Anatomy of a van theft.
Practical security advice and information.
Understanding the thieves.
In this article I would like to share some insights into how thieves plan and execute caravan and motorhome thefts.
Being aware their modus operandi (methods) will help make you aware of your own vulnerabilities and decide what actions you can take to reduce your risk of becoming a victim.
Whilst there’s no doubt some thefts are spur of the moment or opportunist crimes, the vast majority are to some degree planned in advanced. Vans that are stolen to order usually necessitate the thieves finding the right make, mode, year and specification to satisfy their buyer. Trawling the streets looking for the right target simply wouldn’t be practical but a quick search on the internet (eBay, Gumtree, Auto Trader, Facebook groups) will usually provide a list of suitable vans and their location. This technique works just as well for those choosing a van they want to steal for their own use or to break for parts.
Caravan forums and Facebook groups are full of proud owners posting pictures of their vans. Nothing wrong in that, I do it myself, but many give too much information away like what they paid for it or where it’s stored. A simple comment like “I cancelled my tracker subscription” lets potential thieves know there’s one thing less to worry about if they want your van.
Having chosen their target it’s time for a little research, to assess the risk involved. As the vans in my example are all for sale, the owner will not be surprised at receiving a visit or phone call expressing interest and asking a few questions. Some of these questions will be perfectly innocent such as ‘when were the brakes last serviced’ but some have a more sinister purpose.
Do you mind if I look it over?
Of course you don’t mind, here’s the keys.
But do you remember that many keys have a code on them that lets you order a duplicate just by quoting that number? Not just the van keys but those for your security devices too and they’re probably all kept together. £20 can get a thief a full set of keys to your £20,000 van, definitely worth the investment.
Does it have an alarm and tracker fitted?
If you answer no or tell them they’re not working then you’ve just made their day – no hi-tech security to worry about.
If the answer is yes then….
Can you show me them working?
If you do, you will probably reveal the location of these devices, their make and model. They may even see you enter the alarm code. Either way they’ve avoided the difficult part, finding them, disabling them is fairly easy if you know what you’re working with.
Are these wheel and hitch locks included in the price?
They don’t really care, they just want a look at your devices so they know what needs to be removed and what tools they’ll need. For obvious reasons i’m not going into the detail of how it’s done but most locks are removed in less than a minute with the right knowledge and tools.
I’ve heard this make gets stolen quite a lot, has that been a worry for you?
“Not really, this is a very quiet street. My neighbour also keeps an eye on things and there’s a CCTV camera up there”.
Now they know to cover their number plates, face the other way and keep their hoods up as well as watching for your neighbour going out.
I’m really interested but i’d like to bring my wife to have a look. When would be the best time for you?
Be careful how you answer this. – “It would need to be a weekend as I work till 6pm during the week” is the same as saying ‘i’m out all day during the week’.
It’s just to let her see inside, is there someone could let us in for a couple of minutes if we pop by during the day?
“There’s not i’m afraid, my wife works too” – so the house will be empty.
The same sort of information can be gleaned about a van in a storage area or seasonal pitch with some subtle changes such as “how often do you visit or use it? or “Does the alarm and tracker not drain your battery in storage”?
So from one brief conversation the thieves can find out what security precautions they’ll need to defeat, what security equipment is installed, where it’s located and when you’ll be out. If they’ve been lucky they may also have a full set of keys and your alarm code.
They could of course just watch you for a few days to see what times you leave and return, looking the van over in your absence.
Having convinced themselves your van is the one they want and confident they can deal with the security measure in place, they now plan their escape. Tools such as Google maps and aerial imagery make it easy to review the surrounding area and plan a safe route with minimal exposure to potential witnesses or obstructions.
Ever vigilant for unknown or secondary trackers and the chance of having been seen, thieves will rarely travel very far immediately after the theft. Instead they will have chosen somewhere relatively close to ‘hide’ and ‘observe’ the van for a day or two, just long enough to know that the police are not tracking it. Only when they consider it safe will they move it to a more secure and permanent hiding place to be stripped or prepared for shipping to their buyer.
Prior to the final move, time will be taken to remove anything that may identify the van such as decals, modifications or accessories. Unfortunately this often includes the manufacturer’s chassis numbers making it almost impossible to identity it as stolen.
You can deduce from this that the best chance of recovering your van is the period between it being stolen and transported from the cool-off location. There is also a good chance that your personal belongings will still be onboard. Beyond this, the chances of recovery fall rapidly.
There is a lot of speculation as to where stolen vans end up. The truth is that many are never recovered and information about those that are is rarely disclosed so no one can say with any certainty. What I can share with you though are the results of a very limited poll conducted on our own Facebook group. This echoed the fact that most are never found but of those that were, the majority turned up on unofficial traveler sites in the UK and Ireland. Only one was traced overseas. What matters though is not where they end up, it’s the fact that they were stolen from us in the first place.
In the above example, the van was stolen from the owners home but thefts are just as likely from official or unofficial storage facilities or indeed, reputable camp sites. Storage facilities are usually chosen because the offer visible security such as fences, gates and CCTV. But like any other physical deterrent, they can only slow down, not stop a determined thief. Fences can be cut, gates can be forced and CCTV can’t see through hoods or masks. What’s more, storage areas are usually in isolated rural areas so even a noisy theft can go unnoticed for some time. Some thieves have even dragged expensive caravans through fields to avoid cameras or populated areas but as with the previous example, they are most likely going to hide it relatively nearby to cool off.
Ideally a storage facility will have 24/7 security and will contact you immediately your van is stolen or tampered with but there have been instances of unofficial facilities not noticing a van has been taken till the owner arrived some weeks later. By this time, any chance of quick recovery has passed. It may well have traveled the length of the country but as it hadn’t been reported stolen, it wouldn’t have attracted any attention even if it had been stopped and checked.
As for official camp sites. Vans come and go all day so it’s very difficult for them to spot one being stolen. Sites depend on their good reputation among the van communities and having vans stolen can literally ruin them so they do try. I have another article covering security on sites that goes into more detail, suffice it to say that in most cases you are leaving your van among strangers. It is very unlikely anyone would question someone hooking up or driving off with it unless they knew you.
I’d like to briefly mention a post I came across recently on a highly respected Facebook group. No names but someone posted a lovely photograph of their brand new Hobby 720 with – “Delivered to my seasonal pitch at XXXXX Park, looking forward to trying it out for the first time in a couple of weeks“.
A harmless enough post you might think but the first response he received was – “That looks a great site, where exactly is it?”. Worryingly the original poster replied with the full address.
Firstly he’d just told everyone exactly where his expensive new van was and that it would not be occupied for a couple of weeks. The site may well have been nice but all you could see in the photo was the van and some grass around it, certainly nothing to make you want to go there! There were no wheel or hitch locks visible in the photo. Any bells ringing yet? I looked at the profile of the person asking, it was a new account (about a month old), there was no history, no obvious interest in caravans but there were two female friends. Now i’m not making any assumptions here but a search of previous posts made by those two friends made it very clear they were part of a community often suspected of involvement of caravan theft. Coincidence?
Yes, this could well have been completely innocent but the information was now ‘public’, potentially millions could read it and act upon it. Essentially it’s a completely unnecessary risk. Please think before you post.