Facility Break-Ins: “I Can’t Believe My Security System Was So Easy To Defeat!”

We’ve heard this statement repeatedly from executives whose companies have been victimized, usually accompanied by a dazed expression that can best be described as shock and awe.

In April 2010, a major pharmaceutical company’s Connecticut warehouse was burglarized by professional thieves who stole approximately $75 million of brand name drugs. According to reports, the thieves circumvented the electronic security systems in place with little difficulty while committing one of the largest distribution center thefts in history.

In the last few years, professional cargo theft rings have expanded their activities, no longer focusing only on trucks, rail cars and intermodal containers in transit. They have found it extremely lucrative to attack distribution centers and manufacturing plants, where they have repeatedly gotten away with millions of dollars of stolen inventory. Not bad for a few hours of work.

The truth of the matter is that these break-ins require a good deal of time to plan, prior to execution. It’s not unusual for example, for cargo rings to dispatch advance teams to surveil a targeted location for several weeks prior to their attack. Logistics such as the time the facility opens and closes, the number of employees on each shift, the traffic patterns of inbound and outbound trucks, whether there is on-site security and if so, how and where the manpower is appropriated, the design of the lighting and fencing, as well as the frequency of roving police patrols are just some of the factors that they carefully evaluate.

They’ve also been known to gain entry inside their targeted facilities posing as vendors, contractors, service people or sales representatives.

They will also have their members apply for jobs, many of whom have warehouse experience and are skilled at operating forklifts and other equipment. Once hired, they will assess the locations of all the alarm devices, what type of video system is in place, as well as the interior physical structure of the doors, walls and racking. After this information is obtained, and oftentimes photographed using concealed cameras and camcorders, they will methodically plan the most effective way to circumvent the facility’s security safeguards.

They oftentimes arrive with teams of specialists, including forklift operators, tractor trailer drivers, and surveillance personnel (who stake out the major access roads for police response) as well as technical experts who know more about electronic alarm systems than many of the companies that install them.

The end result is normally a successful heist, with the victimized company not knowing they’ve been hit until the next work shift arrives and finds that significant amounts of inventory have vanished.

Most of the companies that find their alarm systems disconnected, the video recorders missing, and several trailer loads of inventory stolen are shocked, not just by the financial loss, but by the speed and efficiency of the perpetrators.

While most victimized companies are amazed by the ingenuity and ease in which their security controls were defeated, the reality is that the professionals have been using the same methods for several years. Disconnecting phone and power lines, cutting through doors, (rather than prying them open and activating the alarm system’s magnetic contacts), and entering via the roof or wall vents, are standard operating procedure and pose little difficulty for these pros.

While there are always new, innovative methods, such as installing concealed wireless video cameras outside a building that will record employees entering their alarm codes into the lobby keypad, the professionals tend to use the same techniques that have historically been very effective for them.

To appreciate why electronic intrusion detection and video systems have been consistently compromised, it’s necessary to understand two realities about the alarm industry.

The first is that most of the sales reps that design intrusion detection and video systems have very little, if any, direct knowledge of how these professional thieves operate. While this may seem illogical, it’s none the less true.

Danbee Investigations has investigated over $100 million dollars worth of thefts by professional crime organizations. When we’re asked to conduct a post-theft investigation, we meet with representatives from the security system provider who designed and installed the facility’s electronic protective systems. During these discussions, we typically ask these sales representatives if they’re familiar with the professional thieves and their standard operating practices, i.e., how they defeat high-tech security systems. Ninety-nine out of 100 times, their response is, “No.” However, these same sales reps are the ones that distribution company executives typically rely upon to select the right technology, strategically position all the protective devices, and then properly program these systems.

Another reality is that alarm companies have minimal legal or financial responsibility for losses sustained by their customers. Regardless of whether for example, the wrong devices were selected, or if the central station operator failed to properly respond to an activation, alarm vendors have limited liability. If you doubt this, read the small print in your contract and you’ll probably find not one, but two or three causes that stipulate this.

This is not an indictment of alarm and video system providers. The reality is that they would not be able to obtain insurance if they assumed this type of responsibility. Because alarm companies could potentially be paying out millions each year, their contracts essentially state that they are not “insurers.”

Considering the limited understanding that many security system sales representatives possess, businesses should be wary about relying on a vendor to design their electronic protection. There is a significant difference between having your security systems designed by a salesman and an independent security consultant.