dissuade criminals.
“We found that cameras don’t deter, even if the cameras are actively monitored with PA speakers. The folks who are burglarizing don’t care.”
The most effective security measure, he said, has been full-time manned security presence between the hours of 5 p.m. and 5 a.m., which United Contractors has had to employ at vulnerable stages of project development. Yet the additional $2,600 a week to hire manned security adds up quick, and on many of its long-term projects, which can last 18 months or more, it’s only feasible to have security for limited periods of a project.
“Developers really have two things in mind during the development phase, which is time and money. And so when theft happens we’ve got to make up the money with insurance claims, and then deal with the time lost which means overworking our employees,” he said.