Preventing Cargo Theft

Updated Nov 12, 2012
Fleets take many precautions to combat cargo theft, ranging from simple low-tech padlocks to high-tech telematics.Fleets take many precautions to combat cargo theft, ranging from simple low-tech padlocks to high-tech telematics.

Cargo theft isn’t a new crime. One could argue that it’s one of mankind’s oldest wrongdoings, developing in parallel with civilization over thousands of years. What is piracy other than cargo theft on the open sea?

Today, truck fleets across the country face increased pressures from cargo theft, and the main reason isn’t hard to discern: Hard times drive people to desperate acts. And in the minds of many, cargo theft is a victimless crime of opportunity. Go to a truckstop. Spot an unsecured trailer. Wait for the driver to leave. Open the trailer up and see what’s inside. No one gets hurt. Right?

Wrong. The reality that far from being a victimless crime, today’s hard economic times are driving an uptick in violent attacks related to cargo theft. “Whether it’s going to be the theft of our cargo, or the theft of our tractors and trailers, we’re fighting it every single day, and lately it’s been getting worse,” says Bill Boehning, corporate director of security for Prime Inc., a Springfield, Mo.-based refrigerated carrier.

Boehning says Prime is seeing more blatant behavior in how criminals steal its cargo, including hijackings, robberies at Graph1gunpoint and drivers being assaulted. “We’re getting reports of crooks blocking trucks with multiple vehicles, pulling drivers out and tasering them. It seems like it’s escalating and ramping up quite a bit from the types of crime we used to deal with,” Boehning says.

Hard to define

Cargo theft involves a wide range of strategies and felons. Many thefts simply are crimes of opportunity where the driver isn’t a target but is simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, but a large percentage of these crimes are carried out by organized groups ranging from a small band of friends to urban gangs – and even branches of organized crime.

In the latter case, fleets are dealing with sophisticated, determined criminals who conduct extensive research on their intended victims and exercise extreme patience before striking. Criminals have been known to follow drivers with high-value loads on multiple runs for hundreds or even thousands of miles to learn the Graph2driver’s habits – what truckstops he likes, where he likes to spend the night and what portions of his run are the most isolated. It’s profiling of the most sinister nature and all geared toward one goal: Determining the most opportune time to strike and steal the cargo with the least amount of risk.

Cargo Theft By State

 TOP 10

                                        2011                         2010

California                     304                             350

Texas                             173                              124

Florida                           146                              141

New Jersey                  130                              135

Illinois                              88                                88

Georgia                             76                              113

Tennessee                        32                               47

Pennsylvania                  29                               38

Indiana 21 11

North Carolina               17                                18

New York                          17                                11

*Top 10 account for 85% of total reported cargo theft incidents in 2011


Source: CargoNet U.S. Cargo Theft Report

California has reported the most cargo theft incidents for the past two years, according to CargoNet, while Texas jumped ahead of Florida in 2011 to claim the dubious No. 2 spot.

“Some of their tactics are pretty simple,” Boehning says. “They know – as we all do – that certain manufacturers produce certain items.” Thieves will sit covertly outside the manufacturer’s gates and patiently observe the trucks coming and going. “They see them go to the dock, and they have a pretty good idea of what the cargo being loaded is,” he says.

Prime Inc., a Springfield, Mo.-based refrigerated carrier, is seeing more blatant behavior in how criminals try to steal its cargo.Prime Inc., a Springfield, Mo.-based refrigerated carrier, is seeing more blatant behavior in how criminals try to steal its cargo.

But the lengths that some criminals will travel in order to verify cargo is enough to send a chill down any fleet’s collective spine. “The criminals basically do reverse police work to find, learn and stalk their prey,” says Boehning, such as identifying a fleet’s insurance carrier and what types of policies they have.

“They’re smart enough to know a refrigerated fleet won’t pay a high-risk premium to ship cargo that’s not worth a whole lot,” he says. “This is how these guys make their living. They’re not playing around at this, and fleets can’t play around at this, either.”

Today’s high-target loads include pharmaceuticals, tobacco, alcohol and electronics. “With the economy still struggling, any cargo is at risk – even food items,” says Anthony Canale, vice president of CargoNet, a cargo-optimized theft recovery service.

Another big target is precious metals, where Prime has seen an increase in theft among its flatbed operations. “They’re targeted a little more than our reefers are,” Boehning says of his company’s flatbeds. “The crooks can tell right off they’ve got a full load of copper that they can get rid of as opposed to grabbing a reefer and ending up with a whole trailer full of lettuce.”

The price of copper is constantly on the rise, making it a highly lucrative target. “One copper panel can weigh a couple hundred pounds,” Boehning says. “You may have 40,000 pounds worth of panels on the back of a flatbed.”

The metal doesn’t have to be packaged in large quantities to be a tempting target. Carl Tapp – a retired maintenance director for P.A.M. Transportation who now runs Solutions Advocates, a private consulting service specializing in transportation security and maintenance – recalls a load of NOx sensors that was targeted because the components contained a precious metal.

“The thieves cut a hole through the floor of the trailer,” Tapp says. “They trailed this truck on its run all the way down to Mexico, and every time that driver stopped, they’d go back through the hole in the floor and get another load of sensors, which were only about the size of a hockey puck. By the time the rig got to Mexico, half of them were gone.”


Driver education

Given the magnitude of the problem, fleets should be happy to learn they have many countermeasures available to fight cargo theft – and most are relatively easy to implement.

Carl Tapp, a retired maintenance director for P.A.M. Transportation, now runs Solutions Advocates, a private consulting service specializing in transportation security and maintenance.Carl Tapp, a retired maintenance director for P.A.M. Transportation, now runs Solutions Advocates, a private consulting service specializing in transportation security and maintenance.

“It really comes down to changing behavior,” Canale says. A fleet’s anti-theft strategy and related education must be implemented across the board and include drivers, technicians, warehouse personnel and office employees – “everyone,” he says.

But many fleets somehow neglect taking the time and effort to impart an obvious sense of responsibility to the driver. “Make sure that driver feels that he or she is an integral part of the supply chain,” Canale says.

Prime emphasizes that drivers must take ownership of the tractor and trailer and follow standard practices every time they stop. “Things like using their air cuff lock when they’re parking and checking the seals every time they get out – just easy common practices that so many companies take for granted,” Boehning says.

Where drivers park and how they behave in truckstops can have a huge impact when combating cargo theft, experts say. Tapp teaches drivers to use their surroundings to their advantage by backing trailers up against buildings, fences or even other trailers to make it hard or impossible for thieves to open doors and get inside.

Park in well-lit heavily traveled areas near fuel islands, buildings and restaurants whenever possible, and also take note of security cameras and park in their field of view, Tapp says. Long-term parking at rest stops and on highway shoulders generally is a bad idea – as is taking a load home and leaving it unattended for a weekend.

Another practice is instructing drivers to not talk about their loads. “Loose lips sink ships,” says Tapp, who believes the less drivers say about the loads they’re hauling and where they’re taking them, the better – and that includes everything from traditional CB radio conversations to today’s social media outlets: If a driver has been targeted, it’s a good bet thieves will check Facebook and Twitter to see if they can get any intelligence as to his or her upcoming stops and final destination.


Being followed

As targeting and tailing drivers have become more common practices over the past several years, it’s crucial they maintain situational awareness at all times – whether the truck is moving or not, Tapp says. If a driver suspects he’s being followed, have him change speeds and slow down to see if the vehicle passes him. If that doesn’t work, have him the next exit and see if the suspicious vehicle does likewise.

Green Bay, Wis.-based Schneider National advises fleets to attend cargo theft prevention conferences and build a nationwide network for law enforcement assistance.Green Bay, Wis.-based Schneider National advises fleets to attend cargo theft prevention conferences and build a nationwide network for law enforcement assistance.

If a driver is confident he’s being tailed, contacting the home office should be his first priority for help; finding a safe, secure location to park is another good idea. All Prime drivers go through a security course prior to hitting the road, and if they feel threatened, they contact the fleet security office for immediate assistance.

“We’ve had drivers running high-value freight who’ve I.D.’d a tail following them,” Boehning says. “They’re taught to change speeds and try to get that car to pass them and get the license plates if possible. You can’t call the police when this happens because following someone is not a crime, but they can call us.” Prime’s security team immediately starts monitoring the driver’s movement, talking to them and coaching them through the situation.

“The main thing is to offer them help and reassurance,” he says. “The drivers are out there alone, but we don’t want them to feel like they can’t pick up the phone and call us for help.” Boehning says Prime has seen good results simply because drivers have been aware of their surroundings “and we’ve been able to talk them through some tricky situations.”

To aid law enforcement in the event of outright truck or trailer theft, drivers should carry a description of their vehicle information, including the VIN, all license plate numbers, insurance information and the make, model and color of the vehicles.

Drivers should be vigilant, experts say: Studies show that if a theft is reported within two hours, the odds of property recovery are better than 50-50 – but the recovery rate for thefts reported after four hours falls to 25 percent.


Spec’ing for security

Beyond employee education, preventive spec’ing of both power units and trailers is critical. “There are a lot of things you can do to make it tougher on the criminals,” says Tapp, such as modifying trailers in a variety of ways to make them tougher nuts to crack. “A lot of it depends on your budget,” he says.

Many measures can be carried out in a fleet’s shop by its own technicians, who can install a wide array of security measures such as satellite-controlled stainless-steel locking pins on the inside trailer doors, huck-bolted door hardware and frames, horizontal pins in the rear trailer bolster to reinforce the doors, aluminum roofs instead of translucent plexiglass, and brightly painted undercoating to help inspectors spot breaches in the trailer floor.


Stay connected

Communication is vital to combating theft, and today’s technology makes tracking shipments and reacting to issues easier and timelier. Tapp urges fleets to look into both passive and active communications systems between the truck and the home office – technologies that Prime also values.

“You have more virtual eyes and ears out there on the road than ever before,” says Nick Erdmann, business development manager for Transport Security Inc. “When you look at all the systems available to fleets today – things like real-time communication, telematics and geofencing and monitoring systems for both trucks and trailers – they have more tools to help them fight theft than ever before.”

But one of the most effective anti-theft tools Boehning has seen is a much more obvious low-tech method: a professional-grade padlock on the trailer doors. “I’m constantly amazed at how many unlocked trailers I see running down the roads today,” he says. “Our number-one thing is our trailers are always locked, even if they’re hauling air.”

Tapp agrees that seal integrity is vital. If a seal has to be broken for repairs or a police check, establish procedures so that everybody knows about it. Record the numbers of both the seal that came off and its replacement, Tapp says.

Fleets also should consider nurturing partnerships with law enforcement agencies across the country. Walt Fountain, director of safety and enterprise security for Green Bay, Wis.-based Schneider National, advises fleets to attend one of several regional cargo theft prevention conferences where they can learn ways to improve their anti-theft measures and training and build a nationwide network for law enforcement assistance.

Above all, Tapp urges fleets not to be complacent. “Crooks are smart,” he says. “No matter what you do, they’re going to figure out a way to defeat it. It’s a constant process, and you can never let up.”

Tapp also reminds fleets of an entirely different reason why drivers are a key element to consider when fighting cargo theft. “I hate to say this, but I think a lot of cargo theft cases are inside jobs,” he says. “Treat your drivers right. They do a tough job day in and day out. If you acknowledge that and pay them a fair wage, they’re going to be less likely to steal from you.”