That was 23 years ago. Nadeau, now a driver supervisor with Pro Express Inc. in Montebello, Calif., says his company, which used to haul consumer electronics for Sony, has been hit five times by hijackers.
“The mindset of truck drivers does not anticipate someone stealing their freight,” he says. “They usually don’t understand the value of products.”
While there are no statistics on truck hijackings, law enforcement officials say they happen more frequently than most people think. Many don’t make the news and some go unreported, law enforcement officials say. But the opportunity to steal a load of cigarettes, electronics, designer clothes or even swinging meat is hard for criminals to resist sometimes, even if it means kidnapping or murder.
Jim Harris, a former investigator with the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department and a founder of the county’s well-known cargo theft crime unit Cargo CATS, says hijackings aren’t necessarily increasing, but they represent the most dangerous element of the crime.
“What we see are street gangs getting into the business,” he says. “Professional cargo thieves don’t want to risk a long-term jail sentence on kidnapping.”
Sentences for cargo theft are light – most convictions result in probation. But kidnapping and hijacking can carry state and federal sentences of dozens of years. Harris says thieves would rather watch a driver until he walks away from his load to get food or something else.
A gang will watch a driver from the minute he steps down from the cab to eat or shower. By the time he returns, a thief has broken into his tractor, another has hot-wired it, another has driven it away and man who tailed him is back on the road in the gang’s car.
Nadeau’s hijacking was fairly typical of such crimes, Harris says. “A vehicle will pull up at a stop signal, an on-ramp or off-ramp, and block the path of the truck. Then they jump out with guns.” They also will confront truckers parked in an unlit lot, on a side road or at a desolate truckstop. Or in tight city driving, they will jump on the sideboards.
Sometimes drivers are victims of a well-executed plan, but truckers often contribute to their own problems. Harris, who helped produce a video with the Cargo CATS on hijacking prevention and survival, says an ounce of prevention goes a long way. For example, drivers should never park along the side of the road or in an unlit parking lot. Other tips he suggests:
In most cases, drivers are released unharmed. But not always. Nadeau says his captors toyed with the idea of killing him before releasing him. “They told me they’d rather get caught for a homicide than a kidnapping,” Nadeau says, recalling their questionable reasoning. “They’d face seven years for killing me versus 20-something for kidnapping.”
Don’t Take Chances with Your Load – or Your Life
Security experts say common sense goes a long way in minimizing cargo theft risk. The oldest adage in trucking security remains true: A truck at rest is a truck at risk. Where truckers and their loads usually become targets is when the wheels aren’t turning.
Try these tips for avoiding cargo theft:
1. Park only in well-lit, secure lots in a populated area.
2. Always shut off the truck and lock it.
3. Keep the passenger door locked.
4. Lock your trailer.
5. Use a steerage lock.
6. Plan your trips to avoid stopping at unfamiliar locations.
7. Be aware of your surroundings; keep your eye on suspicious vehicles.
8. When possible, always keep your truck in sight.
9. Check trailer or truck for suspicious marks, like a fluorescent paint dot.
10. If something goes wrong, call police and dispatch immediately.