A recent “Good Morning America” segment aired surveillance video of crooks driving into a self-storage facility, cutting a unit’s lock within seconds and loading their van with stolen goods.
The self-storage unit is the “new target for thieves,” “Good Morning America” warned. So, are self-storage facilities really under siege?
“When these stories break, they’ve been sensationalized,” said Ginny Sutton, executive director of the Texas Self Storage Association. Sutton hasn’t seen a recent spike in self-storage break-ins. “If anything, we’ve seen a decrease. It seems to have really leveled off in the last three or four years,” she said.
Break-ins do happen, though, mostly at facilities with 24-hour access. Add a padlock that “a 10-year-old kid could whack off,” and a self-storage unit is vulnerable, Sutton said.
Law enforcement agencies don’t keep statistics specifically on self-storage break-ins, according to Timothy Zehring, a security consultant specializing in crime prevention at self-storage facilities. However, MiniCo Insurance Agency‘s 2012 Self-Storage Almanac did note that 7 percent of U.S. facilities surveyed had reported break-ins or thefts in 2011, down from 18.2 percent in 2010. Of those that reported break-ins or thefts in 2011, the average number of incidents per facility was two.
Zehring said self-storage break-ins generally occur in cycles. “One city gets hit hard and then dies down,” he said.
Aiming To Be Crime-Free
Self-storage crimes were such a problem when Zehring was a police detective 20 years ago in Mesa, AZ, that he created the Crime Free Programs, which train police to work with professionals in self-storage and other industries to eliminate crime. Since 1992, Zehring has offered Crime Free training to hundreds of police departments.
Crime Free-certified self-storage facilities require renters to provide fingerprints, undergo criminal background checks and sign a lease addendum that lets managers evict tenants for criminal activity. The manager sends renters’ names to police every month to check for known burglars. Some facilities partner with local cops to exercise police dogs on the premises in the middle of the night. These measures keep some people away, and that’s the point.
“If you’re a crook, you wouldn’t want to rent from us, and we wouldn’t want you to rent,” said Donna Adams, owner of Adams Self Storage in Wichita Falls, TX. “So that works out fine for everyone.” Adams received Crime Free training from local police two years ago.
A burglar could “literally be your next-door neighbor,” Zehring said. Criminals might rent self-storage units at different places to get access, break into units at each location and store stolen goods at other facilities across town.
A little due diligence goes a long way toward keeping tenants’ possessions safe. Here are six security tips for self-storage facilities:
- Urge the use of strong locks. Self-storage tenants often have to provide their own locks. Discourage them from using a $5 lock to protect $5,000 worth of stuff. It takes “less than half a second” to cut a padlock with bolt cutters, according to Zehring. Suggest that your customers use disc locks, which are round, stainless-steel locks that are nearly impossible to cut or pick and can be purchased for under $30 each.
- Offer limited access. Stay away from 24-hour access. “Nothing good happens between midnight and 5 a.m.,” Adams said. Her facility locks the gates at 10 p.m. It’s best to lock gates by midnight.
- Beef up security. Install wrought-iron fences, security cameras and individual door alarms. Door alarms allow Michelle Abney, manager of EZ Storage in St. Louis, to monitor each time a unit opens. If staff knows a tenant will be gone for three months and the door alarm shows that the unit was just opened, management is alerted and can check out the situation.
- Avoid free-rent and move-in offers. If a thief wants to gain access, steal and be out the door, he’s more likely to rent a unit where he doesn’t have to pay anything upfront.
- Conduct a visual audit. Watch out for what Zehring calls “environmental cues” such as graffiti, litter and disrepair, which attract thieves and turn away tenants.
- Answer questions. Does your facility partner with police? Are security cameras working? How many break-ins have you had? These are questions tenants who care about security will ask. Make sure you have answers.
It’s also a good idea to offer tenant insurance that can be tacked onto storage rent for as little as $8 a month. Traditional coverage starts at $2,000 and can go as high as $20,000, according to Chuck Dodge, senior account executive at Bader Co., which provides insurance for about 3,400 self-storage facilities. Some homeowner’s and renter’s insurance policies also cover self-storage units.
Adams has had only one break-in at her facility since she underwent Crime Free training. A thief cut through the wrought-iron fence, removed a few locks, then gave up and left without taking a thing.
The more security measures that are in place, the more obstacles a thief must overcome to break into a self-storage unit. “I’m not an expert on thieves, but I know they are going to pass over one that’s hard to get to and go for the one that’s easy,” Sutton said.