Billions of dollars are lost and many lives risked every year as ever-bolder thieves loot the trucking industry.
Thick with Thieves
Thieves learn the hard way that an idling Pete isn’t as innocent as it looks.
Some thieves turn to desperate measures to take cargo.
Cargo theft takes a back seat to war on terror.
Protecting the Goods
Fleets, retailers and trucking organizations all have a vested interest in security.
Big Gain, Little Pain
Weak penalties, high profits make cargo theft more attractive than dealing in narcotics.
On a sunny September day near the notorious Los Angeles neighborhood of Compton, trucker Jerry Nadeau picked up a load of Left Bank designer shirts. The load’s value, an estimated $35,000 wholesale, was the furthest thing from his mind when he piloted his straight truck toward the Long Beach Freeway for a delivery across town.
As he headed up a freeway on-ramp, a car sped around the right side of his truck in the breakdown lane. It slammed on its brakes and blocked his path. Nadeau thought the driver and three passengers, who were climbing out of the vehicle, were upset because he had cut them off. As they approached his truck, Nadeau prepared for a fight, grabbing a tire iron.
Then he saw the .357 Magnum and knew something else was up. “A gun trumps a tire iron,” he says.
Of all the methods thieves use to steal cargo, hijacking represents the biggest risk to truckers. Hijackings are rare, though not as rare as most drivers think, because thieves would rather take the load when the driver’s not around, police say. While simple cargo theft carries little risk for the perpetrator, a thief who hijacks a truck can face hard time – as much as life in prison for kidnapping, theft and assault. Sometimes, however, criminals are willing to take the risk.
Two members of the gang climbed into Nadeau’s cab, forced him to the floor and tried to drive away. Nadeau was no longer thinking about how to fight, but how to survive.
“They threatened to kill me,” he says. “They were attempting to drive the truck but couldn’t figure it out.” Seeing an opportunity to gain points with his assailants, Nadeau volunteered to drive. With a gun in his ribs, he took the crooks 40 miles away to a deserted lot near the freeway. They threw him out, told him to stay there for an hour and said they would be watching him.
As the hijackers drove off in his truck, Nadeau looked around and sure enough, he saw a car near the freeway; the sun glinted off a high-powered rifle scope. Nadeau stayed put. Eventually, he walked away and called the police.
That was 23 years ago. Nadeau, now a driver supervisor with Pro Express Inc. in Montebello, Calif., says his company, which used to haul consumer electronics for Sony, has been hit five times by hijackers.
“The mindset of truck drivers does not anticipate someone stealing their freight,” he says. “They usually don’t understand the value of products.”
While there are no statistics on truck hijackings, law enforcement officials say they happen more frequently than most people think. Many don’t make the news and some go unreported, law enforcement officials say. But the opportunity to steal a load of cigarettes, electronics, designer clothes or even swinging meat is hard for criminals to resist sometimes, even if it means kidnapping or murder.
Jim Harris, a former investigator with the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department and a founder of the county’s well-known cargo theft crime unit Cargo CATS, says hijackings aren’t necessarily increasing, but they represent the most dangerous element of the crime.
“What we see are street gangs getting into the business,” he says. “Professional cargo thieves don’t want to risk a long-term jail sentence on kidnapping.”
Sentences for cargo theft are light – most convictions result in probation. But kidnapping and hijacking can carry state and federal sentences of dozens of years. Harris says thieves would rather watch a driver until he walks away from his load to get food or something else.
A gang will watch a driver from the minute he steps down from the cab to eat or shower. By the time he returns, a thief has broken into his tractor, another has hot-wired it, another has driven it away and man who tailed him is back on the road in the gang’s car.
Nadeau’s hijacking was fairly typical of such crimes, Harris says. “A vehicle will pull up at a stop signal, an on-ramp or off-ramp, and block the path of the truck. Then they jump out with guns.” They also will confront truckers parked in an unlit lot, on a side road or at a desolate truckstop. Or in tight city driving, they will jump on the sideboards.
Sometimes drivers are victims of a well-executed plan, but truckers often contribute to their own problems. Harris, who helped produce a video with the Cargo CATS on hijacking prevention and survival, says an ounce of prevention goes a long way. For example, drivers should never park along the side of the road or in an unlit parking lot. Other tips he suggests:
In most cases, drivers are released unharmed. But not always. Nadeau says his captors toyed with the idea of killing him before releasing him. “They told me they’d rather get caught for a homicide than a kidnapping,” Nadeau says, recalling their questionable reasoning. “They’d face seven years for killing me versus 20-something for kidnapping.”
Try these tips for avoiding cargo theft:
1. Park only in well-lit, secure lots in a populated area.
2. Always shut off the truck and lock it.
3. Keep the passenger door locked.
4. Lock your trailer.
5. Use a steerage lock.
6. Plan your trips to avoid stopping at unfamiliar locations.
7. Be aware of your surroundings; keep your eye on suspicious vehicles.
8. When possible, always keep your truck in sight.
9. Check trailer or truck for suspicious marks, like a fluorescent paint dot.
10. If something goes wrong, call police and dispatch immediately.
Rolex watches, cell phones and even swinging meat are prime targets for cargo thieves, experts say. Thieves are generally interested in high-value items like consumer electronics, cigarettes, seafood and designer clothes. But they will steal anything. “We’re concerned with every load we haul,” says Schneider’s Joe Kizaur. “A guy that gets a load of toilet paper can dispose of it more quickly than he can a load of televisions.”
Media (DVDs, Videos, CDs)
Other High-value Items:
Affected tractors are equipped with an automated Eaton UltraShift Plus or Eaton Advantage Transmission with right hand stalk shifter. In the affected trucks, the display on the instrument panel can indicate “N” when the shifter is set into “D” or “R,” causing the truck not to move.