Billions of dollars are lost and many lives risked every year as ever-bolder thieves loot the trucking industry.
Thick with Thieves
The roots of cargo theft reach inside and outside the industry.
Thieves learn the hard way that an idling Pete isn’t as innocent as it looks.
Some thieves turn to desperate measures to take cargo.
Protecting the Goods
Fleets, retailers and trucking organizations all have a vested interest in security.
Big Gain, Little Pain
Weak penalties, high profits make cargo theft more attractive than dealing in narcotics.
When Congress and the Bush administration began analyzing potential threats after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, 18-wheelers got a lot of scrutiny, especially after a CDL scandal erupted in Pennsylvania and a truckload of cyanide disappeared in Mexico.
Federal officials, who fear that terrorists will steal a truck loaded with hazardous material and use it as a bomb, even hired a seasoned trucking security expert, Yellow Freight’s George Rodriguez, to head up its new Transportation Security Administration’s cargo security department.
But a year and a half after the attacks, fleet personnel and security experts say the extra scrutiny hasn’t helped in the fight against cargo theft. In fact, they say some resources have been pulled from fighting cargo theft to fight the war on terror.
“We do not have enough law enforcement resources to deal with this wave of crime,” says Barry Brandman, president of Danbee Investigations. “The FBI has a finite number of agents out in the field. A number of agents have been reassigned to anti-terrorist activity.”
A 2001 report from an insurance industry group, the American Association of Insurance Services, worried about the post-9/11 approach to cargo theft. In it, the group asked, “Will law enforcement step up its pursuit of lost trucks and trailers, for fear they may be used as truck bombs? Or will cargo theft become an even lower priority crime?”
Apparently, the war on terror has shifted the focus away from cargo theft, experts say. “A lot of the contacts we’ve had over the years have been reassigned to the war on terrorism,” says Randy Price, director of corporate security for Prime Inc. “They’re not focused on theft anymore. The FBI does a good job, but a cargo theft has got to meet certain criteria before they’ll become involved. There’re only so many cases they can process.”
Schneider National’s loss prevention cargo security manager, Joe Kizaur, says the FBI is still involved but its focus has had to change. “The FBI has had to refocus its primary concern – of course, that’s anti-terrorism,” Kizaur says. “They’re still concerned about trucks. But because of the work they’re doing on that, there are fewer of them available for cargo theft.”
New York/New Jersey
North and South Carolina
Bay Area (San Francisco, Oakland)
Los Angeles, San Diego, Long Beach
New York City
John Iannarelli, a special agent with the FBI’s Washington, D.C. office, says the agents who investigate crimes like cargo theft haven’t necessarily been shifted to homeland security efforts, but may have additional duties, like investigating bank robberies and kidnappings. “We still have a variety of crimes we have to respond to and we do. If a crime’s committed, and there’s federal jurisdiction, we’ll respond.”
Local and state law enforcement resources have also been diverted. The Los Angeles County sheriff disbanded the Cargo CATS, one of the most successful task forces to ever fight cargo theft, and a model for other task forces, because of budget shortfalls and politics. It took three months for trucking companies, shippers and manufacturers to convince him to restart the unit.
In Florida, officials say thefts of loaded trailers average more than 20 a month. In Los Angeles, police estimate $600 million a year – $2 million a day – is nabbed by industrious thieves.
Geographically, it appears the problem is expanding. Where gangs once concentrated on trucks near major ports like Long Beach, New York/New Jersey or Miami, they now do more inland business. That means law enforcement can claim a partial victory – the gangs are spreading from South Florida and California because task forces and stings are scaring them off. Unfortunately, when the criminals move up to places like Atlanta, Memphis, Dallas and Little Rock, law enforcement officials are less prepared to handle the crimes.
Increasingly fleets will have to turn to more aggressive security measures to keep their freight from falling into the wrong hands, and they will have to use private security services to track down the freight they lose, Danbee’s Brandman says.