Cargo theft trends: With Scott Cornell and the Travelers Insurance sting trailer

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Labor Day through Christmas — high season for cargo theft — typically sees thefts spike by around 40 percent, according to FBI statistics. Last week, during the American Trucking Associations’ 2016 Safety, Security and Human Resources National Conference and Exhibition, one of the tools in combating that theft was on display for the first ever in the public eye. Travelers Insurance’s high-tech sting trailer doesn’t look like much on the outside, but inside it’s equipped with hidden cameras, tracking devices, hidden mics and more that law enforcement agencies around the nation have used to bust up the various elements of the organized cargo theft rings operating in hot spots and other areas around the country.

Scott Cornell of Travelers Insurance’s Special Investigations Group dedicated to cargo theftScott Cornell of Travelers Insurance’s Special Investigations Group dedicated to cargo theft

Travelers 2VP of Transportation and Crime and Theft Specialist Scott Cornell, former head of the company’s Special Investigations Group, says that in the nine years since the trailer’s beginnings in the 2004-05 time frame, it’s been “deployed thousands of times” by countless enforcement departments. “Since 2009, too, our cargo investigative unit has recovered $37 million worth of stolen cargo” for customers, with multiple arrests within that as well.

“Our goal,” Cornell adds, “is to attack the bigger problem” in addition to recovering insureds’ property. As an insurance company, Travelers can pay insureds who incur a theft “and make them whole, but ultimately they don’t want to have the theft to begin with. It can still have an impact on their business relationships. If we can recover it for them and eliminate damage to relationships, that’s great. But the next step, and sometimes the first step, is to get with them and teach them how not to have the cargo theft in the first place.”

Cornell and company encourage a holistic and preventive approach toward that goal. While tactics to minimizing the potential for straight theft remain prominent in dealing with customers (with a high-value load, extend your first segment from the origin point before any stop to avoid anyone who may be following you, for instance), new threats are making a bigger footprint in overall cargo theft statistics, Cornell says. Since 2011-12, “we’ve seen more ‘strategic cargo theft'” involving carrier business identity theft, fictitious pickups and fraudulent practices toward theft generally.

Identity theft
Prior reporting on schemes similar to this category of load theft emerged from last year’s Connected 2015 Truckstop.com user conference.
Identity theft occurs when a thief impersonates a legitimate carrier, secures a load, picks it up and then disappears. Combating this involves a little trust with verification — double-checking the identities of company reps via phone calls to the legitimate company home, matching phone numbers and other contact/address info on paperwork to home city, state and DOT (Safer.gov) listings for the business.

Fictitious pickup
“In an identity theft scenario,” says Cornell, a carrier or broker is “dealing directly with the bad guy. You’re hiring the bad guy yourself.” Conversely, in a fictitious pickup, you’re dealing with the good guy. ABC Trucking agrees to Friday at 1 o’clock to pick up the cargo. Everybody involved in that transaction is who they say they are, but the bad guy finds out about that arrangement.” Such thieves are getting better at forging paperwork and showing up an hour or two early to pose as the trucking company. “Off they go down the road,” Cornell adds. “At 1 o’clock the legitimate company shows up and the freight is gone.”

Cornell says Travelers and law enforcement are beginning to “‘look at ways to use the sting trailer more for these types of scenarios,” particularly “if there’s an organized ring concentrating on them in certain areas. We might work with law enforcement to try to get the sting trailer to be used one or two of those loads.”

Straight cargo theft — thieves hitch to a loaded trailer, unload a trailer or otherwise drive away with a full tractor-trailer — remains the most common sort of cargo theft, but these “strategic” thefts represent the “fastest-growing method of cargo theft,” Cornell says, representing about 10 percent of thefts nationwide. “We see most of that type with the most frequency in Illinois and Southern California. That’s where thieves are operating,” in any case. Since the thefts are virtual, “they can target something no matter where it is. Part of the difference” — and the attraction for thieves, no doubt — “is that you can be very selective – you can pick out what you want to target rather than randomly picking out a trailer.”

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