North Charleston aquatic center (copy) (copy)

Work takes place at the construction site of the North Charleston Aquatics Center. When workers arrived at the project recently, they discovered an opened box missing a $2,500 drill. The tool was later recovered. File/staff

A major recreation project underway in North Charleston recently experienced a minor hiccup during construction.

When workers arrived at the North Charleston Aquatics Center recently, they discovered an opened box missing a $2,500 drill. The tool was later recovered after being listed for sale on an application designed for buying and selling used materials.

"It may be called petty crime," said David Merchant, president of Merchant Iron Works, the Sumter-based company building the center, but "it’s a big deal for us when you're trying to get a job done and go to get the tools, and they're not there."

This sort of theft has become a frequent nuisance for construction companies across the state. South Carolina is one of the worst states in the nation for construction site thefts, according to a 2016 report by the National Equipment Register, a company with a national database of stolen heavy equipment, and the National Insurance Crime Bureau, a nonprofit that works with law enforcement to address insurance-related crime.

South Carolina came in No. 6 nationwide for equipment theft with 512 incidents where equipment was taken illegally, mainly from work sites.

The state's high number of thefts ultimately lead to increased insurance costs for everyone, as insurance companies have to repeatedly dish out funds to cover the materials, said Ryan Shepherd, director of crime analytics at Verisk, a New Jersey-based risk assessment firm that serves as the parent company for NER.

“It is a bigger issue than most people think," Shepherd said. "It does affect all of us.”

States with the highest amounts of construction and agriculture experience the most construction equipment thefts, the study found. The types of equipment stolen most often include large, mobile items such as mowers, riding tractors and loaders. The tools are stolen because of their high value and easy access, Shepherd said.

Large, expensive equipment can be stolen in a single day, Shepherd said, and a single key often works for several pieces of equipment.

Additionally, tools can be difficult to track down since they don't require driver's licenses, titles or registrations. Owners often don't know the serial numbers.

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Equipment operators prepare land for construction of a 274-unit apartment complex on Patriot Boulevard in North Charleston on Monday, Feb. 18, 2019. South Carolina is one of the worst states in the nation for construction site thefts, according to a 2016 report by the National Equipment Register. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

For thieves, it can be too tempting to pass up.

“It’s the easiest way to make a quick buck," Merchant said.

Merchant, whose company also is working on projects in Summerville and downtown Charleston, has had hand tools stolen from different sites. He said the thefts slow productivity. 

Merchant said the tool recently stolen in North Charleston was in a locked box inside a fence. He said he is considering having have a more-secured box to deter similar thefts.

To protect equipment, Shepherd said companies should corral vehicles to make it more difficult for people to drive them off site. They also should record serial numbers and register equipment with companies such as NER, which works with law enforcement to recover stolen equipment.

Law enforcement has applauded construction companies that go to greater lengths to protect equipment. In North Charleston, the number of construction-site thefts reported to the department declined from 85 in 2017 to 62 in 2018, according to the city's Police Department. As of July 25 this year, fewer than 30 thefts had been reported.

Sgt. Jonathan Glenn, supervisor in the investigations unit, said he believes the decline is linked to construction companies hiring security guards and installing cameras at job sites.

While North Charleston is bustling with construction — Patriot Boulevard has new apartment complexes in addition to the aquatics center — Glenn is optimistic that companies are doing more to decrease thefts. The department also has conducted foot patrols at job sites, Glenn said.

North Charleston has been focusing on more serious crimes recently, such as homicides, but when Merchant's tool was stolen, the department still responded swiftly.

Glenn said police had an advantage because the perpetrator listed the device for sale online — and because the owner knew the serial number.

An officer posed as potential buyer, met up with the seller, then arrested him for possession of stolen property. The drill was recovered the same day.

"It rarely happens this quickly," Glenn said.

Merchant, also a member of Sumter City Council, applauded North Charleston for taking the theft seriously.

"This was a very small item compared to the bigger crimes the department deals with daily. However, detective Glenn never once acted like he was too busy or this was too small of a crime to help," Merchant said. “It was nice to finally get a victory over the thief.”

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