Police figures show steep rise in van tool thefts

The last two years have seen a steep rise in the number of cases involving the theft of tools from tradespeople’s vans, according to an investigation carried out by BBC Radio 5 Live. 

Tool theft in the UK has rocketed, with new methods of breaking into vans helping to fuel the rise. Police figures obtained by BBC Radio 5 Live suggest this kind of theft has risen by nearly two-thirds in two years, and it is thought that the ready availability of a new skeleton key is enabling criminals to easily target vans. Others are using the ‘peel and steal’ method, whereby thieves grab the top of the van’s door with their fingers and use their knees and body weight to apply pressure, peeling it back like a can of sardines. 

The 5 Live Investigates programme asked all 45 UK police forces about the scale of the problem and received replies from 30. These showed that while there were 14,063 thefts of tools from vehicles in 2014/15, that had risen to 22,749 in the year 2016/17.

Some victims are finding that their vans were broken into by use of a skeleton key, which can be bought online for less than £20. Although this device is intended for use by locksmiths, the kit is available for anyone to buy without restriction because there is no licence on the sale of locksmith tools. 

Tradespeople are calling tool theft an epidemic that is destroying livelihoods. A plumber in Whiston became a victim last year when thieves broke into his van using the peel and steal method and took £3000 worth of equipment. Ian Marsh, who runs IJM Plumbing and Heating, caught the incident on CCTV and posted it to Facebook, where it was shared 100,000 times.

“We reviewed the footage and saw that at 1.30am two guys pulled up in a Peugeot 307 and broke into the van,” says Ian. “They spent about 10 minutes selecting what they wanted and then made off. I couldn’t do work on Saturday and the next day I went to replace some of the tools so I could continue working.”

Tradespeople have started to use social media to get van manufacturers to improve security. Vans Under Attack (@VansAttack) was formed on Twitter to put pressure on manufacturers to make their models more secure, and it already has over 2000 followers. On Facebook, Spencer Hargrave and Paul Butterfield, who run their own building firm, started the Van and Tool Theft Awareness Group as part of their campaign to raise awareness about the growing problem.

Andrew Miller, Chief Technical Officer at Thatcham Research Centre, the experts in vehicle safety technology, says there are measures van owners can take to protect themselves, but there is no surefire way to prevent theft. “The best thing you can do is lock it up. The reality is that vehicles are designed to a price and there is only so much that can be done. The skeleton keys are an invitation to theft, and organised crime is targeting individuals with rich pickings.”

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