What Would You Do? Getting a Grip on Self-Storage Crime
Copyright 2014 by Virgo Publishing.
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Posted on: 02/27/2013



 

The following is part of an exciting 2013 content series entitled "What Would You Do?" ISS asked managers and owners how they would react in difficult situations that can arise at any facility. We then asked experts to advise on their recommended course of action. To see all articles and slideshows in the series, enter code WWYD13 in the search box at insideselfstorage.com. The complete sequence will roll out over several weeks and be available in full by March 10, 2013.

When you operate a self-storage business, crime is always a possible threat. It might be a break-in, vandalism, tenants engaging in illegal activity or employee theft. Even facilities in good areas with top-notch security systems can fall victim. We read about it in the papers all the time.

The important thing is to do your best to prevent crime from occurring, and if it does happen, to respond in a timely and appropriate fashion. Do you know what to do in the face of theft and criminal behavior? Is what you would do the same as what you should do?

Inside Self-Storage recently reached out to self-storage operators to learn how they would proceed during specific but common situations that could occur at any facility. They were asked, “What would you do if ...”

  • You suspected illegal activity was occurring in one of your units?
  • You discovered an employee or co-worker stealing?
  • You came to work one morning and found one or several units broken into?

Answers were provided by members of Self-Storage Talk, the industry’s largest online community. We then asked facility-management and insurance experts to tell us what operators should do in each scenario. Our management experts are Linnea Appleby, president of Lime Tree Management in Sarasota, Fla.; Anne Ballard, president of training, marketing and developmental services for Universal Storage Group in Smyrna, Ga.; and Kevin Bledsoe, district manager for Storage Asset Management in York, Pa. Our insurance experts are Kay Schaefer, senior underwriter for Deans & Homer in Phoenix; and Don Sedlacek, vice president of claims for MiniCo Insurance Agency LLC in Phoenix.

What would you do if you suspected illegal activity was occurring in one of your units?

While the answer to this may seem obvious—call the police—some operators may be tempted to don their sleuthing hat and investigate. Our experts agree: Don’t do it. “Illegal actions are handled by the authorities, usually within minutes of my phone call. Suspicion of such activity will have my undivided attention,” says Ralph Driscoll (FHARumRunner), an SST senior member and manager of West End Self Storage in Richmond, Va.

Jerry Hughes (SMSSId), owner of Save Most Self Storage in Caldwell, Idaho, and a senior member of SST, suggests requesting that law enforcement conduct a police-dog training exercise to ferret out any possible illegal things in units or even scare off potential criminals from renting a unit. This also ensures operators don’t jump to any conclusions.

What SHOULD you do?

Appleby: When you suspect illegal activity, the last thing you want is to get drawn into a confrontation. Determine the best way to remove that tenant from your property without issue. Either a large rent raise or an eviction should do the trick. Remember, the lease is month-to-month, and both parties can opt for non-renewal without any explanation to the other. Contacting your local police and requesting some facility drive-throughs can help entice the tenant to move this process along. Your role is not to enforce the law, only the terms of the lease.

Ballard: If we think the customer is involved in illegal activity, we want to have the right outcome for the store and property, so the managers start by calling their area manager to discuss. We’ve learned that unless we have proof of something, it can be difficult to make a claim; so again, we usually call our attorney for direction.

Often times the managers have a good relationship with local law enforcement and can have the dogs come out for onsite training and see if they hit on the suspected unit. If so, we can ask the police to proceed with warrants or subpoenas for more information or actions they can take. Sometimes the police give us different instructions to follow as well, such as not letting the customer know it has been discovered, then watching for the customer and calling police. We definitely want law enforcement on our side, and it’s usually very easy to work with them.

Managers also have their tricks of the trade. If we see fluids or gases or smell something noxious coming from a unit, we contact the customer and proceed to inspect it. Depending on the severity, we may not wait for the customer to arrive, as we have this authority to inspect as stated in our rental agreement. Whatever the situation, we want to assess all the facts and situations, discuss a plan, and agree on the details prior to taking action. This also includes what actions we want the manager to take to document or deal with the customer, or assign someone else to take the action such as the area manager or someone from the home office.

Bledsoe: We would monitor the access hours of the renters, review security recordings during these access times, and try to determine if the activity we witness is something that would require law-enforcement assistance. We would never take matters into our own hands if illegal activity is occurring at a storage property. We would contact authorities and discuss the issues with them.

What would you do if you discovered an employee or co-worker stealing?

Richard and Beverly Haessler (RichardandBeverly), resident managers of Park Inn Storage in Odessa, Texas, and Driscoll indicated they would fire the employee without hesitation. “Stealing is like lying to me, both will get you fired in a heartbeat,” Driscoll wrote.

Marie Brown (Rebee), office manager for Ackley Circle E-Z Store in Oakdale, Calif., has experience with this issue, having caught on camera a part-time employee stealing cash payments from customers. Brown says a review of video footage revealed several incidents totaling more than $1,000. The employee was shown the video in front of police. She was arrested and confessed to the crime, although she later tried to fight the charges in court when she was denied unemployment.

“As the office manager and company accountant, it is my job to protect the owner's money, and we just felt that maybe having her arrested would stop this cycle,” Brown says. “All the court did was slap her on the hand and make her pay a small fine, not even reimburse us. Incredible.”

What SHOULD you do?

Schaefer: This is a delicate and difficult issue. Falsely accusing someone of a crime can create its own set of problems. Respond only to what you actually know rather than what you suspect to be true. If you are a co-worker, you should report your actual observations to your supervisor or employer and let them respond to the situation. If you’re a supervisor or employer, you need to investigate the suspected activity.

An employee who’s suspected of theft should be confronted with facts and without judgment or condemnation until the truth is known. When all is known, your decision with respect to discipline or termination of the employee should be both lawful and consistent in how any similar occurrence would be treated in the past or in the future with another employee.

Sedlacek: If you believe an employee or co-worker may be stealing, it’s very important not to jump to conclusions. Falsely accusing a staff member of a crime is not a positive action and could lead to serious trouble down the road. However, it’s important to protect your self-storage operation from theft, embezzlement and other fraud.

If an employee reports suspicions to you or you witness what you suspect may be evidence of illegal activity, your first course of action should be to document these concerns in accordance with your company’s human resources policies. If there is no standardized policy in place, collect documentation to further support your concerns, such as reports from your facility-management software, routine auditing records, receipts and logs. This activity should be performed without comment to avoid raising suspicions among employees, particularly the staff member being investigated. If this research supports your suspicions, then it’s time to contact the police and your insurance agent.

It’s critical to keep in mind that you’re not the police and don’t have the authority to search an employee’s personal belongings or hold someone involuntarily for questioning. This may seem obvious, but the line between conversation and false imprisonment can be crossed all too easily. If it is determined a crime may have occurred, work with the police and your insurance agent to pursue any necessary legal action or claims.

What would you do if you came to work one morning and found one or several units broken into?

SST members generally agree that the discovery of a break-in should result in the notification of the affected tenant, the police and then a ranking member of the storage company. Randy Lucore (RandyL) of CR Area Storage in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, says he would also check any video-camera footage and the gate logs. “Generally when we find this, it is because of some kind of domestic dispute,” Lucore notes. “Or the tenant broke into [his] own unit.”

SST senior member geraldine1051 once discovered a break-in during her morning rounds. The police were hesitant to come out initially because the tenant had reported a large amount of marijuana stolen from his home the previous day.

“Turns out the tenant had left his rental agreement along with the key to his lock on the front seat of his unlocked truck, and he freaked out when we looked at the camera log to see his truck pulling out with his stuff in it,” she recalls. “Once all this died down—and I still don't know how it turned out—I evicted the tenant for talking disrespectfully to me. Go figure.”

What SHOULD you do?

Appleby: Follow the policies and procedures provided by the company. This should tell you who to contact, in what order, and the specific steps to take. If you don’t have this, let the owner or supervisor know and call the police immediately. Take pictures and secure the units or area. Do not touch anything. Once the police are through, contact the tenants and request they come to the site and inspect their unit. Tenants will need to report it to their insurance provider.

Ballard: We complete an unusual-incident report with photos and start calling customers right away to come and check their units. Make sure the thief can't get back onto the property by repairing a fence or anything damaged by the thieves.

Bledsoe: Each property manager would be required to contact his district manager immediately, and he must submit an incident report. The report identifies what happened, who was affected, when it happened and who was notified. We would review video recordings, contact the police, contact all tenants, secure all units, and identify how the thieves may have gained access to the property. We would also review how we can prevent something like this from happening in the future and, if it persists, we may hire a security-guard company for night-time monitoring.

Schaefer: First, call the police and report the discovery. Secure the area to prohibit any public traffic around or into the effected units until the police arrive to investigate. Contact your insurance agent to make an initial report of the incident and make reasonable efforts to contact the tenants of each effected unit, keeping a record of your efforts. In the presence of the police, photograph the scene, any evidence of forced entry, and the interior of the effected units. Damage to your structures caused by forced entry would typically be covered for loss in excess of any applicable deductible.

Additionally, some tenants may believe the facility is responsible for their loss. A well-written self-storage agreement will typically make it clear that you are not responsible for loss or damage to a tenant’s stored property, but even well-written agreements are sometimes tested.

Sedlacek: Once the scene has been released by the police, document all damages by taking photographs and making relevant notes. Tenants should not be allowed on the premises until the scene is secured for two important reasons: ensuring their safety and preserving the scene for investigative purposes. One additional reminder: Tenants wishing to file a claim against their tenant-insurance policy or homeowner policy will need to file their own police report, which is each tenant’s responsibility. Encourage them to contact the police to file a report for any damaged or stolen items.

To read more great content in the ISS "What Would You Do?" business-challenges series, type code WWYD13 in the search box at insideselfstorage.com.