Cargo Insecurity — Part I: The Problem
By Max Kvidera
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation had John Raymond “Johnny Ray” Smith Jr. in its sights when the agency formed its major theft task force investigating cargo theft in January 2009.
Earlier this year, the Georgia man was arrested for trafficking in some 700 embroidery machines pilfered from a container in Tennessee. In June he pleaded guilty to three criminal charges for his role in an estimated $3 million interstate cargo theft ring that investigators say had been operating for four years.
The ring targeted retail shipments bound for Office Depot, Wal-Mart, Target and Best Buy, stealing from trucks parked at motels, truckstops, rest areas and storage facilities, according to court papers.
Over the past 18 months, John Cannon, special agent in charge of the major theft unit, says the statewide task force has investigated more than 70 cases, collared about 50 individuals for cargo theft and seized $17 million in stolen goods. They have arrested some of the top thieves operating in the Atlanta area and along the Interstate 95 corridor to Savannah.
As impressive as their efforts might seem, they are only scratching the surface of stopping theft of cargo from transportation. Depending on the source, cargo theft loss nationwide is estimated at several hundred million to $30 billion annually. In the first half of 2010, FreightWatch International USA reported U.S. cargo theft losses from warehouse burglaries increased 5 percent to $102 million.
The size of the problem is difficult to pin down because of different reporting criteria, varying databases and some thefts not being reported, says Mary Aftanas, director over the cargo theft program at the National Insurance Crime Bureau. “No one knows how big the problem is,” she says.
Ed Petow, law enforcement liaison for FreightWatch and a retired commander of Florida’s Miami-Dade Police Department’s cargo theft task force, estimates thefts are rising 10-15 percent annually. “We’re hearing about most of the thefts today,” he says. “Five or 10 years ago, we were hearing about 30-50 percent at the most. FreightWatch hears about 70-90 thefts a month.”
Cargo losses are growing in part because of the weakened economy. Groups are taking everything from canned soup to toilet paper. “It’s still on the rise because it’s a crime of opportunity, and the opportunity exists all over,” says Tommy Bibb, of the Marion County (Fla.) Sheriff’s Office.
Cargo theft might be the early 21st century’s signature crime. A rogue’s gallery of scoundrels ranging from local hoodlums to international organizations is drawn to the valuable loads (see “Meet the Enemy,” p. 22). Cannon says he’s identified local individuals stealing as little as a box or a pallet from a truck or rail car and Cuban gangs from South Florida making off with whole truckloads. Bibb says he’s heard of potential links to terrorist organizations and drug cartels “getting into cargo theft because it’s so lucrative.”
Since the year 2000, thefts have often flown under the radar as isolated incidents in areas such as Southern California and South Florida. While electronics, pharmaceuticals and luxury clothing are frequent theft targets, the poor economy has spawned thefts of everything from beef jerky and fruit juice to detergent and toothpaste. Recently, food products have moved to the top of the list of pilfered items in some cargo-theft-tracking reporting systems.
Part of the difficulty in measuring the cargo theft problem is defining the crime and putting it into law. Depending on the state or local jurisdiction, cargo thievery has been called larceny, auto theft or burglary. Law enforcement and the insurance industry in collaboration with trucking and shipper interests have been pushing for legislation that would specifically target cargo theft as a separate crime category. Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) in 2005 drafted legislation aimed at port security that included sections dealing with cargo theft. That legislation eventually became part of the Patriot Act when it was reauthorized by Congress.