Under attack

Lucinda Coulter | June 01, 2010
Thieves were offloading plasma TVs from a stolen trailer onto a straight truck when patrol officers stopped them. “The crooks escaped, but most of the load was recovered,” Dallas Police Sgt. Dave Landry says.

Joe Wehrle, chief executive officer of the National Insurance Crime Bureau, says the bureau has retrained some of its agents to cover cargo theft, which increased over car thefts in the last few years. In refrigerated loads such as food and pharmaceuticals, costs are astronomical for insurers and the health risk to consumers is immeasurable. “Once you get a trailer stolen, the chain of custody to insure that no one could tamper with the cargo is lost,” Wehrle says.

Historically, truckers waiting over the weekend for receiving facilities to open are prime targets for cargo thefts. “This schedule often leaves truck drivers with few alternatives to secure their loads,” Coughlin says. “The thieves are well aware of these vulnerabilities.”

But last year, carriers and shippers formed tighter networks to allay that problem, says American Trucking Associations’ Susan Chandler, director of its supply chain security council. She says last year UPS, Con-way, Swift Transportation and Old Dominion heightened security in response to thefts, many of them in Dallas, Houston, Laredo and El Paso, Texas.

Salazar and Coughlin helped form the nonprofit Transborder International Police network four years ago to thwart cargo theft and other crimes across U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico. They say network members’ work is critical, especially in the border region of Tamaulipas, Mexico, where murders and kidnappings are commonplace. “The situation has gotten out of control,” Salazar says.

Despite tight budgets, Illinois and Georgia recently formed special cargo theft units. Special Agent John Cannon, head of Georgia’s Bureau of Investigation’s major theft unit, says he and other agents opened 71 cases and made 50 arrests since its January 2009 launch. In that time his unit seized $17 million in stolen goods, and assisted in collecting $1.2 million in drug contraband.

Cannon says the state’s hot spots for cargo theft are Atlanta and along the I-95 corridor in Savannah. Cannon talks daily with federal agents and Florida police and meets monthly with the Southeastern Transportation Security Council, a group of businesses in the supply chain.

“This requires a lot of interaction with private industry, or in some cases with individual owner-operators,” Cannon says. “We recover loads before they’re ever reported stolen.”

Two years ago, Sgt. Steven Covey headed the then newly formed Illinois State Police cargo theft unit to fight increasing crime in Chicago’s major shipping hub. His team has worked on more than 70 cargo theft cases, made 21 arrests and recovered more than $4 million worth of goods.

“Warehouse burglaries and organized crime in cargo theft – these are on the increase,” Covey says. For example, $75 million worth of antidepressants was taken in March from an Eli Lilly & Co. warehouse in Enfield, Conn.

The harsh economy, which has lowered tax revenues available for most publicly funded services, has taken a toll on law enforcement units. “Cargo thieves know they can go basically undetected,” says Uptgrow, of Miami-Dade Police. “This problem is just too big without more federal funding.” n

Fighting a high-pay, low-risk crime

Nearly 10 years ago, Sheriff Ed Dean of Marion County, Fla., stamped out cargo theft in his county. That was only the start of his crusade.

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