Protecting Your Power Tools from Theft

By Will Mears

Tool theft.  It happens on a daily basis, whether it’s a battery pilfered by a laborer, a tool trailer stolen by opportunists or a household burglary in which the thief targets those expensive-looking Red or Yellow tools.  Oftentimes, your former possessions are sold for pennies on the dollar while you are lucky to get a small insurance payout, minus depreciation, with little hope of ever seeing your property again.  So let's talk about protecting your power tools from theft.

We can lock them up, monitor them with video surveillance, and even put trackers such as the Milwaukee Tick or DeWalt Tool Connect on them, but those measures do not guarantee that they are safe from theft, that you will recover them before they are lost forever or even that the insurance policy that is supposed to cover them will pay out.  Short of placing them in a vault with an armed guard, our tools are easy targets for anyone who either has ill-intent and/or recognizes the value of tools.  By all means, we should be proactive in protecting them, ensuring they are locked up when not in use and refraining ourselves from flaunting them when possible, but when we must become reactive (i.e. after a tool is stolen or misplaced) we can take certain precautions to mitigate the chances of our loss being permanent.  The most obvious means of doing so, which might prove of tremendous usefulness to investigators and insurance companies, is by documenting our ownership of said tools.

Most companies have a registration process, and some even incorporate tool trackers into their websites.  These can be useful, but in my experience they are often time-consuming to complete, especially when entering a lot of tools at once.  Additionally, they require an internet connection and have limited means of filtering for certain characteristics of tools.  Suppose a toolbox full of drywall tools is stolen, which includes a screwgun, cutout tool, and batteries worth over $1000.  Should we manually sort through dozens of tools on a website to find the information on those missing?  Even if we do, does the website we are working with provide space for additional details, such as which kit a particular tool was part of?  One alternative to manufacturers’ trackers, perhaps better considered as a complimentary tracker, is using a spreadsheet format that can be easily emailed (in case a computer is stolen) and which does not rely on a fast internet connection.

A number of months ago, I created an Excel workbook, with separate worksheets tabbed by color (yellow for DeWalt, red for Milwaukee, orange for Ridgid, etc), and with columns containing the obvious information such as model and serial number as well as additional information including place of purchase, retail price, price paid, and comments.  I can easily filter and/or sort the tools by model number or voltage if needed, and may even attempt to add links to images of the receipts at some point.  This does not in itself prove my ownership, but having the serial numbers as well as defining characteristics (dent on left rear, torn rubber on handle) can ease the jobs of those tasked with locating the tools, or at least the thieves, and making sure that our insurance policies aren’t simply money ill-spent.  Anyone with access to Excel, Google Docs, or another service that provides spreadsheets can make a serviceable tracker that can be customized to their particular needs.

Ridgid 18 Volt GEN5X Compact Router ReviewAnother way of documenting our tools is through photography and especially video.  If we take pictures of our tools in an area that is easily identifiable as belonging to us (e.g. a living room with defining characteristics) along with close-ups of the serial numbers, it is hard to argue that we are exaggerating our losses.  In a similar fashion, albeit arguably more effective, taking a video of the same—detailed shots of our tools and serial numbers in our own homes or workshops—along with a brief introduction and perhaps minor narration, will go a long way towards easing our pain when establishing ownership of a tool.  If you really want to get wild, save the receipts and take photos or video of the receipt and tool together.  It is a safe bet to take photos of the receipts anyway, so why not simply add the tool itself to the shot?

Some tool-related items do not have serial numbers, such as batteries and some chargers.  Oftentimes, however, manufacturers will at least have some distinguishing marks on these items, such as manufacture codes.  In such cases, documentation of these codes, along with a detailed description of other defining characteristics, could aide in the recovery of these items or at least the prosecution of the person who took them.  I will not pretend to know how hectic a larger jobsite can get, but it is easy to imagine lower-salaried employees trying to pocket a $100 battery when they can.  If you know what the missing battery looks like, and that employee is foolish enough to try to pass it off as his own a few days later, it is easy to see how such a detailed description can help.

What about hand tools and other non-serial numbered items?  Given a rotary or etching tool, an individual or company can easily mark these along with the aforementioned power tools and accessories.  When I was a mechanic, I marked all of my tools, from the most expensive Snap-On down to the most inexpensive Benchtop (K-Mart’s offerings prior to their merger with Sears) with a simple word: Will.  I was always the only Will at the places I worked and my etching, like my handwriting, was distinctive enough for me to recognize.  This helped me quite a bit after I left the trade, as my tools were borrowed by relatives and inevitably ended up in their toolboxes.  Giving expensive tools such a personalized touch reduces their resale value, but if you are seeking to protect them from resale (by a thief) in the first place, is this a bad thing?  Put yourself in the shoes of a thief: would you rather take tools with the owner’s name clearly marked on them, or tools that have nothing besides light wear and tear?  I’d readily take the latter, possibly passing up the other tools for fear of being caught.

I’ve written a few suggestions on how to document your tools, but what of insurance?  I’m no insurance expert, so ensure that you confirm your coverage and rights with your insurer and/or lawyer, but if you have a homeowner’s policy you should have some sort of personal property coverage.  If so, you will possibly not need additional insurance solely for your tools, unless those tools and your other possessions are worth more than your policy covers.  If you are a business owner, do your research as well to find out the best option to insure your tools, especially since they can comprise a substantial portion of your assets.

Coming full circle, what about those more overt security practices?  Like many others, I am guilty of having distinctive and mobile tool boxes that can make it easy for a dishonest person to relieve me of thousands of dollars’ worth of tools in a matter of seconds.  As such, I use a variety of methods to disguise and secure my ToughSystem and Ridgid boxes, from camouflage (placing them in my backseat with the DeWalt logo hidden from view or throwing a battered tarp and scrap wood or garbage over them in my truck bed) to individually locking them and using cable locks to secure them to an immobile object.  A well-placed Tick or Tool Connect tracker, if undetected by the thief and in range of a device with the applicable app, can help locate a recently liberated toolbox as well, though in my opinion such devices are too limited in range and expensive at the moment for the average tool owner to attach to every tool.  Removing tools from a work van at night or backing a trailer so as to prevent access to the doors can also be a deterrent, and in extreme cases, even decoy tools might help to save more expensive options—for example, leaving generic and inexpensive tools out or lightly secured while storing more valuable tools in less obvious places.  If I worked in areas with known criminal activity, I’d strongly consider buying less expensive tools as well, reserving my expensive DeWalt and Milwaukee versions for jobs in lower crime areas while making do with lesser valued brands while in those areas.  I’d do the same if I ran a business where I provided loaner tools to employees or temporary help, keeping my premium tools in the hands of only myself and maybe one or two trusted long-term employees.  This could be considered overcautious, but denial, deception and disinformation have worked well for military operations for millennia, so why not use a few of these tactics when it comes to protecting our investments?

Whatever you do, don’t just take for granted that your tools are safe.  If you have a popular brand, you can be sure that someone is willing to adopt it when you aren’t looking.  The more expensive and the less secured they are, the greater the chances that you’ll wake up one day to find your prized tools—in some cases the very ones you rely on to feed your family—gone.  If you are unable to provide serial numbers, other identifying information, and photographic or video proof of ownership, your insurance company may be unwilling to accept that a single burglary resulted in a loss of tens of thousands of dollars of tools, or at least depreciate those tools far below their actual value, while the police can do little besides file the report and hope for some sort of evidence to identify the thief.

I took my tools and privacy for granted once.  I won’t again.