Surge of cargo theft is 'hitting us like lightning,' experts say

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In the first quarter of 2024, cargo theft incidents were up more than 46% compared with the year prior, according to CargoNet. Notably, it’s also a 10% rise from the fourth quarter last year. 

CargoNet analysis of the first quarter of 2024 documented 925 incidents, with an average stolen shipment value of $281,757. The declared total value was $76 million, and the firm estimated a total of $154.6 million worth of goods were stolen during the period.

“We’re seeing a big increase in a couple of different silos,” said Keith Lewis, CargoNet vice president of operations.

A common one is through fraud, including deceptive means to steal someone’s identity, company, email or domain, and then taking the load. Forgery has also come up in the last year, said Lewis, which sometimes leads to loads that are most or partly stolen, having authentic stamps, and then reselling it to unsuspecting customers.   

“We’re seeing this type of crime hit all different types of commodities, from food and solar panels, to high-end electronics,” said Lewis.

“In tough times like these, [it] seems to increase,” said Dean Croke, principal analyst at DAT Freight & Analytics. “When times are really tough for a lot of people, I think we just see more cargo theft as people are more desperate to make money.”

While today’s supply chain strategies have proven efficient, Lewis pointed out this has become an advantage for thieves, too.

“The faster you move things through the supply chain, the more efficient you are. [And] because the less we touch these things, the less we have to deal with them, it's less labor intensive. It's less administrative, and we're moving these goods at light speed,” said Lewis.

“Well, what the bad guys have figured out is, the faster we move things, the less vetting we do, and the faster they can steal things. And that’s what’s going on right now. It’s hitting us like lightning. There’s really no end to this,” he said.

Theft and pilferage of unattended loaded trailers remained a consistent issue, according to CargoNet. Hotspots for such thefts included Southern California, Dallas-Fort Worth, Atlanta, as well as the corridor spanning New York, North Jersey, and Eastern Pennsylvania.

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Having inexperienced drivers who are new to the industry could be a factor too, said Croke. They don’t know all the bad spots to avoid, thus creating an opportunity for loads to be stolen.

“There’s also the inside knowledge that a lot of theft rings have these days,” Croke said, noting that "inside job" cargo theft and organized crime networks are increasing, too. “With the turnover in the industry, I just think there’s ample opportunity for the bad guys to steal freight.”

[Related: Tools to spot unauthorized cargo movement, an integration to combat freight fraud and more]

Upswing on holidays, commodities, and certain spots

With Memorial Day coming up, there’s a heightened risk during holiday periods. According to a 2023 CargoNet report, over the last five years, there have been 125 cargo theft incidents reported, with a total loss value of $16 million.

Carriers should be on high alert for thieves during holidays because these periods often see reduced staffing levels and increased shipping volume, creating ideal conditions for theft. The focus on holidays can lead to distractions and relaxation of security measures, making it easier for thieves to leverage vulnerabilities in the supply chain.

“A lot of trailers are going to be parked around Labor Day [as] a lot of drivers want to get home,” Croke pointed out. “You’re going to see a lot of trailers dropped in areas they wouldn’t normally be dropped because drivers want to get home, and rightly so as they want to be with their families. The problem is that the trailers are going to be sitting around in spots that are easily accessible.”

Certain items often trend too, depending on consumer demand. Last year, Lewis said it was solar panels and virtual reality headsets. More recently it's been energy drinks.

“You have to realize it’s what people are using and people are consuming. What people want is what the bad guys are going to steal because they’re not going to steal something that nobody’s buying,” said Lewis.

Food and beverage continue to be a consistent commodity for thieves, said Scott Cornell, transportation lead and crime and theft specialist at Travelers Insurance. CargoNet’s report noted that food and beverage and household goods were the top-targeted commodity type in the first quarter this year because they are easy to move, sell, consume, and they are untraceable. “Even if it’s recovered, the chain of custody has been compromised. Usually, the owner or shipper is not going to want to put that back into the supply chain," Cornell said. 

California, Texas, and Illinois have ranked as the highest cargo theft occurrences, with the three states representing 61% of all theft in Q1 2024. 

Lewis said that this is no surprise as these states have of manufacturing and commerce activity. “You look at those types of [activity], when you start looking at how the supply and how the goods are moving, that's where they’re going to be.” 

On whether the rise of cargo theft is continuing in the next few months, Lewis noted, “I don’t see why it would slow down. Nobody’s been caught or prosecuted. Very few, loads are being recovered, and most are being recovered in California.”

“They’re recovering a lot of these stolen goods, but they’re just recovering stolen goods," he added. "There’s nobody in handcuffs being walked to the jail cell with them.”

Pamella De Leon is a senior editor of Commercial Carrier Journal. An avid reader and travel enthusiast, she likes hiking, running, and is always on the look out for a good cup of chai. Reach her at [email protected]