It’s not hard to understand why cargo theft is such an attractive criminal activity. It can be very profitable on the upside, and any downside is minimized by the fact that the penalties for being caught are fairly benign compared to similarly lucrative but higher-risk crimes like dealing in illegal drugs.
While “cargo theft” sounds like a scary criminal enterprise, it’s actually a catchphrase that, for the most part, isn’t really a crime. Depending on where cargo thieves get caught, they may be charged under a myriad of statutes that include burglary, property theft or vehicle theft. Convicted thieves may receive anything from a relatively short prison sentence to probation for stealing millions of dollars worth of goods in a single heist.
While cargo-theft tracking agencies, insurance companies and task forces know that cargo theft is a major problem that results in billions of dollars lost annually, the exact amount is unknown. Estimates start as low as $10 billion and range upward of $50 billion each year in the United States.
Cargo theft is a hugely underreported crime. Many trucking companies that are victims don’t report losses because of the concerns they will be perceived as risky carriers to their customers or the probability that their insurance rates may rise.
All of this leaves truckers vulnerable to being a victim of cargo theft at some point in their careers. But, truly, everyone is a victim, as the costs associated with cargo theft are passed along to consumers. This month, we look at cargo theft and the efforts to combat the escalating problem (page 20).
To be fair, the federal government has made some in-roads as far as recognizing cargo theft as a problem by definition but lacks the procedural teeth it so greatly needs. From the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s website:
H.R. 3199, the “USA Patriot Improvement and Re-authorization Act of 2005,” requires the Attorney General to “take the steps necessary to ensure that reports of cargo theft collected by Federal, state, and local officials are reflected as a separate category in the [FBI] Uniform Crime Reporting system …” In response to this mandate, the Criminal Justice Information Services Advisory Policy Board approved a definition for cargo theft in December 2006. It was developed, not as a legal definition for prosecutorial purposes, but to capture the essence of the national cargo theft crime problem and its negative effect on the economy of the United States. The legal elements of knowledge and intent were intentionally omitted.
Federally funded cargo theft task forces also have gained momentum in many areas where criminal activities are increasing, but it’s still an uphill battle.
“One of the problems is that there is not a huge outcry by the public about cargo theft,” says Dan Burges, director of intelligence for FreightWatch International. This is, in part, due to the perception that cargo theft is a “victimless crime.”Burges adds that theft rings often are well organized and are careful to conduct their theft activities in a nonviolent manner to avoid the possibility of lengthy prison terms if they are caught.
The brazen highway hijackings that occasionally capture media attention account for less than 2 percent of all cargo theft operations and are often gang-related crimes in local areas, unlike the more sophisticated, interstate operations that encompass the majority of cargo thefts.
Proof that cargo thieves are getting better at their craft can be seen by an increase in the value of stolen loads. “For the past several years, we have usually seen a 10-15 percent increase in overall cargo thefts annually,” Burges says. “In the past year or so, we’ve seen the dollar amount per stolen load go up. Thieves are often more selective in what they steal. They often follow loads from distribution centers instead of just waiting for a potluck opportunity of an unsecured truck and trailer where they don’t know what the cargo is that they are taking.”