By Rick Beal
Crime prevention and security measures are a hot topic in the self-storage industry. Thanks to popular reality TV shows, everyone believes each storage unit holds outrageous treasures like first-edition comic books or gold bars. That’s also the perception of people who might want to break into your facility, so it’s up to you to make sure your security is up to par.
I had the opportunity to be involved in law enforcement before my time in the self-storage industry, and I’d like to share some theories with you. When I was a teenager, there was an abandoned high school in our small town. Since there wasn’t much for us to do on the weekends, my friends and I would sneak in late at night to wreak the usual teenage havoc. The school had been empty for years and provided embellished stories of ghosts and adolescent bravery. Since the statute of limitations for vandalism has expired, I’ll confess to my fair share of spray-painting and breaking a few items inside the school. (Sorry, mom.)
My intention of telling this story isn’t to come clean, but introduce you to the “broken windows theory.” In short, it essentially states that if a broken window or graffiti on a building isn’t taken care of immediately, the overall environment will continue to encourage more damage. We went to the school because someone had already started the vandalism; someone else had broken the window. We didn’t sneak into a new, well-kept school. We went to a place nobody cared about.
However, your self-storage facility doesn’t have to be rundown or graffiti-riddled, or even have a single broken window, to become a possible target for crime. The fact is, illegal activities occur at all types of properties—new and established, in small towns and big cities. The following four measures will help you prevent crime from happening at your property.
Keep a Well-Maintained Facility
This is the first measure in crime prevention. Regardless of the location or class of facility you operate, it can always look well-maintained. If someone sprays graffiti on a fence, think of that in terms of the first “broken window.” If it’s not taken care of quickly, it’ll soon invite more damage and criminal activity. If your site is trash- and weed-free, sparkly clean, and has the appearance of a well-run property, it might give a would-be criminal enough hesitation to move on.
Think like a bad guy. If you wanted to break into your facility, how would you do it? What corners of your property need more lighting? Where are your security cameras? Where are your blind spots? Does your perimeter fence have any holes or damage? Do you have overgrown bushes that could be hiding spots? Think about ways a criminal might access your site, and then take steps to eliminate them.
Invest in Security Hardware
Not only does it make good business sense to have functional security features, it actually deters crime. Cameras, lighting and other security components tell your customers you care about their belongings, but it also sends a message that crime won’t be tolerated on your property.
You also need to consider the type of lock your tenants use to secure their units. Many break-ins at storage facilities are committed by people who cut locks with bolt-cutters. The smart ones replace the padlocks so a manager doing a walk-through doesn’t realize the lock has been replaced. Help your tenants and yourself by stocking a quality lock in your retail store and encouraging them to purchase one. There are a number of vendors in the industry that can help you choose the right type.
Have reasonable gate hours. Most customers don’t need to access their unit at 2 a.m. Of course, there are exceptions to that rule; however, the majority of people will visit your property during the day or early evening. The key is to find the right balance between offering good customer service, such as extended hours, and protecting your property. Don’t limit your hours so much that it costs you business. On the other hand, wide-open hours could invite trouble. Exceptions can always be made for certain customers, but keep reasonable hours for the majority of your tenants.
Watch for Red Flags
Most of our customers are decent people. Unfortunately, we do have those on the fringe who aren’t. If you do an Internet search for “self-storage and crime,” you’ll find news on everything from drug busts to break-ins, counterfeiting rings to the first World Trade Center bombings. The unfortunate part of our business is some people use our facilities for illegal activities. While it’s impossible to keep every criminally inclined person out, we can do things to minimize the possibility of renting a unit to a criminal.
If your facility is in a high-crime area, create a crime-free lease addendum. This addition to your agreement specifically includes details about illegal activities. Let your tenants know it won’t be tolerated and you’ll call the authorities if you suspect something illegal is happening in the unit. This can sometimes be enough to send would-be criminals packing.
When checking a customer’s photo identification during the lease signing, look for the state’s hologram. Also, squeeze the card. Most fake IDs aren’t good quality compared to that of a state-issued one. Don’t be afraid to ask for a second picture ID or some other form of identification if you’re getting a weird vibe from the person. Simply state that it’s a policy to obtain two forms of ID for every tenant.
The best way to look for red flags is to simply talk to potential customers. Ask them questions such as why they need storage, where are they moving from and to, and how long they’ll need a unit. These should already be a part of your sales presentation. If they avoid your question or give you a sketchy response, they might be hiding something. These inquiries aren’t an invasion of their privacy, just good salesmanship.
Once someone becomes a tenant, continue offering good customer service by speaking with him whenever he’s at your property. Swing by the unit when it’s open and say “hello.” If you feel uncomfortable, consider offering a bottle of water to break the ice. Honest tenants will appreciate the gesture, and those considering criminal acts will be made aware that you’ve got your eye on the property at all times.
Also, those who are considering any kind of illegal activity are usually not the best when it comes to paying the rental bill on time. If you suspect you have a potential criminal renting a unit, and he’s late, follow your state’s lien laws and evict him as soon as possible.
Get Friendly With Law Enforcement
Finally, get to know your local law enforcement. Police departments are typically divided up geographically, so there will be officers specifically assigned to your area. Send them a thank-you card or note to let them know you recognize them as an important part of the community.
Have you ever seen a police officer parked in the back of a parking lot by himself? A police car is like an officer’s mobile office. He eats there, make calls, write reports and does whatever he needs to do during his shift. Officers park where they do so they can be aware of their surroundings and be safe. Get to know your community’s officers and offer them a 24-hour access code to your property. This accomplishes two things. First, your facility can be a great place for them to do their tasks safely. Second, it’s good for you to have a police car parked at your facility at 1 a.m. in the morning!
On a side note, leave the apprehension of criminals to the people with badges. You’re not in the business of fighting crime, nor are you getting paid to put your life on the line. If you have a situation that warrants the police, don’t be afraid to make the call.
Many of the activities you can do to help curtail crime at your facility go hand-in-hand with good customer service. Make it a goal to get out of the office and talk to your customers every day. If you have ones you’re worried about, give them extra customer service! You have the power to make a difference. You’re the person people come in contact with every day.
Rick Beal is the district manager and part owner of Cubes Self Storage in Salt Lake City. He often takes a different approach to typical storage operation including demand, rates, staff involvement and technology. His professional motto is, “Storage is a business of inches not miles.” To reach him, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.