Six years ago, a former paratrooper for the British Army landed in New York City with the idea to help construction equipment owners prevent jobsite theft and recover stolen machinery. His idea is now one of the leading tools police use to identify stolen equipment.

David Shillingford, president of National Equipment Register, got the idea of building a central database of stolen equipment after working at The Art Loss Register, a U.K.-based firm that records stolen pieces of fine art and helps police identify them.

“It was through our dialogue with insurance companies that it became apparent that there were other problems bigger than art theft,” says Shillingford. “The more we discussed it, the more equipment seemed to roll off everyone’s tongues.” Once insurers pay out a claim, they become the owner, so they have an incentive to recover the stolen goods. Services like NER and LoJack are a help, they say.

In its early days, NER struggled to stay afloat. Its database was small and few people used it. Police acknowledged that equipment was a hot crime item but had trouble recognizing its theft. “It was obvious that law enforcement was not as in tune as it should have been,” says Tom Stone, executive director of the West Chester, Penn.-based FBI Law Enforcement Executive Development Association, which sponsors NER training seminars held across the U.S.

Through its expanded database, police training and 24-hour hotline, NER now helps recover millions of dollars of equipment every year. It has strength in numbers, with more than two-thirds of the U.S. population of heavy equipment in its database. It charges owners a few dollars per year per unit to keep the records and gives them warning decals displaying the hotline in bright-red type.

Registration costs are low because insurance groups largely subsidize NER by splitting proceeds of liquidated goods that the database helps recover. As a result, several groups, such as Chubb, offer deductible waivers for NER members.

Since 2001, every year has brought incremental success to what Shillingford now calls a “critical mass.” Early on, contractors showed little interest in handing over their records because of the cost and time. The same hurdle was initially true for rental firms, which later helped NER get off the ground. “It wasn’t the cost of registration that was a barrier,” says Shillingford. “It was the act of registration.”

Once Rental Service Corp. signed on in 2004, others jumped on board. Many firms had rolled up and needed to keep assets in line. Shillingford “couldn’t have come at a better time,” says Priscilla Oehlert, RSC’s former risk manager, and now vice president of the Austin, Texas-based National Alliance for Insurance Education and Research.

Manufacturers, too, at first gave NER little notice. Many keep records and do not want an outsider archiving serial numbers that could be used for market research. But they slowly are catching on. In 2005, JCB began registering clients’ machines with NER. Multiquip Inc. also plans to join this year, says Roger Euliss, president of the Carson, Calif.-based manufacturer. He says, “I think it will only help.”

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