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Issue Date: Vol. 52, No. 9, September 2012, Posted On: 9/21/2012

Gumball Bandits Are No Laughing Matter In High-Risk Sites

Hank Schlesinger
TAGS: vending machine theft, risk-reward calculus, gumball bandits, gumball machine, thieves, bulk vending, bulk vendor, coin-op business, small business, vending, vending machine, vending operating, Hank Schlesinger, Vending Times editorial

Over the past year, newspapers have increasingly reported thefts of bulk venders. Almost invariably, the thieves are described as "gumball bandits." Of course, it is not the gumballs they're after, but what's in the cashbox. Similarly, I've heard enough reports directly from operators to provide strong evidence that only a small percentage of vender thefts and break-ins are reported. For most bulk vending operators, theft is just a cost of doing business these days.

It's fair to say that gumball bandits are not criminal masterminds. For the most part, they are poor, often hopeless addicts. They commit crimes of desperation. Understanding the motivation behind a crime doesn't excuse it, but it does provide useful knowledge that can help vendors protect themselves.

For many operators, these tips will be familiar; I have relayed them in previous columns and articles. But they are still applicable, and more important than ever. Today's vendors can no longer rely on a store clerk or manager to face down a vandal or intervene in the theft of a bulk vender. In the risk-reward calculus, intervention is too risky.The most an operator can reasonably expect is that the clerk or manager will phone the police when they see a bulk vender vandalized or stolen.

Here, then, are the best practices for keeping bulk venders safe in an increasingly unsafe world.

Mobility. A moving target is harder to hit, and that holds true for bulk racks. Moving a vending rack into a store at closing time is standard operating procedure.

Nowadays, more and more operators are requesting that bulk racks at 24-hour locations be moved inside late at night.

Lights, camera, no action. Placement of machines in well-lit areas covered by video surveillance is a powerful deterrent. If a location doesn't have a video camera, then siting equipment within view of the cash register also works well.

Fill 'em up. Nothing signals a full cashbox as clearly as an empty or nearly empty bulk head. A rack with depleted heads is a welcoming invitation for would-be thieves.

Locks of luck. Beefing up the physical security of a rack of machines, particularly in high-risk locations, can deter thieves. Heavy-duty chains and locks securing machine racks shows you mean business.

Reporting thefts. Although time-consuming and often futile, reporting thefts to local law enforcement can help remove a criminal from the streets. Remember, the chances are excellent that the gumball bandit humorously portrayed by the local media isn't content to stop at bulk venders.

Respond quickly. A good client relationship can go a long way toward minimizing the damage done by a thief. Too often, operators wait until the next scheduled service call to respond to a report of a break-in. A rapid response shows that the vendor is serious about security, and presents an opportunity to work with location management to improve vender safety.

It has been a paradox of bulk vending that many of the most profitable locations are some of the most dangerous for equipment. Open-all-night convenience stores, coin laundries and filling stations have long been prized by both operators and thieves for their profitability. Sadly, operators now have to go on the offensive in order to keep their equipment safe in these 24-hour stops.

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