What Would You Do? Getting a Grip on Self-Storage Crime

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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.

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