Phillip Wilkie

In early 2016 the Spartanburg County Sheriff’s Office (herein referred to as SCSO) was experiencing an increase of trailer thefts within the county. The type/style of trailers stolen ranged from a simple single axle utility trailer, average value $1,500.00, to a custom race car hauler valued in excess of $100,000.00. In the majority of cases the stolen trailers were loaded with other articles such as commercial mowers, skid steer loaders, all-terrain vehicles, motorcycles, antique vehicles, and even household items. The thefts of these trailers was not confined to a single criminal event and recoveries often led to the discovery of multiple crimes. SCSO investigators found that suspects who stole trailers were often responsible for a wide variety of parallel crimes such as motor vehicle thefts, burglaries, construction equipment thefts, and possession of illegal substances. SCSO’s prior investigative efforts netted a total of sixteen arrests with charges ranging from simple larceny to attempted murder; however, the trailer theft rate remained steady and persistent while the recovery rate remained low.

Believing a new approach was necessary to combat the issue of trailer thefts, SCSO Sergeant Phillip Wilkie approached Special Agent Rusty Russell of the National Insurance Crime Bureau for assistance. Sergeant Wilkie believed that in addition to normal “reactive” investigative techniques, and pro-active bait trailer initiatives designed to target suspected trailer thieves, they also needed to increase their ability to recover stolen trailers. Thus, the SCSO developed a unique enforcement operation designed to increase law enforcement's ability to identify stolen trailers, enhance prosecution efforts, and deter future thefts. SCSO's plan centers around an owner applied number marking system used to mark trailers and equipment. SCSO believed this operation would increase theft awareness and reduce the financial impact (that results from thefts) to the public and insurance industry.

The persistent issue of trailer thefts is not confined only to Spartanburg County. This has been, and continues to be, an ongoing issue facing law enforcement agencies throughout the State of South Carolina. While many states do not require owners to title their utility trailers, most require the owners to register their trailer with the State thus providing for the issuance of a license plate. That registration process captures the ownership information, the vehicle identification number, and perhaps more importantly provides an avenue for law enforcement to track ownership. South Carolina state law does not require the titling or registration of utility trailers and no mandatory license plate issuance for utility trailers. Thus the ability of owners to provide proper identification of stolen trailers and law enforcement’s ability to track ownership of recovered (stolen) trailers is severely impeded. Suspects who steal utility trailers are well aware of this impediment. Previous legislative efforts to revise state law and require registration have failed on every attempt.

A review of the NCIC statistics for Spartanburg County was conducted in an effort to assess the problem of trailer thefts. The search method utilized the vehicle model code (VMO) of TL (trailer) and the word trailer in the comments section in case some other model code was used to identify a specific manufacturer model. Between 2015 and 2016 Spartanburg County saw a 65% increase (62 in 2015, and 102 in 2016) in trailer thefts entries into NCIC. During that same time period Spartanburg County recovered a mere 7 trailers in 2015 (11% recovery rate) and 23 trailers in 2016 (23% recovery rate). In comparison, trailer thefts account for approximately 17% of all vehicle thefts in Spartanburg County. SCSO investigators believe these NCIC entry statistics are lower than actual thefts. SCSO investigators cite the fact that many trailer theft victims may not have their VIN and therefore their trailer is not entered into NCIC.

A review of the statistical data from the records management system (Spillman) of the Spartanburg County Sheriff's Office was also conducted. The statistical theft totals vary greatly between NCIC and Spillman. For the calendar year of 2016 until April 1, 2017 there were a total of 348 trailer thefts reported to the SCSO. There were only 97 stolen trailers recovered during that same time period; however, those recoveries were not exclusively from Spartanburg County (some were foreign/out of county thefts) and thus not all part of the 348 reported stolen to Spartanburg County. Interestingly, of the 97 trailers recovered by Spartanburg County 69 of them (or approximately 71%) had VINs affixed to the trailer. Thus the conclusion that trailers with VINs are far more likely to be recovered.

The variance between NCIC and Spillman is explained by the fact that trailers listed in the Spillman system included all thefts; both those with and without VIN numbers, while NCIC only captures those with VINs. Secondly, the Spartanburg County Sheriff's Office statistical data involved a manual review of all the actual case reports involving trailer thefts for the specified period of time. With 297,302 people Spartanburg County is the 5th most populated county in the state of South Carolina.

A review of the NCIC statistics for neighboring Greenville County was also conducted in an effort to assess whether or not Spartanburg’s trailer thefts were an isolated issue or symptomatic of a larger theft problem. Greenville County experienced a 72% increase (75 in 2015 and 129 in 2016) in trailer theft entries into NCIC. Trailer thefts in Greenville County account for approximately 10% of all vehicle thefts. While Greenville County records management system was not reveiwed it is believed there is a similar parallel (a significant increase in total thefts as seen in the SCSO review of Spillman) between their actual trailer theft totals versus their NCIC entries of trailers thefts. With 491,863 people Greenville County is the most populated county (1st) in the state of South Carolina out of 46 counties. Combined these two counties comprise one of the largest contiguous metropolitan areas in the State.

A review of NCIC South Carolina statewide theft and recovery statistics revealed that in 2015 there were 1193 trailer thefts entered into NCIC. During 2015 only 228 of those 1193 trailers were recovered out of NCIC. That accounts for a 19% recovery rate of stolen utility trailers in 2015. In 2016 there were 1145 trailer thefts entered into NCIC. During 2016 only 246 of those 1145 trailers were recovered out of NCIC. That accounts for a 21% recovery rate of stolen utility trailers in 2016. Thus, the recovery rates for utility trailers is less than half the recovery rate for motor vehicles.

Both Spartanburg and Greenville counties border North Carolina. The State of North Carolina requires that utility trailers be registered and assigned a license plate. In comparison, reviewing NCIC statewide statistics for North Carolina revealed that in 2015 there were 1274 trailer thefts entered into NCIC. During 2015 a total of 434 of those 1274 trailers were recovered out of NCIC. That accounts for a 34% recovery rate of stolen utility trailers in 2015. In 2016 there were 1412 trailers entered into NCIC. During 2016 a total of 426 of those 1412 trailers were recovered out of NCIC. That accounts for a 30% recovery rate of stolen utility trailers in 2016. The statistical evidence shows the recovery rate for North Carolina was considerably higher (34% in 2015 and 30% in 2016) than in South Carolina (19% and 21%) and while no empirical evidence can be located it is believed to be indicative of the fact that North Carolina requires the registration of utility trailers (and therefore a VIN is required) while South Carolina does not require such registration. Thieves commonly steal trailers in North Carolina then sell them in South Carolina where no paperwork is required.

Law enforcement believes the actual number of trailer thefts is much higher than what can be quantified through NCIC or local queries. Due to a variety of offense report coding issues wherein the stolen trailers are listed as property (general larceny) vs. a motor vehicle theft combined with thefts where owners could not produce the VIN and thus there was no NCIC entry for the stolen trailer, the full scope of this theft problem cannot be accurately surveyed.

Other law enforcement agencies have promoted the use of theft prevention measures designed to prevent these types of trailer thefts; however, the majority of these programs relied on the owner to mark their own trailers/property and did not provide the tools necessary to accomplish the task of marking. York County Sheriff’s Office (SC) promoted the “Mark, Block, and Lock” initiative in 2012 to combat trailer thefts after seeing a rise in trailer thefts. Their program promoted owners marking their own trailers but failed to provide them with a uniform owner applied number (herein referred to as OAN) sequence or uniform placement of the OANs.

The National Committee on Operation Identification noted in their 1977 report that for an owner applied number program to be successful it first must be universally recognizable, second it must be traceable both inside the jurisdiction issued as well as other jurisdictions, third it must be unique so that no two individuals have the same OAN, and finally it must be functional and compatible with entry into NCIC.

NCIC provides a data field (maximum of twenty characters) for the entry of owner applied numbers (OAN) just like the entry of Vehicle Identification Numbers or Serial Numbers. OAN’s can be entered in a variety of locations within NCIC such as the vehicle, boat, and article files. The use of OAN’s has historically been a crime prevention measure utilized to aid in the identification of items that may not have serial numbers readily available; however, it has also been successfully used to supplement existing VIN/PIN/Serial Numbers. Many rural law enforcement agencies (e.g. ACTION Program, California) have successfully utilized OAN programs to promote crime prevention, mark items for owners, and provide an alternative means of identification and entry should an item be stolen. The OAN Program also had the added value of deterrence by identifying that items have been marked and recorded to aid in their recovery.

SCSO developed Operation Trailer Day, an OAN crime prevention program designed to identify utility trailers as well as other equipment and provide a means by which ownership can be tracked by investigators. SCSO’s program called for investigators and deputies to apply the OAN for owners at public “drive-through” events. SCSO coordinated these events and provided NICB with a workstation and canopy for onsite operations to assist with researching each article brought through. SCSO also agreed to advertise NICB’s participation and publicized these events through a variety of media outlets in order to generate public interest.

SCSO utilized the Ohio Rural Crime Prevention Association’s OAN model utilizing the Agency’s ORI (SC042 for Spartanburg County) followed by another five characters assigned by their records management system (Spillman) thereby creating a unique serial number. This OAN model identifies the agency assigning the OAN and can easily be traced back to the individual and the article of property marked by any law enforcement agency. SCSO created an entry in Spillman for each item marked. Additionally, SCSO photographed each vehicle/article on which they marked the OAN, and the photograph(s) were also loaded into Spillman. The application of OAN’s focused primarily on utility trailers; however, in the future it will not be limited to only trailers rather expanded to construction, lawn and garden, farm equipment, or other items.

SCSO investigators believe that by offering a no-cost OAN marking program designed to capture ownership and identification numbers, that requires almost no effort on the part of the public, they can provide owners with information necessary to report a theft, provide an alternative means to identify trailers/equipment once recovered, and through publicity deter future thefts.

SCSO investigators committed to sharing their program with other agencies throughout the State of South Carolina agreeing to provide both the tools and technical expertise necessary to conduct such a program. Several agencies expressed an interest and SCSO is currently working to coordinate additional events across the State.

NICB assisted SCSO by purchasing a portable DOT Peen stamping machine to apply the OAN’s to trailers, construction equipment, and other articles. The DOT Peen stamping machines is a portable computer numeric controlled (CNC) stamping device with the ability to permanently stamp multiple characters (both alpha and numeric) in a rapid linear fashion. This is the same type of device used by manufacturers to stamp confidential VINs/PINs. The application of a portable CNC device (DOT Peen Stamping machine) affords the user the ability to customize the data entry field with merely the push of a button, and even allows for the marking of barcodes with the VIN embedded. The DOT Peen stamping machine produces consistent, precise, and deep impressions in metal and aluminum. The results are impressions that are tamper resistant to such an extent that obliteration of the stamped impressions would provide evidence of tampering.

On August 19, 2017 the SCSO held their first annual Trailer Identification Project stamping day. The event was scheduled to start at 8:30 am and run until 3:00 pm. Citizens began lining up in the parking lot of the Sheriff’s Office at 6:50 am and by 7:20 am the parking lot was full and the line stretched into the road. The team started at 7:45 am and worked non stop until 3:00 pm stamping 176 trailers (stamped in two locations, entered into the computer, and photographed) with a unique OAN. The public’s response to the program was overwhelming to say the least. In fact, people had to be turned away at the close of event as the team was exhausted from non stop work.

In the months following the stamping day the reports of trailer thefts has subsided. While thefts continue to occur the frequency has slowed tremendously and to date no trailer marked has been reported stolen.

A second event has been scheduled for April 2018 and SCSO is currently in talks with Charleston County SC about hosting an event in their county.

This is an excellent example of “outside the box” proactive approach to a crime problem that really makes an difference in the process of handling property crimes. It provides a free service to the community and helps lessen their chance of becoming a victim of crime.