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The National Plant and Equipment Register said 3,678 items worth an estimated £36m were stolen last year.
It claimed the use and sale of heavy machinery was less closely regulated than ordinary road vehicles, leaving the door open for crime bosses.
Worst affected were Greater Manchester, Surrey, Kent and the Thames Valley.
Among the missing machinery were record numbers of tractors, quad bikes and forklift trucks.
The register's annual theft report found 184 tractors, worth about £2.1m, were stolen in 2008 compared with 74 the previous year.
Quad bike thefts rose from 122 to 223 and fork lift truck thefts from 33 to 55.
“ The used equipment trade is like a huge money laundering machine “
Trailers remained the most commonly stolen item with 911 taken, followed by 849 excavators, 244 dumpers, 223 quad bikes and 202 telehandlers.
The most valuable item stolen was a crusher worth £140,000 taken from Thackley, West Yorkshire.
"The used equipment trade is like a huge money laundering machine, where criminals push stolen equipment into the trade at one end and get clean cash out at the other," said manager of the register, Tim Purbrick.
"Serious organised criminals probably make more money out of equipment theft for far less risk than they do from smuggling drugs.
"It's a low risk, high reward crime."
Investigators found identity plates were removed from some vehicles and replaced by false copies held in position by double-sided sticky tape.
Many vehicles were damaged as thieves hunted for tracking devices inside the cabins and behind the dashboard.
In other cases chemicals were used to remove markings or the vehicles were resprayed to improve their value and hide their past.
Mr Purbrick said 95% of stolen equipment was not recovered and many items were exported out of the country, often to eastern Europe.
He called on insurance companies to check equipment they covered was not stolen
"Efforts must be made by all concerned to break the vicious circle of equipment theft through unique keys, immobilisers, tracking devices, better site security and use of due diligence for theft before trading, financing or insuring used plant and equipment," he said.
"Until this vicious circle is broken, plant theft and fraud against insurers, banks and plant owners will continue to increase." (see original article)
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