EPHRATA, Pa. (Lancaster Farming) -- The Northeast Equipment Dealers Association (NEDA) has alerted dealers to a possible equipment theft ring in the region.

Dealers across Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and New England have reported having large pieces of farm and construction equipment stolen in recent weeks.

Many of the pieces include skid loaders that can be used on farm and construction sites.

Dave Close, operations manager at NEDA, said a combination of factors, including lax security measures at some dealerships and a bad economy have made some dealers an easy target for thieves.

"I believe the economy has a lot to do with it. People are just out to make a quick buck," Close said.

Now with Thanksgiving rolling around, he is urging dealers across the region to beef up security.

"It is a big problem. Obviously, there seems to be a ring going around," he said.

Between 30 and 40 equipment dealers registered with NEDA have reported stolen equipment. Close said the association is working with at least a dozen police organizations on the case.

The thefts have cost some dealers tens of thousands of dollars.

Stark Bartron, owner of Bartron Supply in Tunkhannock, Pa., said his dealership was targeted three times in October, resulting in losses totaling $100,000.

Items stolen include a Bobcat bucket loader worth $65,000, a John Deere Gator utility vehicle worth at least $15,000, and other parts and accessories.

The last theft, according to the Wyoming County Press Examiner newspaper, occurred around Oct. 28.

"It's continuing. Every week, I hear of something else being gone somewhere else," Bartron said.

Since the thefts, Bartron said he has had to pay for improved lighting as well as surveillance camera upgrades at the dealership. He has also removed batteries from machines.

Arnie Miller, general manager of Rovendale Barn & Ag Equipment in Watsontown, Northumberland County, Pa., said two skid loaders were stolen from the dealership during the early morning hours of Oct. 19.

An L180 and an LS190, two of the largest skid loaders New Holland makes, according to Miller, were stolen. Together, the machines are valued at more than $40,000.

The pieces were parked in a row of skid loaders in front of the dealership.

Ironically, Miller said a group of men from out of state came to the dealership a week before the theft and had both machines priced for them.

Miller said tire marks found the next day indicate the thieves might have started the machines with a key and loaded them onto a truck.

Tony Grumelli, owner of Grumelli Farm Service in Quarryville, Pa., said three skid loaders worth a total of $100,000 were stolen from his dealership in October.

"They stole quite a bit of stuff," including a Bobcat T190, Bobcat T300 and John Deere 280 skid loaders, Grumelli said.

Even though the pieces of equipment were fenced in, Grumelli said the thieves managed to break in without alerting neighbors or the authorities.

"We haven't had anything stolen for a long time. We had to replace the fencing and it cost enough," he said.

Jim Hurst, branch manager of Lancaster Bobcat along Rt. 272 near Ephrata, Pa., said two skid loaders were taken from the dealership sometime during the early morning hours of Nov. 1.

A Bobcat A300 skid steer loader with a bucket attachment and an S185 skid loader were stolen.

The skid loaders were parked in a row and appear to have been targeted.

"They must have specific reasons for them," Hurst said.

The wiring in the machines parked in front of the dealership are disabled to a certain extent, Hurst said. "The average person would not know what to do," but that didn't stop the thieves. "They were clever enough to pull that out."

Hurst said tire marks found the next day indicate the machines were either towed or driven behind a dimly lit building next to the dealership, Rhino Construction Company, where they were likely loaded onto a truck.

"They loaded them up behind his building which is pretty well isolated out there. We could see the dual wheel tire marks from some truck," he said.

Close said the fact that most of the machines are being driven or towed from the dealerships with little or no evidence left behind indicates that the thefts may be the work of an organized group.

"They are definitely not amateurs. They know exactly what they are doing," he said. "These trucks they are putting them in are enclosed. Also, with a lot of the tractors, one key will fire everything up," unlike cars where each car has a unique key.

"It's easy to get these keys. Those keys can be hanging up on the wall of a sales office, at farm shows and other places," he said.

Reading Kubota moved into a new building in 2006, complete with enhanced security measures.

That didn't stop thieves from stealing three utility vehicles and two commercial front mowers from the dealership in early October.

Ann Doberstein, general manager of Reading Kubota, found that the rings in the fencing that surrounds the building were actually cut, which prevented the alarm from going off. That alarm, if activated, would have alerted local police.

Since then, Doberstein said the owner has spent thousands in security upgrades including a new fence and more cameras.

"It's more money you're spending in a year when business has been soft," Doberstein said.

Close said NEDA is urging equipment dealers be more vigilant by beefing up lighting and fencing-in equipment.

"Lighting is an issue at these dealerships," he said.

Dealers can also purchase identification tags, which work through Global Positioning System (GPS) technology, and cost around $100 per piece of equipment.

These can be very useful to track a stolen item once it is taken from a lot.

Dealers who experience a theft are urged to contact their local police.

"Get the cameras out, light it up, fence it in. We're trying to make (dealers) more aware and proactive about this," Close said.

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