Under attack

Lucinda Coulter | June 01, 2010

Carriers and law enforcement are fighting cargo theft harder than ever, but it’s no time to relax. Shrewd thieves targeting unsuspecting owner-operators are stealing record amounts of freight and equipment.

Owner-operator Frank Burgwin left the engine running on his locked Freightliner FLD and rushed into the Earle, Ark., truck stop to grab a takeout hamburger. He planned to be back at his east Texas home that evening in October 1999.

But when he stepped out of the store, he felt his stomach tighten. His tractor and the flatbed with 48,000 pounds of aluminum had vanished.

Burgwin says he thought it might be a joke. “Then it hit me,” says Burgwin.

He and the off-duty Consolidated Freight driver who gave him a ride found the tractor that day off of I-40 near West Memphis, Ark., close to a truck stop. A trailer stolen from south Texas was hooked to his truck. Never recovered were the cargo and trailer, owned by Prime Inc., to whom he was leased.

Cargo theft has worsened since Burgwin’s incident more than a decade ago, with steady increases since 2005. The crime spiked 12 percent in one year to a record high in 2009.

The FBI estimates cargo theft losses range from $10 billion to $15 billion annually. Add indirect costs – such as law enforcement, loss of sales and revenue, costs to carriers and insurers – and the total is two to four times that. In addition, many thefts go unreported.

Experts say this trend is due to increasingly organized crime rings, tough economic times and lenient sentencing for those who are convicted. In response, many in the supply chain have increased preventive efforts and cooperate more closely with law enforcement and insurers.

Truckers are a key part of the close communication experts say is needed to fight the crime. They are also among the victims. For example, an owner-operator might suffer when both cargo and equipment are stolen, or when insurance fails to provide adequate coverage, or when a carrier maintains a strict policy of releasing leased operators who have experienced cargo theft.

While California, Florida and Texas historically have had the most cargo theft due to those states’ trade ports and routes, thefts have risen in inland states such as Georgia, Tennessee and Illinois. Much cargo is stolen on weekends and flows to Latin America or South America, says Ed Petow, law enforcement liaison with FreightWatch International and former commander of Florida’s Miami-Dade Police Department’s cargo theft unit.

Like Burgwin’s, most cargo is stolen at truck stops, but last year more secured and unsecured parking lots were hit, as well as terminals and warehouses. Recession-fueled demand and websites such as Craig’s List and eBay have made selling illegal goods easier and more anonymous, says Dan Burges, FreightWatch International spokesman.

Thieves can figure out where distribution centers are for certain products, Petow says.

“They watch the trucks leaving and follow them,” he says. “Any load that could be easily sold, like computers and food, is vulnerable.” Most of the crimes are highly organized, especially for high-value loads of consumer electronics and pharmaceuticals, Petow says. In the United States, cargo thieves are mostly nonviolent but have blink-of-the-eye finesse, says Sgt. T.J. Salazar of the Houston Police Department. “They’re pretty well pre-planned on what they’re after, dispose of their property pretty quick and take it to a warehouse,” says Salazar, an auto and cargo theft specialist. “Unless you catch them in the act, it’s very difficult to solve.”

The security industry is quick to adapt the latest technologies, such as GPS and other wireless systems, but thieves play leapfrog. They often use inexpensive two-way radios, which can’t be tracked, and are savvy about disabling tractors or trailers equipped with GPS systems that are visible, experts say.

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