Under attack

Lucinda Coulter | June 01, 2010

“What we’re seeing is more sophisticated techniques with use of cell phones, or they go into a plant with fake paper work,” says Lt. Twan Uptgrow, of Miami-Dade Police Department’s cargo theft unit, the nation’s oldest multi-agency task force devoted to the crime.

Crooks tend to distract drivers with commotion or prostitutes. Sometimes they break into a trailer while drivers sleep and unload cargo into pickups, or they break into an unattended cab and hot-wire it. “These guys can steal your rig in about 90 seconds,” says J.J. Coughlin, law enforcement services director at LoJack Supply Chain Integrity.

In the United States, it’s so easy to steal cargo that the thieves don’t need excessive amounts of sophisticated gadgetry, Petow says. Thefts are more sophisticated and more violent in Europe and Latin America, he says.

Other proven methods include bribing a driver to drop a load, gaining inside knowledge from company employees, or driving a truck and giving counterfeit paperwork to security guards. In 2009 there was a spike in armed robberies at warehouses, hijackings where drivers were forced out at exit ramps or stop lights at gunpoint, and thefts of tractor-trailers.

Dallas police say this cargo heist was foiled in 2008 when a patrol officer spotted the stolen trailer in a field.

In California alone, nearly 300 tractors and trailers were stolen in 2009. About a third are unrecovered and thought to have moved south of the border, says crime analyst Merri Hawkins of the California Highway Patrol. Much of the recovered equipment was stripped of tires and major parts.

One of California’s 2009 truck thefts happened to former owner-operator Michael Keith, of La Verne, Calif. His 2003 Freightliner Columbia was stolen from a Pomona, Calif., street, where it was parked overnight, in January 2009, only seven months after he bought it. A city with a large trucking hub, Pomona averages about 12 trucks stolen monthly, police told Keith.

“When you leave your truck, put a kill switch in it or a tracking device,” advises Keith, 50. “Make sure you buy the right insurance for your truck that will cover the down payment and loss of possessions.” Having something like household insurance would have helped in the loss of tools, map books and family gifts, he says.

Rehired as a driver by his former company, Keith is trying to save $10,000 for a tractor down payment.

John Bertling, CEO of Best Sand & Trucking in Iola, Texas, is still recovering from the $300,000 worth of equipment the ring’s conspirators stole from his lot last year.

Michael Keith had owned his 2003 Freightliner Columbia less than a year when it was stolen from a Pomona, Calif., street.

Thieves drove two of Bertling’s new Peterbilt 379s and pneumatic trailers from the company’s parking lot on Jan. 17, 2009, and security cameras recorded the tractors crossing the Mexican border. Salazar and others discovered the thieves got the trucks’ serial numbers and had keys made for them. Bertling later installed GPS units and Lo-Jacks in the cement company’s trucks so that if anyone bothers his equipment, a signal warns police officers.

The increase in cargo theft last year caught carriers by surprise, experts say. Many carriers ramped up security at facilities and others trained drivers for theft prevention. Although cargo thefts increased in the first quarter 2010 from the same period last year, there was a “decrease in reported incidents occurring in carrier facilities,” says Coughlin, who directs the Supply Chain Information Sharing and Analysis Center.

Prime, which delivers time-sensitive refrigerated foods, includes a four-day class on cargo and equipment theft in its driver orientation. A former FBI special agent, Prime Security Director James Morton supervises a 22-member staff of former law enforcement officers and works with volunteer task forces across state lines, he says.

Drivers are often bribed into dropping a load, a practice that many say has worsened during the recession. Aware of such risks, Morton does “the best background check we can do,” meets weekly with drivers and sends them crime alerts. Meetings with truck stop owners have started, as well, because cargo thefts are hurting their business, Morton says.