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Kai Ryssdal: A 1995 Caterpillar bulldozer is missing in Georgia. A 2006 Caterpillar backhoe gone from South Carolina. A 2010 Hitatchi excavator in Quebec. Forget cars -- construction and farming equipment is being stolen at an alarming rate. Naturally, the places with the most machines are reporting the most thefts. Texas tops the list in the U.S. Up north the hottest province is Ontario, from where Marketplace's Sean Cole reports.
Tony DiPede: How are ya?
Sean Cole: Hello sir!
DiPede: I'm gonna guess that you're the man.
Cole: That's me.
Cole: I meet up with Tony DiPede in Bradford, Ontario, about an hour north of Toronto. He co-owns a road construction company called North Rock Group.
DiPede: And this is our project!
Right now, the company's widening a two-lane road into five lanes. There are guys in hard hats everywhere, lots of big yellow construction vehicles. And while nothing's been stolen yet from this job...
Cole: In general, have you had stuff stolen?
DiPede: Oh we have. We've had... Here's the loader right here, 624 John Deere loader. We were working in Barrie a few years ago, they stole that machine.
Cole: That very one?
DiPede: That very one.
Luckily, someone found it parked just a few miles away. But last year, DiPede lost a 310 John Deere backhoe. The police report says men wearing orange construction vests drove away with it -- and it's still missing.
DiPede: And it was there Saturday. Came back Monday morning, it was gone. So they had hot-wired, did whatever they had to do, started it and just took off. No one sees them going, because it's not unusual to see a machine driving down the road on a weekend.
That's the thing: Stealing a loader or a backhoe seems impossible if not insane, which is exactly why it's neither. No one's expecting it. Statistics Canada says more than 1,100 of these machines were stolen nationwide last year and less than a third were recovered.
George Kleinsteiber puts the theft count at 3,300 with an even smaller recovery rate. Who is George Kleinsteiber?
George Kleinsteiber: This is the size of the ones that they're mainly stealing right now.
He's like a walking detective novel about heavy equipment theft -- a retired cop who now consults with the Ontario Sewer and Water Main Association. Right now, he's showing me a Volvo L11E0 wheel loader parked in an auction lot in Bolton, Ontario.
Kleinsteiber: You're looking here at just over $140,000.
Kleinsteiber: Yup. And you can see how easy it is. I could hop in this now and be out the gate and gone.
Cole: Well particularly as it's running.
Kleinsteiber: Yeah. Well, but I mean if I had the Volvo key.
That's right. He said the Volvo key. With a lot of manufacturers one key fits everything. Volvo does this, Caterpillar does this.
Kleinsteiber: And you can walk into a Caterpillar dealer with no questions asked and buy a key for $9.95, and it would start any Caterpillar machine.
Cole: That seems extremely wrong-headed to me.
Kleinsteiber: The owners of the equipment want it that way, because, if a company has 400 machines, they don't want to have to be looking for 400 different keys.
Kleinsteiber says organized crime is behind a lot of the thefts. Sometimes they replace the VIN number with one from a different machine. Often the machines are fenced overseas in Eastern Europe or the Middle East. Last year, Kleinsteiber personally tracked down a stolen motor grader in Dubai after its owner saw it listed for auction there. The thieves probably shipped it there in a big metal container from the port of Montreal.
Dominique McNeely: So we're entering the port area.
Where I meet Dominique McNeely with the Canada Border Services Agency. He shows me this big white truck with an L-shaped arm hanging off of it, a scanner.
It's worth $2.3 million and it allows us to see what's inside a container without having to open it.
But McNeely says a million containers pass through this port every year. The agency only targets 3 or 4 percent of them for thorough inspection.
McNeely: It does seem like a small number. But our mandate is to facilitate the free flow of goods and people across our borders. And one thing that is certain is that we cannot open every container that comes in or that leaves.
Kleinsteiber: These containers, it's just like a cloak of nothingness.
Again, George Kleinsteiber.
Kleinsteiber: The deep hole out in the galaxy that once it goes in there it's gone. And for the owners, it's part of their family. Everyone of these machines is like a family member, and they really get upset when they're stolen.
I asked Tony DiPede of North Rock if this was true.
DiPede: I wouldn't know if I'd go to the family part, but yeah, they're your bread and butter. They're a necessity. I need it.
DiPede says he's put special markings on some of his machines, installed a secondary ignition on some. Still, he's pretty sure he'll get robbed again. It shouldn't happen in this open well-trafficked area, he says. And so that's where it will happen.
In Toronto, I'm Sean Cole for Marketplace.