Artist Tina So moved from Hong Kong to Vancouver two years ago and needed a storage locker for some paintings and family heirlooms.
She signed up with Sentinel Storage in Richmond, B.C., comforted by the promise of a state-of-the-art security system.
That confidence was shaken when So opened her storage unit in August.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes,” she told Go Public. “I double-checked the door. I thought I entered some other person’s locker.”
Her major artwork from the past ten years, other paintings she had collected, family tableware and other heirlooms — all were gone.
“The first thing I did was run to the lobby and tell them that something’s gone wrong!”
It was the beginning of a mystery So says should not be hard to solve, given that Sentinel Storage advertises that it is a gated property with round-the-clock security, video surveillance and individually coded access to doors and gates.
“You give everything that is valuable to them and there is no guarantee that they will keep it well,” said So.
Thousands of people across the country have put their personal belongings in public storage, creating a $9-billion industry in Canada according to a January report by research company IBISWorld.
At the same time, the pandemic has led to business closures and job losses, driving an increase in theft from self-storage facilities, says security expert Alex Vourkoutiotis, chief technology officer at Caliber Communications in Hamilton, a company that provides various types of corporate security.
“Mass layoffs cause theft increase. It’s an unfortunate byproduct, but it’s a reality,” Vourkoutiotis said.
There are no national statistics, but Vourkoutiotis says he and colleagues in the industry have noticed a definite spike in storage crime.
Theft attempts at facilities his company monitors have almost tripled — from 135 in 2020 to 348 in the first ten months of 2021.
A spokesperson for Sentinel Storage said no one was available for an interview to discuss So’s case, but sent a statement, saying the company was “sincerely sorry about the loss,” that security is “fundamental” to its service and that it works closely with law enforcement when theft has occurred.
Sentinel Storage is owned by the biggest player in Canada’s self-storage industry, Toronto-based Storage Vault, which gave So confidence when she signed up to rent a locker for about $175 a month, including a mandatory insurance policy that’s common in the industry.
“The building looked very secure,” said So. “And they advertised 24-hour surveillance. So I thought, ‘This is the place.'”
So and her husband visited the locker in March 2020.
Because of the pandemic, the next time they checked was in August 2021 — when they discovered the theft. Company records said no one else had entered the locker.
When So first signed up with Sentinel, she was instructed to use a code on a keypad to open a sliding door.
She was told that each customer gets their own access code and that her code was the last seven digits of her phone number.
“They did not tell us that we can change it,” said So.
Using a personal phone number for an access code can be a security issue, says Vourkoutiotis, because anyone who knows you or can see a customer’s number in the system will know the code.
“We recommend against that,” he said. Still, he says, storage companies often do it “because managing the code system becomes difficult.”
The padlock on the locker appeared to be untampered and the door was not jimmied. The walls and ceiling of the storage unit were intact.
None of it makes sense to So.
“It’s not a Houdini box,” she said, referring to famous escape artist Harry Houdini.
Insurance policies switched
Even more perplexing, a Sentinel employee had erroneously cancelled her obligatory $5,000 insurance policy, and placed another customer’s $2-million policy under her account.
It was a “clerical error” Sentinel admits, but visible to anyone who had access to the internal system, prompting So to wonder if it may have piqued interest in the contents of her locker.
Adding to her frustration, So says Sentinel Storage refused to answer many of her questions — so she posted her experience on Facebook and other platforms, calling the company “totally unreliable, negligent and not trustworthy.”
Others have shared similar stories, about storage companies big and small, including those owned by Sentinel. Dale Ladoon of Edmonton says his Sentinel locker was broken into last month, but the company didn’t let him know for three days.
“Basically, Sentinel did not help at all,” he writes in an online review on Trustpilot.
Rob McNeill writes on Google Reviews that his Lethbridge, Alta., locker was broken into in May and there were “items stolen, no follow up.”
Lily Love also posts on Google Reviews that her Sentinel locker in Coquitlam, B.C., was broken into in March and “they didn’t contact me about it ’til four months later!”
Sentinel said it couldn’t comment on unhappy customers “to maintain the integrity of ongoing investigations.”
The missing video
Most storage facilities have security cameras and advertise their surveillance as a selling point. Sentinel wouldn’t tell Go Public whether it has any video footage of So’s theft and said it couldn’t reveal how long footage is stored, so as not to compromise any security features.
But the RCMP constable investigating So’s case told her that Sentinel does not have any video of the theft.
WATCH | Cherished belongings disappear from storage locker:
“It’s very disappointing,” said So. “The whole purpose of having 24-hour surveillance cameras is to use it when something happens. It’s not a prop.”
The strongest protection from theft comes when those cameras are monitored around the clock by a third-party surveillance company, says Vourkoutiotis — which is what his company does for industries ranging from self-storage to auto dealerships to utilities.
“If you don’t have an active, monitored system, then you run the risk of just going in after the fact and perusing video footage — that may or may not exist — to determine what happened or maybe who did it,” he said.
Go Public randomly called 20 public storage facilities, from Victoria to St. John’s, to ask about video surveillance. The locations are owned by the country’s 10 largest storage companies — including StorageVault, U-Haul, StorageMart, Public Storage and Apple Self Storage — to ask about video surveillance.
All the companies said they use security cameras. Some only use cameras at the entrance/exit to a facility, others had cameras inside, at the loading bays and down corridors.
None of the employees could say how long the video footage from those cameras is stored — some guessing “a few months,” others suggesting it might be available “for years.”
None of the companies employed third-party monitoring of their premises and none said the cameras were watched 24/7, the employees said.
“If they don’t have a monitored system, but you are interested in using their services, I would find out what kind of procedures they put in place to ensure that the camera system stays operational,” said Vourkoutiotis.
“And at least understand how long they store footage.” Because most places he’s aware of don’t save video footage longer than four to six weeks, Vourkoutiotis recommends customers check in on their storage units once a month.
Sentinel said it will honour So’s original insurance policy and that she can file a claim — as long as she provides receipts for the stolen items.
“Which is kind of bizarre,” said So. “You don’t save your receipts on your family heirlooms.”
She’s patiently waiting for the results of the police investigation, but is losing hope that anything will come of it. In the meantime, So has contacted local art galleries and provided photos of some of her stolen artwork.
She’s offering a $5,000 reward for any information that will help solve the theft. “I want to find out the truth,” she said. “What happened is heartbreaking and devastating.”
Submit your story ideas
Go Public is an investigative news segment on CBC-TV, radio and the web.
We tell your stories, shed light on wrongdoing and hold the powers that be accountable.
If you have a story in the public interest, or if you’re an insider with information, contact GoPublic@cbc.ca with your name, contact information and a brief summary. All emails are confidential until you decide to Go Public.
Follow @CBCGoPublic on Twitter.
Read more stories by Go Public.