Technology and Surroundings Fight Theft

March 3, 2008
Damages to 80 machines were reported to total more than the loss of money, an estimated $35,000 in damage.

Operators counter external theft by installing security technology and working to place machines in more secure locations.

Loss from theft is among many things that increase an operator’s cost of operations. In the last six months, has reported over 46 vending crimes, many committed by burglary rings or thieves who broke into multiple machines.

Overwhelmingly, thieves are caught by observant bystanders. Concerned citizens report suspicious men or women near a vending machine or even that the loiterers are physically breaking into the machine. Police arrive, catch the suspect in the act, and arrest them. However, when the perpetrator is not caught with his hand in the cookie jar per say, apprehending them becomes more difficult. While many operators say they don’t expect active investigating, when police have the resources and determination to catch vending thieves, it can be very successful.


In Sandusky, Ohio, Steve Hall, Sr., founder, Firelands Vending, had police asking questions about vending crimes. Detectives wanted to know how thieves get into the machines, what times the break-ins happened, if Firelands had clusters of similar types of break-ins, etc. “Police wanted to stop it in their area,” said Hall.

Hall believes external theft is a big problem. The first time thieves started to target Firelands Vending’s machines, Hall lost $10,000. He thought it was internal theft at the start, and turned to electronic locks as his first defense. The locks not only allowed only certain people into the machines, but also carried information if someone tried to break into the lock. Electronic locks helped him discover the source of the crimes was external.

His experience is that criminals come from out of state, hitting his locations and then leaving the area. “We had a break-in to our facility over a weekend,” said Hall. The thieves couldn’t get into the safe, but there was money elsewhere in the facility. They took it.

A state patrol officer happened to stop the thieves on the Indiana Turnpike (because the vehicle matched the description of a hit and run) and glanced into the back seat. He saw moneybags with Firelands Vending name on them. Calling dispatch, it was verified Firelands Vending had a break-in, and the thieves were taken into custody.


It turned out, Hall learned from police later, that the thieves were professionals from Minnesota. Planning to go out of town, they had looked up vending businesses in Ohio on the Internet and planned the break-in in advance. They’d even spent several hours disarming the alarm system, making it clear these people did this for a living.

Hall also credits Crime Stoppers for an arrest of an out-of-town thief. Crime Stoppers is a non-profit organization of citizens against crime. They offer cash rewards of up to $1,000 to anyone furnishing anonymous information that leads to the arrest of criminals. The tips are received through a secure tip line or secure Web connection.

Crime Stoppers unites the community, media (Crime Stoppers is publicized on all media outlets) and law enforcement agencies (who receive and process the anonymous tips). Hall reports that Cleveland, Ohio police put a video of a vending machine theft on Crime Stoppers and a Toledo, Ohio, police officer who was watching the news recognized the suspect, knew where he lived and called it in.


In February, the Dodge County, Wis., sheriff’s department and Beaver Dam, Wis., police department caught a ring of thieves targeting area vending. The leader is suspected to be a 22-year-old man with previous burglary convictions. He was recruiting others teaching them to break into vending machines and orchestrating lookouts and drivers for the break ins.

Ultimately, more than a dozen people have been implicated. The thefts spanned five countries, leading law enforcement to create a multi-jurisdictional task force called “Crush ‘Em.” After three months of collecting information and generating leads, newspaper reports indicated the task force got a tip from a solicited individual who declined to join the crime ring. Damages to the 80 machines were reported to total more than the loss of money, an estimated $35,000 in damage.

Beaver Vending, Beaver Dam, Wis., had a single machine attacked by the crime ring, said Daniel Braker, manager. Most of Beaver Vending’s machines are indoors and the thieves were hitting outdoor locations near retail establishments. It was mostly the bottlers whose machines were targeted.

Although Dodge County Law Enforcement did not contact Beaver Vending for the “Crush ‘Em” task force, Braker has worked with the local police in the past.

Beaver Vending has had some success when thieves admit to the crimes after being apprehended for something else – occasionally Beaver Vending will get a nominal amount of restitution, according to Braker.

Beaver Vending doesn’t use cameras or even insure machines. “It’s cost prohibitive,” said Braker. Almost all of Beaver Vending’s machines are indoors and well supervised.

Something Beaver Vending does is uniform their employees. In fact, all operators interviewed put their drivers in some sort of identifying clothing. Many add picture IDs that must be worn at all times. Locations are told about this uniform and told to call if anyone without a uniform is in the vending machines.


The best tactic to catch thieves is a hidden video camera. Mark Manney, CEO, Loss Prevention Results, based in Hickory, N.C., has helped vending operators with many security needs. He’s seen operator’s losing huge amounts of money because former employees have keys to machines or repeat offenders break in for fast cash.

He recommends a video camera as the weapon of choice in the loss prevention arsenal. He worked with Mark Janco, owner, Total Loss Control, to create the “VendCam,” a small video camera with excellent quality pictures. If installed correctly, most people are unaware there is even a video camera aimed at them. It’s the size of a pen and is installed covertly inside the machine. This allows an operator to place it without needing to get the permission of the location where the machine is located.

“There are about 75 of these systems out in the industry,” said Manney. Although the cost of one of these covert cameras is over $1,000, the benefit, according to Manney, outweighs the price by lowering theft, thereby lowering cost of goods. The camera produces evidence of the theft and in most cases, a clear picture of the thief. Since in Manney’s experience most thieves are employees or ex-employees, the owner or company appointed loss prevention manager can identify the thief. If the perpetrator is unknown, running the video at the police station, local news or on the Internet has led to many arrests reported on VendingMarketWatch.

Manney also uses cameras to protect warehouses, working with digital systems to create electronic fences with motion activated cameras. The cameras only record movements in areas of the facility that should be empty during weekends or holidays. Manny also helps operators work with police presenting evidence.


Much of preventing external theft is based on environmental factors. Brain Allen, director, government affairs and counsel, National Automatic Merchandising Association (NAMA), said the NAMA Security Manual by consultant Fred Miller is still a key resource for operators looking to increase security. He also gets calls from operators who wish to discuss their security issues.

“I’ll talk to them and make recommendations,” said Allen. Initially, the actions are reactive to a crime, but Allen helps them narrow down their key concerns, figures out how operators should react, and suggests what they can do proactively to prevent future loss, all while being practical and evaluating risk versus reward. Allen can also recommend an expert consultant when needed.

“It’s pretty obvious if it’s vandals,” said Allen. “Then we go over external security. Is it a street location? Under lights? What can be done to lessen its isolation? Is it by a retail location that has security cameras or a security guard? Can you talk with the location to have their security cover your machine?”

Allen recommends discussing the security problem with the location and asking the location for assistance. “This cements the business partnership and makes the location more secure,” said Allen.

Allen said vending crime is often viewed as petty theft or property damage by law enforcement. This is a lower priority than a crime where someone gets hurt. If the operator is able to show evidence of a theft ring, there may be more interest from law enforcement.


Theft from vending trucks has also been an issue. Allen tells operators it’s best to make sure their employees know the policies and what’s expected of them when faced with someone armed or unarmed demanding the money, product, etc. If an employee gets hurt against a thief or in pursuit of one, it’s covered by workers compensation.

Safety of the employee should be the most important thing, said Allen. Instead of attacking or chasing the assailant, the driver can be making note of weight, height, looks, etc. in order to describe him later.


In the past, organized groups of operators alerted each other to crimes in their locales. “I don’t hear a lot of operators doing this anymore,” said Allen. He said he is willing to work with operators who want to establish crime prevention activities.

Jack Maybury, president and CEO of Derringer Co., a vending/foodservice operation based in Cincinnati, Ohio, said there is a gentlemen’s agreement among operators in the Cincinnati, Ohio area to advise each other of vending machine burglaries. “All of us will call the competitors if we’ve been hit” Maybury said. “It’s an unwritten code. We’re all pretty good about that.” He added that external theft isn’t a big issue for his company since it doesn’t operate many outdoor machines.

In the end, vending remains at risk to thieves who see the machines as a way to get instant cash. Operators have to evaluate the risk against the cost of protection of technology like electronic locks and video cameras. Calling other area vendors with crime reports or utilizing Crime Stoppers can help collect information valuable to the police, leading to a prosecution.