Thick with Thieves

| April 07, 2005

Billions of dollars are lost and many lives risked every year as ever-bolder thieves loot the trucking industry.

Miami Heat
Thieves learn the hard way that an idling Pete isn’t as innocent as it looks.

Hijacked!
Some thieves turn to desperate measures to take cargo.

Dwindling Resources
Cargo theft takes a back seat to war on terror.

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.

There was no warning. Angel Gutierrez and Jose Machuat, two Miami truckers hauling South American cigarettes to Kentucky, stopped at a San Antonio, Fla., Flying J truckstop for diesel this past October. As they pumped fuel, two armed men wanting their cargo forced them into the cab. Gutierrez was shot trying to escape, while Machuat was later released unharmed.

Florida police say the two were lucky, at least luckier than Roger Ware. At a nearby truckstop weeks later, the Ohio trucker was bludgeoned to death in what police suspect was an attempted hijacking or cargo theft.

Whether it be by violence or stealth, cargo theft shadows truckers everywhere they drive and park, 24 hours a day. In addition to the safety issues for truckers, cargo theft remains a huge and growing economic problem.

The federal government has only a vague estimate of the value of cargo – $12 billion to $20 billion taken yearly in the United States. One factor that makes the crime so difficult to get a handle on is the many tactics criminals use. The boldest thieves take cargo at gunpoint, while other stolen goods are carted from warehouses in the middle of the night or simply driven away from truckstops. And a lot of the merchandise is lifted with the help of colluding truckers.

Most cargo theft falls into the organized crime category, but not in the typical Mafia-type operation. Andrew Apollony, assistant special agent in charge in the FBI’s Miami bureau, says it is more a mirror of a regular business operation, with thieves working with a number of brokers, and brokers dealing with several money men. They look for orders, establish an inventory, bargain for buying and selling prices and compete with rivals for employees and sales. It’s what FBI agent Alex Peraza calls “a cottage industry.”

Lieutenant Ed Petow, commander of the Miami-based TOMCATS (Tactical Operations Multi-Agency Cargo Anti-Theft Squad), says many stolen loads are actually taken to fill demand.

“Let’s say they want to steal cell phones because they have an order,” says Petow. “They’ll go to a cell phone distribution center. They’ll wait for a truck to leave and follow it. They usually do that late in the afternoon because darkness will come soon and the driver will stop to eat. So they don’t have to follow it too far. A lot of tractor-trailers are stolen at the first truckstop a driver reaches after he leaves the factory or distribution center.”

Often thieves have sold the load before they even steal it and have been known to take orders from fences, says Randy Price, director of corporate security for Prime Inc. “They’re out on a mission to try to fill an order,” he says. “Their fence tells them to bring him something. They case these heavy-duty shipper locations.”

Many thieves have tricks to stay ahead of the law. They often use prepaid cell phones or radios so they can’t be traced. To avoid looking out of place when they cross state lines in a rental car following a truck, they’ll go to the rental car company with a complaint and swap the vehicle for one with local plates.

They often use fake IDs. TOMCATS members cite a case in which a phony driver picked up a load hours before the real driver arrived. The thief showed up with computer-generated paperwork virtually indistinguishable from the real driver’s. The thief’s truck even featured the right company logo, which was also computer-generated.

Careful observation and close planning can give thieves huge payoffs. In June, thieves made off with $3.2 million in Motorola cell phones from a truckstop in Seymour, Ind. The drivers had stopped for gas and showers and when they returned, the truck and trailer were gone. When the FBI found the tractor-trailer days later in Georgia, the load had vanished.

Agents suspect thieves followed the truck from the pickup at a Motorola plant in Harvard, Ill. Thieves are willing to follow a truck with known cargo for hours, wait until it is unattended, then in a matter of seconds drive it away.

Many such thefts are done by groups of four or five men driving a minivan, says Petow. When the trucker goes into the truckstop, one man goes in to tail him. He reports via a walkie-talkie when the driver is in the shower or eating. The other thieves break into the truck, hotwire it and leave.

“Typically, professional cargo thieves don’t want to risk a long-term jail sentence, so they won’t confront the drivers,” says Jim Harris, a former investigator with the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department and a founder of the anti-theft unit Cargo CATS.
Law enforcement and fleet officials say collusion is a frequent element in cargo theft. Many big thefts involve someone with inside information – a dispatcher, a warehouse worker, a forklift driver or a trucker.

“A good percentage of these crimes involve truckers,” says Jerry Nadeau, a driver supervisor for California-based Pro Express and himself once a hijacking victim. “When you try to do a background check on a driver, the most carriers are willing to offer is their dates of employment.”

Driver collusion is a big problem, says Joe Kizaur, loss prevention and cargo security manager for Schneider. “Drivers will be asked to give up a load: ‘Here’s $1,000. Park this thing on Cherry Street in Long Beach.’” Sometimes a driver is offered several thousand dollars, and his only risk is unemployment.

Security experts say most collusion cases are never solved, and often fleets won’t file a police report or an insurance claim because they don’t want to injure relations with their client. The offending trucker is just cut loose to ply his trade elsewhere.

“My best guess is that a substantial percentage of these crimes are done with inside knowledge,” says Barry Brandman, president of Danbee Investigations. “The same is true for distribution centers and warehouses. You can tell by the criminal methodology in most of these cases. Someone has gotten inside the information loop. Thieves know when a product is transported, its estimated time of departure and arrival and its contents. That’s dangerous information.”

Some cargo thefts are daringly simple: steal any rig, roll down the highway a couple of miles and open it up. If you can sell what you’ve got, take it. If not, leave it there. If thieves fear GPS location they might leave the trailer on the side of the road for a day or two. If no one comes for it, they go back and unload.

Often collusion is minor. A driver will show up with a few cases of goods missing and claim the count at the pickup was wrong. Other times a driver will sell the goods right off the truck. That happened to Anna Beck, one of the owners of Zippaway, a small, Texas-based less-than-truckload carrier. One of her drivers was caught by Los Angeles police in a bad neighborhood. “He had the doors open and was selling stereos,” she says.

Even though the driver had worked for her for two years, experts say Zippaway should have been prepared for the situation because the driver had a felony background. But a more recent case involving Beck’s company is more illustrative of the problems fleets face. In December, one of Zippaway’s drivers was delivering a load of picante sauce to a grocery distribution center in South Carolina. The driver was told to back up his trailer and wait, Beck says.
As he watched the lumpers unloading his van, he saw them also loading an empty trailer.

Suspicious, the driver discovered the lumpers had made off with 12 custom, highly-polished automobile wheels that he was to deliver the next day. The wheels, worth $2,000 to $3,000 each, were recovered by police, but were damaged, and Zippaway had to absorb a $30,000 loss. Beck says no arrests were made by police, who told her that a crime ring was operating out of the grocery center.

“That center has numerous problems,” she says. “They’re stealing cigarettes and shrimp.” Beck tried to work through the local police. She was even able to give officers the name badge of one of the lumpers, which fell off in the back of the trailer. But no arrests were made.

Some thefts are not reported, say lawmen, because a company does not want other thieves, or sometimes even rival companies, to know they haul highly prized cargo on certain routes. That’s not an unfounded fear, says Petow. Thieves work hard to track down loads, looking to chart who hauls what to where.


Fencing on eBay

A decade ago, cargo thieves took stolen goods to swap meets and flea markets to dispose of them. Now the Internet is a popular outlet. Danbee Investigations President Barry Brandman says he can go online and usually buy his clients’ products back within a few days of a theft.

Thieves are using auction websites that specialize in wholesale and bulk purchases, and even post goods on auction giant eBay. “One person we caught through eBay was selling Rolex watches,” Brandman says. “We tracked serial numbers and knocked on his door in Pittsburgh. He was an attorney and is now under indictment.”

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