Thick with Thieves

| April 07, 2005

“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.”

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