LAS VEGAS - Vending machine break-ins are on the upswing, particularly in the Western U.S., and effective countermeasures require cooperation among vending operators, bottlers and law enforcement organizations nationwide.
Sandra Larson, NAMA director and counsel, Western region moderated a panel discussion during the National Automatic Merchandising Association Spring Expo that examined the troubling trend and reviewed what operators can do to reduce such crimes.
George Langdon, G&S Vending (Arvada, CO), who is president of the Colorado Vending Council, led the discussion. He told the audience that he and his fellow vending operators became fed up with the robberies following an incident that occurred just about a year ago.
It was then that Langdon learned that a boyfriend/girlfriend duo was arrested recently in Coeur d'Alene, ID for stealing from a vending machine. A small local newspaper article reported that the couple lived just 10 blocks from Langdon's home in Colorado.
"I thought, good God, it's an ex-routeman or a neighbor that we know! So we called the detective in Coeur d'Alene and he sent us all the information from the arrest." The couple was found with $13,000 in coins, $4,000 in dollar bills, more than 300 keys, a lathe, and a molding machine; everything needed to compromise vending machine locks.
"They claimed that this was their territory, and this is the frightening thing for the rest of us. They started in Texas, through Colorado, then Salt Lake City, into Idaho; and they were headed for Montana when they were caught , not even breaking into a machine, but entering it, because they had the keys," Langdon reported. "They were caught opening machines with keys in all those states, but there was not one case of reported theft. They couldn't arrest them. They charged them with having an illegal substance, arraigned them, put them on $1,500 bond and turned them loose. He told the police he was a freelance locksmith and that's why he had all the keys and tools, but they kept the keys until after the arraignment and then gave them back. They had to give them the money right away because there was no way to identify it."
The same thieves were caught by the police in Colorado six weeks later breaking into a machine at night. This time they were arrested with $6,000 in stolen coins and $2,000 in stolen bills. "I called the police and said: 'Keep him; we need to make an example. He's been doing this all through the West. We need to arrest this guy and put him in jail.' He said we can't do that because this is a criminal case. I asked if I could put a hold on the stolen money. He said absolutely not; you have to go through a civil case to do that," Langdon explained.
NOT A PRIORITY
"We thought the police were totally ignoring us," he added. "We'd call and they didn't answer the call. In one case, a guy even got a license number, a description of the truck and a description of the two people who got in with the keys; and the local police did not answer the call. I visited the police chief the next day and told him that nobody answered the call. He said, 'We have to answer our calls in order of priority. A vending machine is the lowest priority of any calls out there.'"
It was a rude awakening to the operator that the police were not eager to cooperate. So Langdon and his local vending council held a meeting with the local police and detectives to discuss what they could do to help law enforcement understand the gravity of these crimes.
The police explained to the vendors that they only pursue criminal cases, which require the injured party to identify the stolen property , or, at least, provide solid evidence that a crime has been committed. "If the only thing they steal from us is money, there's no way in the world you're going to identify money," commented Langdon. However, witnesses who saw the crime, fingerprints inside the machine, the possession of identifiable stolen keys, and other information that a well-prepared operator can provide will be useful in persuading law enforcement officials that they can make an arrest stick. For better or worse, the industry veteran said, operators must be ready and able to cooperate with law enforcement if they want law enforcement to cooperate with them. "The police have told me that if we come to them with a solid case, they'll prosecute," he explained.
For starters, operators must keep detailed records and make note of the counter readings in machines at each collection, so they can give police as accurate an estimate of the amount of money stolen as possible. "If the last time you looked, the meter reading was $500 and now it's $700 but the cash isn't there, then they stole $200," he instanced.
It also is critical that operators mark each vending machine with an identification number and assign the same number to the corresponding coin box and coin changer. "When the police found one criminal, he had hundreds of coin boxes," commented the speaker. "He told them he sells them to vending operators when they're missing some. You need to mark them so you can identify them as your own."
Another tip the police and detectives shared with the Colorado Vending Council was to place clear shipping tape inside the vending machine door so criminals leave their fingerprints behind when they open the machine. When the time comes to prosecute, if there's a fingerprint in the machine, there's no doubt that person has been inside it.
The law enforcement team also advised vendors to employ a professional investigator to document the crime scene each time they are victimized.
"We hired an ex-FBI man as our investigator; when we have a break-in, he determines whether the police will even come out," the CVC president explained. "He takes pictures, gets the identification number of the machine and takes a photo of it, with today's newspaper in front to prove when the crime occurred. He takes fingerprints found in the machine, interviews people at the location, and makes a file," the Colorado operator told the audience. "He does all this for $65 an hour; it usually takes about two hours and it's well worth it, if they pick up the guy that got into that machine, and we have these records."
Langdon told seminar participants that police have nabbed 26 vending machine criminals since the operators got serious and began keeping files to document each incident over the past year.
"If the fingerprints match, we can put him at the scene, and that makes a case," he noted. "We're also very fortunate in Colorado that any crime against a vending machine is considered a Class 4 felony; in many other places it's only a misdemeanor unless it's above $500, and then it's a felony. If the police don't pay attention to a felony, they sure as heck aren't going to pay attention to a misdemeanor," commented the speaker.
"Secondly, we have a law under which we can sue for civil restitution. What that does is hold those funds he took from the machines. We can't identify them, but we can hold the funds, whereas before, they had no way of holding onto that cash. If they hold it, you can take the suspect to civil court to recover the cash."
Just as the Colorado Vending Council has done, Langdon urged all operators to take collective action locally and at the state level. Implemented nationwide, this local action will leave nowhere for criminals to run.
"As an industry, we need to band together. We need a felony law in every state of the union. We're going to get rid of the thieves in Colorado under the felony law, and you know where they're going to go , to Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, California, Montana," urged Langdon. "It's not hard for us, in Colorado, to get a felony charge for anyone who even thinks of breaking into or entering a machine. This does not just cover outside thefts; this covers inside thefts, committed by people working for you. If they take a quarter, it's a felony , if you can prove it."
Langdon's company is in the process of placing decals on all of its vending machines, warning that it's a felony in the state of Colorado to enter unlawfully or attempt to steal money from a vending machine. "We think that every time the route driver opens the machine, and he sees that sign that says 'it's a felony,' it'll slow our internal theft as well as other thefts," he commented.
The operator added that security cameras could be a worthwhile investment in the battle against vender crimes, and that he is considering renting them from a local security company on a trial basis. "You can set one so you can see exactly how your route driver is servicing that machine. Also, anybody messing with a machine , if some kid sticks a wire in, you can record it. And that's a felony; my feeling is whether it's a kid or a grownup, they should be treated the same," emphasized the speaker.
WATCHING THE STORE
When people know that they may be under surveillance, their behavior improves, he explained."That word gets out in a minute, especially in schools. We notified a couple of the schools that we were going to install cameras to see how our route drivers service machines. They put the word out, and vandalism and small theft on those machines so far has nearly stopped 100 percent. So we think we're on the right track. It's a long row to hoe, but you have to start someplace."
John Mulder, a retired Scottsdale, AZ police detective and 30-year veteran of the force who is working with the Arizona Soft Drink Association to halt the rash of vending machine thefts the state has experienced, shed further light on what operators can do to protect their businesses.
"I've worked inside a police organization, so I understand how they operate, and the responses George got from the police," he said. "I'll share with you how to overcome some of the obstacles, but you have to work together, whether you're a bottler or third-party vendor. All of you with vending machines out there have to work together to overcome the problem. You're all experiencing it, so you all know how big a problem it is."
According to Mulder, money stolen from vending machines is far from chump change when totaled up. Bottlers and vending operators experience losses in the range of $5 million per year from vending machine break-ins.
He commented that most police organizations dealing with individual vending machine thefts are deluded by taking into account only what was stolen from that single machine in that one incident. "The local police need a greater perspective of the big picture, not just the individual case; and operators and bottlers need to change their role in the process, or the problem will only get greater," he emphasized.
One myth shared by police and prosecutors is a false impression of the kind of person who breaks into vending machines. "The image they have is that it's a juvenile who's angry because he didn't get the product after he put his quarters in; or he's trying to get some extra lunch money. This is a fairly benign objective," continued the speaker, adding that the incidents Langdon cited were more indicative of the caliber of criminal vending operators face.
He recalled that during his days as a supervisor of a police unit, he assigned detectives to work on a case involving vender crimes, and was willing to apply police resources only when the vending operator who was victimized collected enough information to show a clear pattern. "We only pursued it when the complainant could show it was not just a single vender being hit by a kid, and the next vender being hit by another kid," he noted.
The detective assigned by Mulder to the case found that the criminals had been arrested nine years earlier and were still at it; they were, like many thieves the vending industry faces, career vending machine burglars. In 1992, the thieves were sentenced only to probation, since all levels of the criminal justice system viewed the thefts as a petty crime, and they had not been arrested subsequently for similar crimes.
"We made a stronger case the second time, and with the prior case, and their history, we were able to get fairly lengthy sentences against these individuals," Mulder recalled. "One of these people had a master's degree in psychology. You would think he'd hang out a shingle and become a professional; tell people how to solve their problems. He solved his problems by breaking into vending machines, and he bragged to the police that he could make $80,000 a year, work only two or three nights a week, and pay no taxes. He laughed at the rest of us, the way we live. He had no assets; he owned nothing but an old pickup truck on its last legs, so there was nothing you could go after. He was a drug addict and his proceeds, $80,000 a year, went up his nose or into his arm. That profile has fit about every case in Arizona," Mulder reported.
Since Arizona began cracking down on vending crimes in recent years, 80 people have been arrested. "Repeat offenders have gotten lengthy prison sentences, but not without quite a bit of work, including educating everyone involved in it," noted the speaker. "Like George said, the police will look at vending machine theft as a low-level crime unless we change their attitudes to realize they're dealing with drug addicts, non-productive members of society who have become very skilled at getting into your machines and defeating the methods you apply to your machines to keep them out."
He cited another story of a career vending burglar who was recently arrested in Arizona and sentenced to nine years in prison as the result of teamwork among three different police agencies who put their cases together. "He removed the whole locking mechanism. Even if the operator put something new on a machine, he'd find a way to get past it," commented Mulder. "If the locks were real strong on one side, he'd pry the hinges off the other side; he'd use saws and other tools to get into the machine.
"We're not dealing with kids using a wire to trip the changer; these are guys making a living breaking into your machines and removing the money from them, and they are linked to other crimes. This may be their bread-and-butter operation, but they're also involved in drugs; and they commit other thefts, stealing the tools they use to break into machines and other things."
He added that the potential for violence perpetrated by such criminals is real, and it's serious. He shared a recent incident in Paradise Valley, an affluent suburb of Phoenix. "Two guys were arrested at a top-flight hotel after entering all the vending machines on the property. They had a metal briefcase filled with drills, picks and tools to thwart vending machine locks," he said. "They were prepared for a number of different types of locks when they approached a machine. More significant to me is that they also both had automatic pistols and ski masks. With the experience I have in law enforcement, I see a very dark picture. This is not someone who's planning to stop at the shooting range to practice his marksmanship on the way to breaking into a vending machine. Those guns are there for something else."
He emphasized that large numbers of vending machines are located in hotels and convention centers in which people are on vacation or away from home and spending money, making both the machines and their patrons prime targets. "The criminals who target vending machines are on drugs, and they will do things normal people won't do. For the high they get, there's an equal low, with all their inhibitions removed. If a person comes into a hotel to get a cold drink and encounters this individual at the vending machine, I believe at one point we're going to have a violent incident. I would like to have us all doing everything we can before that happens." he urged.
Mulder added that, to make matters worse, a good many of these criminals belong to organized prison gangs. "We're not dealing with the nicest people society is producing," he stressed.
The speaker reiterated that investigators and prosecutors will apply their resources to what they view as the most significant events. "You, as an industry, need to educate law enforcement agencies about this trend of vending crimes, and demonstrate that it's not the least important issue , it's a serious community problem," he stressed. "The people arrested in Coeur d'Alene stole thousands and thousands of dollars out of vending machines, but not one incident was reported. If you don't report these cases to the police, they aren't going to help you. The only vending thieves they're going to apprehend are the ones they come across for other reasons; not because they're trying to catch them. If someone calls in and tells the police there's someone with a blowtorch going after a vending machine, they're going to respond to it, but that's not enough. It's part of your responsibility to make sure police agencies know how big the problem is, and the only way to do that is with crime reports."
He urged operators to computerize their records of machine identification numbers and collections. "You need numbers on all your assets , every piece that's of value , so if it's sold by these guys, you can prove it's yours. There are three or four resellers that we're looking at in the Phoenix area now, who have cashboxes and coinboxes, but we can't prove they're stolen," he stressed. "This is America; the police can't go to the criminal and say: 'prove to me you got these in a legitimate way'; it doesn't work that way."
Operators must take responsibility for getting the information to the police, and for encouraging them to respond to it. "Everyone, all independent operators, and Coke and Pepsi, all have a piece of this problem," he emphasized. "With the police agencies, it's like a puzzle and if one little piece of the puzzle is missing, they can't put a case together. Maybe you have that one little piece of information that's going to help them put somebody in jail."
An operator participating in the seminar asked Mulder whether it's better to accumulate several incidents over the course of, say a month, submit them at one time as a 'heads-up' to the police department, and then submit future reports as the incidents occur.
"You need the police to write up a report every time you're a victim," replied Mulder. "It's a matter of documenting what happened, each and every time. But you have to be a data collector; they probably won't come and do fingerprints and take photos. You can only prove it's a problem if you report everything that happens; they have an obligation to at least write up a report. Then you have those reports to back you up."
If the information the operator supplies shows a trend, such as a group of machines hit regularly, and the operator can narrow it down to a time frame, even within 12 or 24 hours, the police cannot ignore that they have a problem.
"It doesn't hurt to get to know that local cop; buy him a doughnut," suggested Mulder.
"The cops' job is to solve crimes; but they need our help," added Langdon. "Our Colorado Vending Council agreed to report every theft, internal and external. Our ex-FBI man is working with four area police departments and they're cooperating better than ever."
Langdon described a recent incident in which a supermarket employee saw someone breaking into a vending machine and called the police, who pulled up in time to catch him in the act and arrest him. "He was arrested Saturday and out on bond on Sunday," he reported. "The police are aware of what's going on, and we meet with them to let them know what's going on. Our FBI guy sets up a file, so hopefully when we catch him again and there's a case against him, we can put him away and recoup our part of the money he's stolen."
Mulder has prepared a short form that he offered to participants as a resource, detailing all the information police want from an operator following a crime against a vending machine.
"We talked to a desk clerk at a hotel, who asked whether we had spoken with the night clerk who was face to face through a window with the guy who broke into the machine," shared Mulder. "That information wasn't gathered, but it could have been if people had asked the right questions. In Arizona, as well as in a lot of other places, a lot of night crews do not speak English, but there's a lot of information you may not be collecting if you don't speak to them. The police won't; you have to."
Another audience participant emphasized that operators should not only keep police informed of any crimes to which they fall victim, but they should pass e-mails along to their fellow vendors to determine if it's a trend.
"We're working on a telephone pyramid," Langdon replied. "Each vendor calls two people until everyone is informed about every incident. Also, the Colorado Vending Council goes through all thefts at our monthly meetings. We all keep track of our own, with detailed files, and then we compare notes and decide how to handle it."
Langdon also uses a form that his state council compiled after speaking with the police department about the information that's most important in a crime report. "Filling out the form is beyond most vendors' abilities, and we think it's well worth $100 for the investigator we've hired to fill it out and create each file."
Moderator Larson added that there are several local councils, each with their own websites, and it is imperative that operators post such incidents in a timely manner for the benefit of their peers industrywide.
"We sent fliers to our hotels and motels where we have machines, informing them that we have been hit more times this year than before, and to alert them to report if they see anything suspicious," an operator in the audience reported.
Another operator emphasized the severity of the problem nationwide. "There's a gang known as the Shaw family in the Texas panhandle; a vending machine gang in Western Pennsylvania; a gang of 26 in Virginia; a gang of eight in Philadelphia. The problem is major and it's nationwide," he stated. "Build rapport with your police; address the problem in terms of what its costs to repair your equipment. Even if just $100 is stolen, the expense is far greater with each incident and the problem is growing."
"We are working on a program to put all competing companies' reports together to show police the hot spots," concluded Mulder. "We also hope this program will help operators know if a driver left another company because he was stealing from them, so you don't get other peoples' problems when you hire someone."