Tony Di Pede thought he'd outfoxed the foxes.
Before leaving a construction site for a long weekend this past spring, he arranged for a piece of heavy equipment to be parked in front of the trailer where the site's valuable tools were stored. But when Mr. Di Pede, the general manager of the contracting firm North Rock Group, returned to the site after Easter Monday, he learned he'd been one-upped: Someone had driven a piece of heavy equipment from another site and used it to move his out of the way. They took off with $32,000 worth of saws, drills, survey equipment and more from the double-locked tool trailer.
"They're becoming smarter in how they're stealing," Mr. Di Pede said.
Low-level criminals stealing copper to sell on the black market is the stuff of TV and film plots, but every day, real-life crooks lift everything from bags of gravel to backhoes from construction sites across the 905 region – often in broad daylight. While hundreds of cranes block the sky in downtown Toronto, thefts are more rampant in the suburban cities that surround Toronto: There are often more workers on job sites there, and it's much tougher to get away with stealing a front-end loader on King Street West than it is in Brampton.
"I've always referred to the GTA as the sandbox with all the nice toys," says George Kleinsteiber, a former Ontario Provincial Police officer who now works as the theft consultant for the Ontario Sewer and Watermain Construction Association.
In August, the most recent month for which data is available, there were 70,549 housing units under construction across the GTA, according to the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corp. – up 1.8 per cent from the previous year. While the overwhelming number of units in Toronto are condominiums, in the 905, nearly 7,000 new single-family detached homes were under construction.
With new subdivisions springing up in Newmarket and million-dollar estates in Vaughan and reconstruction projects in Mississauga, builders and subcontractors say they are seeing increased thefts on their sites. They are trying to prevent them with a range of measures, including beefed up security and changing the types of materials they use.
The volume of thefts can be difficult to quantify. Durham Regional Police receive an average of 50 to 70 reports a year of stolen equipment and tools, but those who work in the industry say that's just the tip of the iceberg.
Sometimes it'll just be a hammer that goes missing, something too small to report to police; but at the end of the month, such losses of basic tools can total thousands of dollars. And when tools go missing, it's often not worth the trouble of reporting them to insurers, either.
As a result, builders have learned to budget for these inevitable losses.
"It's so well-known within the industry that every builder just puts in their own contingency for theft and vandalism and things that go missing," says Chris Saccoccia, the vice-president of SkyHomes Corp., which is currently building a massive residential development in Kleinburg, a tony quarter of Vaughan.
Those losses eventually trickle down to the consumer. The cost of replacing items stolen from construction sites adds an extra $1,000 or more to the cost of a new home, according to a 2008 report from the GTA-based Building Industry and Land Development Association.
Many of the times the people stealing from job sites are the same ones working on them, which also means builders' risk insurance companies won't cover those losses.
Only a handful of the workers on a given site are the direct employees of the builder; most are tradespeople employed by one of many subcontractors. It's hard for workers to know who should be on the site, which is why thefts happen in broad daylight and no one is the wiser, Mr. Saccoccia says. In one case Mr. Kleinsteiber described a worker trying to steal a pile of materials and even asked another worker on site for help loading them into the back of a truck.
Recently, a $2,500 load of copper pipe came in to a site Mr. Di Pede was running in Pickering. It sat in a secured container overnight and by morning, that container had been cleaned out.
"We're very confident it's people that know that load arrived," he said. "It's too much of a coincidence that that night, that happened."
Just a few years ago, scrap metal recyclers routinely took valuable metals from anyone who was selling them in exchange for cash, says Mr. Kleinsteiber. But now, aware of rampant thefts, recyclers around the GTA are only paying by cheque and asking sellers for photo identification.
Erik Mikkelsen, the president of UCITOnline, a security and surveillance equipment company, says construction companies have become his biggest source of business in the past decade – currently, his company monitors 350 sites across Canada. He's noticed the growing sophistication of thieves, too.
"The smart guys will come at nine, 10 p.m. and say, 'Hey, I have to do some night work.' But then when we see the painter leaving with a generator, the police are called."
Though it seems as if it would be difficult to steal, the priciest and heaviest equipment often walk off sites as well. The Ontario Sewer and Watermain Construction Association runs an online registry of stolen heavy equipment, documenting backhoes and front-end loaders. Some can cost upwards of $60,000 and weigh upward of 7,000 kilograms. Because the keys for these machines are often universal, they're surprisingly easy to steal, Mr. Di Pede says.
When taking off with heavy equipment, thieves will cut out the GPS system so they cannot be tracked. Sometimes equipment will be "borrowed" and later returned. In the winter, loaders – used as makeshift snowplows – will go missing; in the summer, small excavators are taken by homeowners who want to build stone patios in their backyards.
Often, thieves have driven a heavy piece of equipment from a construction site to another location, removed the serial plate, and then listed it online for sale to both local and overseas buyers. Only 10 per cent of heavy equipment is recovered, Mr. Kleinsteiber says. And unlike cars, heavy machinery isn't titled so it can easily be moved across borders without being checked.
But for every mastermind, there are also the not-so-bright thieves. One summer on a project in Aurora, Mr. Di Pede said a man in a house nearby was working on his patio and had run out of gravel, so he pilfered some from the construction site.
"There was a trail," Mr. Di Pede said, "it was so obvious – literally going from our pile to his place."