Self-Storage: Renter Beware


The thieves are busy. They're plotting to take your stuff.

Maybe this sign should read, “Wide Open.”

People rent storage units because they want a safe place to store things they can’t fit in their homes or apartments. Well, watch out. Here’s what your self-storage company doesn’t want you to know: A disturbing crime spree is on the upswing and your valuables are at risk of being stolen. It will happen overnight. One minute you’ll think you’re immune and the next you’ll be talking to a police officer and filling out forms. Do you know what steps to take to protect yourself? Better read on.


The Scene


Last year I down-sized. I sold a bigger home and bought a smaller one. In the process, I rented a storage unit from a local company within just a few miles from my house to handle the excess. I pay well over a hundred dollars a month for an indoor accessible 10′ x 10′ unit. The facility has both indoor and outdoor units. I had selected an indoor unit thinking it would be more weather proof. The facility has a key code gate and entrance is supposedly limited to those renters who have kept up their payments and have the code.


In retrospect the security here is terrible.

Turns out our facility only has exterior cameras and very few at that. The interior units aren’t covered by cameras.


Cryptic Message


On Valentine’s day I received a message from the manager of the unit on my voice mail. The message asked me to please call the storage unit immediately to discuss an important matter. I called as soon as I got the message and was told my lock had been clipped. I was then asked if I could come and check out my unit in case anything was stolen. My wife and I jumped into our car and raced over to the unit. When the manager walked us back and showed it to us, we immediately knew we’d been burglarized.


The Theft


We lost a mountain bike, a couple thousand dollars worth of my power tools, several vintage and antique items and curiously, our childhood memory boxes containing things like the papers and report cards we received in grade school and beyond. We also lost many precious items that had both financial and sentimental value to us, like the china set that belonged to my wife’s grandmother. The thieves had clearly pawed through our stuff in a rush, grabbed what might be useful or interesting and made away with the best of it.



Much Worse Than Anyone Knows


We spent an hour or so trying to figure out what was stolen before a police officer showed up to get our statement. What came out of our discussion with him is something I think most people don’t know: These storage units are being hit by well-organized thieves like crazy. In fact, it’s a disturbing trend, one I hadn’t heard anything about. The officer described a recent theft just a few miles from our own where the facility had 50 units broken into at once. It turns out our crime was one of six that occurred in our facility. Discovering it was a lucky break. Why? Because the thieves didn’t break our state-of-the-art lock. Instead, they used some kind of portable grinder and cut the metal on the hasp which holds it. That meant they could push the lock out of the way to open our unit and push it back when they were down to make it appear nothing was amiss.


I wish we'd used two locks. I wish we'd taken more steps.

The thieves were pros. They ground off the metal on this hasp and kept the lock intact. Then they slid the lock back in place when they finished. We were lucky they discovered it when they did or who knows how many others would have been hit.



They’re All The Same. You’re At Risk.


I asked the officer if any of the self-storage companies he know of did a better job at security and was then dumbfounded to learn that they are largely the same. They’re all being hit. Furthermore, he wouldn’t put his possessions in any of them!


It’s All Gone. Probably Forever.


There is little hope we’ll get our things back. Other than catch the thieves red-handed, the very understaffed police will have to check pawn shops and the like trying to match items stolen with the thousands of items these stores hold. It’s a daunting task. There was video from the parking lot of the storage unit and there is at least one suspicious vehicle that has been flagged in it. However, we weren’t told whether the vehicle can be identified by a license plate or not, or if it was the actual vehicle used to enact the crime. It’s all conjecture at this point.



Here’s what you must do to protect yourself right now:


Take An Inventory


I wish we'd taken better precautions.

They should have locked the building after hours. We don’t know yet when the crime took place, but this side entrance is a perfect target as it turns out. Our unit is 20′ straight ahead and the first on the left.

Whether you have a storage unit or just a lot of nice things in your home, when you’re on the receiving end of a burglary it will help tremendously to know what you own. What’s the best way to do that? Create an inventory of all your valuables. Better yet, take pictures of your important items and be sure to record serial numbers and keep receipts. It should go unsaid; you should store this information in more than one place in case the thieves end up stealing it. For example, if you store it on your laptop and they steal that you’ll be out of luck.


Get Adequate Coverage


Make sure you’re insured against a potential loss. Many homeowners policy will do this automatically, but don’t leave it to chance. Ask your agent if you’re covered and what your limit is. You may also have a deductible so be sure to ask about that. Also, the companies renting the storage units typically require proof of insurance and conveniently sell policies on the side. Now we know why.


Go On The Offensive:


As you go to store items there are several things you must consider if you plan to protect yourself:


We're devastated by the loss.

Now we’re just left to clean up the mess.


1) Relocate sentimental items. Do any of the items being storing hold a significant sentimental value to you? If they do, perhaps you should keep them with a responsible relative if you can’t keep them in a safer location than a storage unit.


2) Make it tougher for the bad guys. Are you making it too easy for thieves who break into your unit? We had boxes carefully labeled for contents so all the thieves needed to do was read the label. We also had a number of plastic tubs so the thieves could look right through without opening them. Putting everything in cardboard boxes and marking them only with an inventory number might be a better option.


3) Chain it. Could you chain up items to the walls inside your units? Yes, thieves can cut through chains, but it might slow them down. This might be especially helpful with bikes and some heavy tools or equipment.


4) Get their track record. Have you asked the manager of your storage facility if they had any recent break-ins before you rented? In fact, do it every now and then after you rent to make sure you stay in the loop. Clearly, lots of customers were we rented have no idea of the thefts that occurred right next to them. Wouldn’t you want to know?


5) Buy two good locks. Use both. Have you bought the best lock available? A twenty dollar lock is the cheapest insurance. However, all locks can be broken and it turns out what you attach the lock to is just as important, so look for a unit with a decent hasp, and if it has two places you can insert a lock, get a second one and use it.


6) Consider convenience. Have you considered the location of your unit from the standpoint of those wanting to rip you off? Thieves will look for easy targets. Have you checked the night lighting? Bright lights are best. How about cameras? Is a camera aimed at your unit? It’s best if it is. If your unit is inside is it too close to an exit so thieves would pick on it first? Or is it tucked in some far away corner that doesn’t get enough exposure? Don’t make it easy. If you have a choice look for a well-lighted hall, not too close or far from the exit.


7) What’s the surveillance like? Find out what the video surveillance plan is at your unit. After we were ripped off we learned our rental company only filmed outside. Are you kidding me? If they had indoor cameras our theft might have been caught on tape. The manager made some lame excuse about privacy which is a total cop out. Self-storage companies ask you to sign a long rental agreement when you rent. They could easily warn you they film the entire premises and have you initial your agreement to their surveillance policy. Almost every major retail store films you without your permission all the time and you don’t even know it. There is no excuse in this day and age for anything less.


8) Check out the opportunity for tail-gating. Does the security gate entrance allow for “tail-gating”—that is for another car to pull in behind you without entering a code? We learned the potential thief in our unit may have tail-gated a legitimate customer both on and off the facility grounds. Make sure you know how easy or hard that will be for the facility you rent at. Also don’t let others tailgate you. You can prevent it by pulling forward just far enough for the gate to close behind you. You may inadvertently help a thief if you play nice and let someone follow you in.


9) Keep personal information secure. Are you storing any financial or personal data in your unit that could put you at risk? Bank statements? Tax returns? These days, thieves are after your personal data. I don’t know what all they will find in my box of childhood memories, but I have to admit I’m worried the creeps will know things about me they shouldn’t like old addresses, schools attended, sibling names, etc. Those are details that help thieves create false identities. Be sure you know what kind of paperwork you’re leaving at risk.


My wife and I were devastated by our loss. It’s not the tools and bike that hurt the worst (though believe me, that hurts too), it’s all the stuff that has precious family memories attached to it. Don’t be lured into thinking a crime like this couldn’t happen to you. We were careful, or so we thought, and we still ended up victims. Don’t let your self-storage company set you up for a big fall. Take the steps to protect yourself.


One last note: You might do a friend or loved one a huge favor by sharing this article. Just hit the button below. Come on, let’s get the word out and start fighting back.


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