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Special report: Crime in the carwash industry

October 11, 2010
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National crime rates are up. Industry crime rates are slowly growing. The cost of crime to the carwash industry is rising, too. And the amount of information available to criminals via the Internet is alarming.

Your worries don’t need to be growing exponentially. To help carwash operators prepare for the worst, Professional Carwashing & Detailing has gathered a collection of stories from operators who have dealt with crime in both typical and unique ways. From bribing cops with free tokens to increasing the amount of surveillance cameras at the wash, here is a look at conventional and non-conventional methods of crime prevention that can help you protect your carwash business.


Crime scene #1:
Robbery at Manahawken Magic Wash, Manahawken, NJ

The loss of a few quarters here and there doesn’t really make that much of a difference. The loss of several hundred quarters over the course of a few weeks really damages the bottom line.

Vacuum break-ins broke the bank one too many times for Doug Reick, owner and operator of Manahawken Magic Wash in Manahawken, NJ.

Over the course of several months, one culprit used his criminal know-how to break into the coin boxes of the vacuums at one of Reick’s self-serve carwash locations. For every break-in, it wasn’t just damage to the vacuums, but damage to his livelihood and dignity.

For Reick, robbery of his self-serve vacuums had become routine one too many times. It was about to come to an abrupt end — good news for Reick, bad news for the cash culprit.

Crime fighting technique:
Install cameras, increase lighting
Reick reached out to other operators experiencing similar issues, spoke with his manufacturer and determined that two factors would change his losing situation: the installation of surveillance cameras and increased lighting.

As soon as the installation of the cameras and lighting was complete, the robberies came to an abrupt halt. Reick is now equipped to handle any future robberies head-on. Cameras are set in place to record misdoings. Reick can then take the tape to his local police who assist him in catching the thief.


Crime scene #2:
Dumping at ES Car Wash in, Birmingham, AL

It’s a given that self-serve carwash operators deal with more than their fair share of trash. An occasional extra bag and overflowing cans won’t create that big of a deal. But when carwash operator and owner Eric Wilson happened upon the decomposing carcass of a deer, he knew the dumping problem had become more than just an annoyance, it was out of control.

Compounded with frequent overflowing dumpsters and tossed trash ranging from interior vehicle door panels to discarded desks, deer dumping drew the proverbial line in the sand for Wilson. Dumping had become a big problem and he was determined to put a stop to it.

Crime fighting technique:
Install cameras, post signs and get the police involved
Normally, Wilson deals with problems at the wash on his own time and with tasteful tactics to stop the problem. Like all self-serve carwash owners who happen upon bags of household trash, Wilson did what he could to remedy the problem by either calling the police or sifting through the trash to locate the dumper and write a letter asking them to stop.

On one occasion, tenants of a nearby housing complex were dumping trash at Wilson’s wash becuase a dumpster was there and it was cheaper than paying for disposal. Once again, Wilson wrote letters to the offenders and the trash dumping stopped. Until the deer came along, Wilson thought he had it under control.

Wilson turned to the previous wash owner, fellow carwash owners/operators and the police for answers. The solution? Install cameras, signs and involve the police.

After installing signage and cameras, dumping has considerably slowed down. Police tell Wilson that he should catch thieves in action in order to persecute — and now he is armed with the tapes rolling, ready to catch the dumpers on film.


Crime scene #3:
Employee theft at Chief’s Auto Wash in, Cleveland, OH

Bill Consolo, owner of Chief’s Auto Wash, was full service for 36 years, but converted to express exterior because of employee theft problems.

Employee theft was committed in several different ways, Consolo said. Common incidents were forging and hiding receipts, pocketing loose change found in vehicles, stealing merchandise, and swiping money from the register.

Several times, attendants and managers accepted money from people for off-line jobs that were not credited toward the wash. Some employees went so far as to steal chemicals from the carwash supply room to sell outside of the carwash in order to pocket money.

Handling employee theft
Jimmy Branch, a second generation owner of three express locations in Panama City, FL, and former president of the International Carwash Association (ICA), said employee theft is something that every operator has to deal with when owning a carwash. Branch said operators should approach an incident “with kid gloves.” Your employee could have committed the crime, or your customer might be mistaken, and you need to be careful not to insult either.

Employee theft situations, Branch said, are more difficult to handle than damage accusations. Unlike Consolo, Branch does not fire employees on the spot if found guilty. During interrogation, Branch allows employees the opportunity to confess.

“If he confesses what he’s done, he’s demoted, but he can keep his job,” Branch explained. “If I find out the person is guilty another way, that person is fired and prosecuted.”

Most of the time this method works for Branch and the employee doesn’t cause much trouble, but as both carwash owners say, employees don’t last long: you go through many and so this problem is constantly recurring.

Crime fighting technique:
Background checks and steady surveillance
Consolo and Branch had several ideas for preventing employee theft. Basic measures start before the person is hired. Simply requiring permission to perform a background check during the application process is enough to scare away the most untrustworthy potential employees. Performing the background check and checking on references will also weed out bad apples.

A second preventive measure is to make sure surveillance equipment at your carwash is up-to-date. Some carwashers even offer closed circuit TV to customers in the lobby, or even an online webcam feed, so customers can watch their car being washed and/or detailed. These recordings also give operators the ability to provide evidence if an employee is persecuted.

Regardless if you offer customers the option to watch video or not, simply having the cameras on is a preventive measure in and of itself. Staff members are less likely to attempt stealing when they know the event will be recorded.

It is important to routinely review footage. Employees who know the cameras aren’t being used will soon disregard them and they no longer serve as a deterrent to crime.


Crime scene #4:
Loitering at On the Spot Car Wash in, Bardstown, KY

Pat Hall operates four self-serve carwash locations in and around the Bardstown, KY area. For much of his career, he regarded loitering as a minor nuisance, one that police ignored and he tried to deal with on his own.

But at one wash, the situation got ugly. “Loitering was horrible at that wash and I just couldn’t get the police to do anything about it,” Hall explained. One night, after asking some loiterers to leave the premises, Hall realized how dangerous the situation had become.

“I thought I was going to get my butt-kicked, and I had to call the police to come and get rid of the people,” Hall said. The next morning, Hall went to the police chief to demand attention.

“I was tired of it. Nobody had the guts to write loitering tickets and it was getting scary.”

The police chief seemed to listen, although it didn’t scare many of the cruisers into action. So Hall took matters into his own hands.

“I started giving pretty much any cop that had a marked cruiser some tokens. All I wanted in return was for them to run people off if they looked like they were just loafing,” Hall said.

It’s been about six years, and Hall hasn’t had a problem at the wash since. On top of that, people have also stopped cruising through his lot as though it was a public-access street.

“I don’t know why I had to ‘buy’ my protection, but that’s what I had to do, and it worked,” Hall said.

Crime fighting technique:
“Documentation” and “token” police involvement
Besides the tokens, Hall also used his own tactics to scare away loiterers. Hall said because a full-time or part-time attendant is not economically feasible for most self-serve carwashes, giving the impression that the owner is around is a good deterrent to would-be loafers.

“I would write down any license plate of someone who didn’t belong at the wash,” Hall explained. “Just walking around, jotting down plate numbers. That seemed to scare a lot of them off.”

John “Mac” McCarthy, owner of Technology at Work, a carwash equipment sales and service company, agreed. A few years ago, when he still owned and operated a self-serve in an “unsavory” part of town, he had a camera on hand and decided on a whim to start taking pictures of loiterers at the wash.

“All of a sudden,” McCarthy recalled, “they were gone. It was almost instant.” The punch line? There was no film in the camera.

McCarthy said there are also more basic, standard tricks to discouraging loitering. “Some of the basics I tell operators to do: make sure your lights are on at night, and make sure it looks like someone comes to the place regularly.”

That means keeping equipment in working order and letting your presence be known at the wash. Your regular customers will appreciate the effort, and most loiterers won’t want to risk the trouble.


Crime scene #5:
Stringing at The Car Pool in Bardstown, KY

Stringing was the problem at several self-serve locations owned by Hall. Time and time again, Hall would see the same faces repeatedly stringing his changers, but could never identify a pattern. Surveillance video didn’t seem to help replace the coins already lost, and police response was minimal.

At nearby carwashes, it wasn’t only stringing that had Hall worried. Criminals were also going after the auto cashiers — wrapping chains around the machines and ripping them out with a vehicle.

Crime fighting technique:
Alarm them
Hall had an idea to alarm the changer when too many coins went out in a small window of time, but he needed help putting it into action. He gave it to a friend with engineering experience.

“Within a couple of months, he had it figured out and hooked a little computer up to my counters on my bill changers and that worked flawlessly,” Hall said. Three weeks later, someone attempted to string him again. The alarm went off, the machine shut down, and the criminal scampered off before any harm was done.

Hall recollected he had about six people set off the changer alarm within the first year or two of its use, but no one ever returned for a second attempt. “These were people who before, would always come back. You’d see the same faces over and over again, but you’d never get a pattern on them,” Hall said.

He installed the alarms in 1997, and they are still hooked up to this day. “I’ve done every other security device, but that one really seemed to work best,” Hall said. He also recommends turning off the “real money” changers at night and putting them on a timer. He dispenses tokens from his second changer, which stays on 24/7.

As for worries about criminals chaining his auto cashier and running off with the money, Hall solved that problem by setting his auto cashiers in masonry instead of out on a pedestal like a lot of the ones that have been stolen. His distributor advised him against the masonry because criminals will often hide behind it when they’re trying to break into the machine.

“I understood his point, but I thought the alternative gave criminals something to hook a chain around and try to drag it away,” Hall explained. “Sadly, I ended up being right. It was good for me, but I didn’t like proving him wrong.”

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