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ConsumerWatch: Are Bay Area Storage Units Safe?

SAN JOSE (CBS 5) -- How safe are your possessions when you store them in a storage facility? CBS 5 ConsumerWatch went through police statistics in three Bay Area cities to find out.

"They cut the thing and then they just slid the bar with the lock on it, so the lock is still intact and the door opens," Carol Lajoie said.

When thieves broke into her San Jose storage locker this summer, Lajoie said she lost all her family heirlooms. "The gold plates, and some crystal. The family clock, the mantle clock," Lajoie said.

It happened at a Public Storage facility on Blossom Hill Road in San Jose. "It looked like they had plenty of time and they went through every single box," she said.

Plenty of time, because of how Lajoie said an employee told her the thieves probably pulled off their heist.

"They rent a unit where they get the first month free. Then they come in, and in the middle of the night they break into the other units. They move the stuff from those units into their unit and then before the end of the month, they move out," she said.

Lajoie took CBS 5 ConsumerWatch on a tour to show what she believes is a lack of security. "There's no lock on this door," she showed CBS 5, walking into the building that houses her locker. "They come right in, they get in the elevator and up they go."

Once upstairs, she suspects thieves have complete privacy. "There are no cameras here. No cameras in any of the hallways, in any of the interior buildings," she said.

In fact, Lajoie says the only camera that might have spotted the suspects going into her building is missing. And a Public Storage employee told her the back camera was stolen over a year ago.

That is no surprise to former Public Storage manager Cody Fawcett. "I would go on the road to visit facilities, and the very old and run down storage facilities that we had is where I ran into most of the issues."

But Fawcett's bigger concern is the first month for $1 promotion, which he feels encourages thieves.

Sgt. Ronnie Lopez of the San Jose Police Department agrees. "A lot of storage facilities will have specials that will include the first month for only a dollar. That does sometimes tend to attract those of the criminal element. We are definitely seeing that as a trend," he said.

According to police records, Lajoie's Public Storage facility on Blossom Hill Road had 43 break-ins over the last two years. If that number seems high, that's because it is, at least compared to Public Storage's competitors.

CBS 5 Consumerwatch compiled a database (.xls) of burglary reports for storage facilities from three of the largest storage companies in San Jose, San Francisco, and Oakland.

While Public Storage does have more facilities, and some had few if any break-ins, the average number of break-ins was significantly higher, more than eight times higher than A-1 Storage and nearly 9 times higher than Extra Space Storage.

Why so many more break-ins? CBS 5 ConsumerWatch went undercover to investigate what the other companies might be doing differently, examining security at the A-1 Storage and an Extra Space facilities closest to Carol's Public Storage.

We found, part of the reason the A-1 Storage may have fewer burglaries: Each unit has an alarm system that customers can set as they leave.

The facility had just three break-ins over the last two years. The Extra Space Storage facility we checked out also had three break-ins. Both facilities had outdoor cameras that appeared to be functioning.

Back at Public Storage on Blossom Hill Road, Carol Lajoie is getting ready to pack up and leave.

"I think my stuff would have been safer in my car. On the street," she said.

Public Storage declined to comment on the CBS 5 ConsumerWatch's investigation. Some employees told ConsumerWatch the company's newer facilities also have alarms on individual units, but there are not many of them in the Bay Area.

(© 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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