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American Trucker Magazine

How to stop cargo thieves dead in their tracks

Cargo theft is a big problem for the trucking industry. Statistics on numbers of thefts and financial losses can be murky, so fleets should take them with a pallet of salt.

Want to keep your fleet’s precious cargo as safe as possible, especially with the busy fall and holiday seasons coming? Then do this one thing above all else: Do not underestimate the cunning, determination or flat-out cutthroat attitude of cargo thieves. They are smart, they are organized, and they are ruthless. They will take what they want when they want if you don’t take the necessary steps to stop them.

In a wide-ranging interview with American Trucker, Scott Cornell, transportation lead and crime & theft specialist at Travelers, noted that when Hurricane Dorian caused major problems, cargo thieves used public vulnerabilities to their advantage.

“Cargo thieves don’t care that it was the worst day in the world for people in those catastrophic zones,” he said. “They don’t care that they’ve lost their homes or experienced flooding. All they know is that people are going to need household goods and building supplies. So that’s what they’re going to steal.”

Cargo theft is a big problem for the trucking industry. Statistics on numbers of thefts and financial losses can be murky, so fleets should take them with a pallet of salt.

“The Federal government doesn’t track cargo theft like they track auto theft or burglaries or anything like that,” explained Cornell. “There is a UCR, Uniform Criminal Reporting, for cargo theft, but it’s not mandatory, so we don’t get accurate numbers from the government. The industry depends largely on two independent entities, CargoNet and SensiGuard, to gather numbers and create reports on a quarterly and annual basis. All the numbers are voluntarily reported. The problem is that you don’t know if the voluntary reporting number is down or if cargo theft is down when you see a drop in the CargoNet report. The normal assumption is both.

What I tell fleets is that you have to look at the numbers, but you also have to know what’s happening on a street level. We have that knowledge because we have a cargo theft investigation team here at Travelers. I talk to my peers, and we look at the numbers, understand what’s going on behind them, and accept that they are all voluntarily reported.”

That said, according to CargoNet, there was a 14% decrease in cargo thefts in Q2 2019 compared to the same time period in 2018. While there may be a drop in reported thefts, that doesn’t mean businesses can become complacent in their efforts to protect shipments. The decrease may be due in part to a recent shift toward pilferage theft, which is tougher to identify and less frequently reported than full load thefts.

And while new logging requirements and technology may be deterring thieves for now, you can bet they’ll find ways around it.

Cornell said now is a great time for fleets to get their anti-cargo theft strategies in order.

“Right after the second quarter, we start to see a pickup in crime,” he warned. “Christmas cargo starts to move around the country. Warehouses get full, and products are on the move around September. The trees start to bear fruit, so to speak, and the thieves want to pick it, especially low-hanging fruit.”

Impact of ELDs

One of the unexpected benefits of ELDs in trucks is that they give thieves pause.

“With the ELD mandate, in essence, there is a tracking device in every cab right now,” said Cornell. “The thieves know that, so it’s a deterrent from stealing the tractor and the trailer. We’ve seen a big increase in pilferage theft, which is when they don’t take the whole load, just part of it. They open the trailer and steal a pallet or a few boxes.

“Pilferage theft is the iceberg below the water. It’s the biggest part of cargo theft, and it was largely under­reported until 2014 when the industry decided it needed to start paying more attention to it,” he said. “If the ELD in the tractor is a deterrent, thieves start looking for unmarried trailers, ones not hooked to tractors.”

Cornell advises fleets that they need to take a multi-pronged approach to stop, or at least minimizing, cargo theft. “You have to have good processes and procedures,” he said.

Here are a variety of tips that Travelers offers trucking fleets to help prevent cargo theft.

  • Use high-security locks while cargo is staged. King pin locks and landing gear locks are recommended along with high-security locks on the cargo doors. When tractors are married to trailers, air cuff locks should be employed.
  • Communicate consistently with dispatch. Drivers should maintain communication with dispatch during stops at high-risk areas, such as truck stops and rest areas. They should inform dispatch of the address of the stop, duration of the stop, and how long they will be away from the truck/cargo. Drivers should always have their cell phones when away from the load.
  • Keep moving, because cargo at rest is cargo at risk. Define limits on how long a loaded trailer/container can remain unattended. Be aware of high-theft areas that could be part of a route. Limit the need for weekend transits to minimize loads being staged for extended time periods while waiting for weekday delivery.
  • Know where thefts are occurring. Focus on the “hot spots” and “hot times” near busy ports and their surrounding areas, with the highest rate of theft occurring in California, Texas, New Jersey, Illinois, Florida, and Georgia. Thefts spike around the holidays and are also more frequent on weekends (particularly Saturdays) and late in the afternoon when drivers stop for food and rest.
  • Park in secure locations. Park vehicles in well-lit spaces and be alert to danger signals such as signs that a vehicle may be following you or paying undo attention to you (e.g., facilities that appear to be under criminal surveillance). Consider employing a security company or utilizing a parking lot with a security guard to control incoming and exiting traffic.
  • Use covert tracking devices. For high value/high target loads, use covert tracking devices that will enable geofencing during stops and tracking in the event of a theft. Employ theft prevention devices to disable fuel, hydraulic, and/or electrical systems.

Red-zone attention 

Cargo thieves are well organized and will go to extreme measures to separate goods from trailers. Cornell said fleets and drivers can mitigate losses with some simple solutions.

“The thieves know exactly what’s where, will do surveillance outside of distribution centers and warehouses, and will watch for the loads to leave,” he cautioned. “They’ll follow the truck to see how soon the driver stops. We tell fleets to have drivers obey a red zone, meaning when they pick up the load, they should already be fueled, have already eaten, and have enough hours available so they can go 250 miles before making a stop. That’s getting outside the red zone. If they keep driving and it’s obvious they’re not stopping, the thieves give up, go back, and set up outside the warehouse again.”

So what are the crooks after most these days? Most people would guess electronics, but they only come in at number three, with household goods number two.

The prized stuff to steal? Food and drinks.

“They’re number one and have been for 10 years,” said Cornell. “Cargo thieves always steal what they know they can sell. Food is great to steal because what happens to the evidence? It gets eaten. Frozen meat doesn’t have a bar code on it. It doesn’t have a serial number on it. Pistachios don’t have serial numbers on them.

“Electronics are still a target commodity but when you buy them, most every product gets activated on the Internet, often with a warranty. So there’s a way to trace stolen electronics—at least more often than you can trace frozen chickens.”     


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