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Putting a Cap on Crime: Modern Prevention Strategies for Self-Storage Operators

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When it comes to protecting your self-storage facility, a multi-faceted approach sends a clear message that your site is off-limits to crime. Read how fellow operators are decreasing their vulnerability and boosting defenses.

Last summer, a married couple rented a unit at Anonymous Self-Storage in Anywhere, USA; but they had no intention of storing anything in the space. Their sole purpose was to gain rightful access to the property and steal from other tenants.

The first time they executed their plan was under the cover of darkness. Using their assigned gate code, the couple entered the property with ease. They parked their truck in front of their own unit and grabbed a pair bolt-cutters. They headed to a few nearby spaces, cut off the locks and scavenged around. They transferred desired items to their own space, and hid the evidence by putting a new lock on any doors they had breached. The next night, they returned with their truck, backed it up to their unit and loaded the items in. To get away with the crime, it was as simple as driving away.

Sadly, this isn’t an unfamiliar tale. In fact, the details of this caper were adapted from several actual crimes Inside Self-Storage has reported on in recent months. Some were perpetrated by tenants, others by thieves just looking for an easy score. Burglaries occurred at properties with and without cameras, perimeter fencing and resident managers.

Self-storage facilities have long attracted a criminal element—and it isn’t just theft. Vandalism, assaults, drug-related incidents and even homicides have occurred. While there’s no way to completely safeguard your business from misconduct, the right prevention measures can make it less vulnerable. A modern, well-functioning security system is always a good place to start; but it should never be relied upon to do all the work. To truly prevent crime, it takes people.

It doesn’t matter if your facility is in a high-crime area or the “better” part of town. It’s up to site owners and managers to keep the property and tenants safe. Consider this multi-faceted approach to defense.

Fix What’s Broken

You’ve heard of the broken-window theory, right? The idea is that a poor property appearance— a broken office window, dirty unit doors, overgrown shrubs or a parking lot full of potholes—tells people you aren’t concerned about site maintenance, and probably not security, either. It’s true: A shabby site is likely to draw crime.

“Criminals are more likely to target a business that displays signs of disorder or disregard,” says Chadwick Macferran, director of marketing at PTI Security Systems, a provider of access-control technology solutions. “Things like trash, graffiti, bent fencing and broken lights are signals that the property isn’t being properly cared for or watched.”

It falls on the facility manager to make sure everything looks and works as it should, adds Erin Smith, a property manager for Melrose Storage in Nashville, Tenn. “This could mean arming the security system at night or regularly checking the cameras to ensure they’re working correctly. The manager should also regularly check the property to make sure it’s clean and nothing looks abnormal.”

Be Vigilant

The fact is self-storage managers have a huge role to play in keeping crime from their doorstep. To begin, you must conduct at least one daily walk-through to look for anything out of the ordinary. You should also understand, follow and enforce all company policies and procedures.

“The manager plays an integral part in preventing crime. They are the eyes and ears of the property,” says Heather Hughes-Meek, regional manager for Absolute Storage Management, which oversees 140 facilities in multiple states. “When tenants trust and respect the manager, they’re less likely to cause issues and more likely to report when they see something out of place. A good manager also investigates all those reports and doesn’t dismiss anything.”

Todd Snook, president of Valley Storage Co., which owns 30 facilities in six states, agrees. “If the manager is organized, relays the rules and holds the tenant to them, you already reduce your risk of criminal activity,” he says.

Above all, you must keep a close eye on all property activity. Watch what tenants do, and when. Those who hang out in their unit, keep the door closed, attempt to access areas they shouldn’t, or are otherwise snooping around could be up to no good. “We have had tenants wandering the property, not near their units, who seemed to be checking out other storage units when they are being accessed by their tenants,” says Jason Beekman, general manager for Pensacola Storage in Pensacola, Fla.

Attentive customer service lets tenants know you’re watching everything that transpires at your storage property. “We have a direct line of sight with any tenant who walks into our building, even if they do not come into the office,” Smith says. “I always make a point to acknowledge them in some way with a greeting, wave, head nod, etc. I know a lot of my regular tenant’s faces and are on a first-name basis. Hopefully, if I greet someone who’s up to no good, they’ll leave knowing they were noticed.”

For some facilities, this level of vigilance may require additional employees, even if only part-time. “We have had fewer incidents because of the extra staffing. We have monitoring, and keeping the halls and driveways clean while keeping a watchful eye,” says Natalie Ochi, CEO and president of SKS Management LLC, which operates 26 facilities in California. “The extra payroll may not easily be justifiable; but our lower rate of tenant-insurance claims over the years compared to other companies our size speaks for itself.”

Offer a Police Presence

Partnering with local law enforcement is another way to show customers, criminals and the community that you take your site security seriously. Invite officers to use your property as a training area, provide a rental discount to entice law enforcement to store with you, or just ask the local department to put you on their “drive-by” list.

“If we have an apartment onsite, we try to rent to a police officer or deputy. Nothing deters crimes like a cruiser parked at your facility,” Snook says. “We also offer [to let] our local departments train their K9 officers at our facilities any time they want, and we post a sign to that effect. We believe just the fear of drug-dog training would deter someone who plans to store drugs in their unit.”

Look for Red Flags

Another way to prevent self-storage crime is to carefully—and lawfully—screen customers. Background, credit and rental-history checks are all options, depending on how much time you have and money you’re willing to spend. Sometimes a simple online search will turn up clues about prospective renters. Just make sure that if you screen one tenant, you screen them all. You don’t want to raise accusations of discrimination.

Fortunately, there are many signs you can pick up on during the rental process that might indicate a prospect is just looking to gain access to the site for nefarious purposes. “If they don’t have proper ID or are evasive, that’s a clue they’re up to no good,” Snook says. “We’ve had tenants ask how many and where are the cameras located on our facility, which should concern you. Also, if they want 24-hour access but don’t have a good business reason to be in there at night, that’s a red flag.”

The move toward more facility automation and contactless rentals has complicated the way new rentals are processed, but operators can still put procedures in place that minimize the chances of problem tenants. “For our operations, we still require a photo identification, tenant insurance, etc., with contactless rentals—no different than in-person rentals,” says Ben Hendricks, chief operating officer for Five Star Storage, which operates 20 properties in Minnesota and North Dakota. “Our management team checks all online rentals for completion and properly uploaded photo ID into their digital file. If we have missing or unusual information, we contact that new customer right away.”

Aim for the Whole Package

Every self-storage facility needs a quality security system, but your line of defense should never stop there. A crime-free property takes team involvement.

“If you don’t already have a routine in place for your managers to perform facility walk-throughs, get one in place ASAP. If you currently take pride in offering 24-hour access, it’s time to think about it from a different perspective,” Hendricks says. “Always remember that, unfortunately, when someone has a will, they undoubtedly can find a way. The best security cameras, access control and site operations can never fully prevent crime from happening; but it can sure make it much more difficult for criminals.”

If a crime does occur, don’t attempt to resolve it on your own. Call the authorities and keep tabs on what’s happening via your security cameras and access log. “Never directly confront a thief. It might be hard to do if you catch them in the act, but safety is the top priority. You do not know their personal story or if they’re armed. Belongings can be replaced, but people can’t,” Smith says.

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