Solution to construction theft

HOUSTON – The sounds that have been driving Houston’s new home construction for years are symbolic.

They represent one of the nation's most robust economies. For Mark Stephens, however, the symphony of hammers and saws translates to what he calls "a target-rich environment."

The target is construction thefts.

As a private investigator, Stephens knows them well. "In 2017, I solved over 300 of these cases,” he said.

For Stephens, a night at the office means catching burglars in the act and, when necessary, chasing them down.

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During a recent ride-along, Channel 2 Investigates asked Stephens if the thefts are becoming more common.

“Oh, it is because the economy is good and they are building more homes. There is more material out and the fact that we just had a hurricane and there is a lot of rebuilding going on, the theft rate is through the roof,” he said.

The primary targets are tools, heavy equipment, doors, windows and plumbing supplies.

Custom home builder David Sanders said the crimes tend to start in a similar manner. "They (the thieves) pull up in a truck with no plates," he said.

Sanders got his start over a decade ago, "Back when we did hundreds of houses at a time, there is no security to them. You are lucky if your project manager remembers to lock the door."

Sanders said the key to these burglaries in nearly every case is a prior relationship to the job site. "It's a crew or a subcontractor of a subcontractor that sees a window package sitting on a job site for weeks and sees that there is an opportunity to get these windows here."

The stolen goods usually end up in one of two places: "Resale or in their personal homes," Sanders said. Stephens took Channel 2 Investigates undercover to multiple construction shops on the city's east side. We found dozens of doors in bulk without markings at prices more than $100 cheaper than what we found at major retailers just a few miles away.

In fact, we even found one door with a major retailer's labeling and stock-keeping unit numbers still intact. "Right now, these shops are set up: 'Go ahead. Bring your doors in. We'll pay $50 a door. We'll pay you $25 a sink -- whatever we need to pay you and resell it,'" Sanders said.

The other challenging component to solving the problem of construction theft is that there is no avenue to track it. Sanders said. "Right, so if there is some sort of accountability to that, it is going to stop the crime," he said.

Stephens said it is time to solve the problem and his solution is new rules, including documenting a seller's personal information, as a pawn shop does. "Photograph, license plate, driver's license, ID, all of it,” he said.

In 2015, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, who was then a state representative, co-authored House bill 2187, which required better record keeping for scrap metal sales. Stephens said that, as a result, the volume of copper thefts has dropped.

He's hoping for the same result if similar guidelines are put in place for construction materials.