Long-Haul Trucking's Billion-Dollar Cargo Theft Problem - Pacific Standard

Long-Haul Trucking's Billion-Dollar Cargo Theft Problem

It's not uncommon for entire tractor trailers to go missing.
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(Photo: Overdrive)

(Photo: Overdrive)

Elizabeth Aud doesn’t recall the exact species of exotic mushrooms she was hauling in 2005. What she does remember is being awakened one night by two guys rustling in the back of her trailer, and a fellow driver running out in his skivvies with a flashlight.

“When the flashlight hit them, they took off running. I’m surprised they didn’t kill themselves jumping out of the back,” she says. The pair made off with a flat of mushrooms worth $5,000.

Whether the crooks just got lucky—assuming they found a place to fence fungi—or ended up with moldy mushrooms, we’ll never know. But premeditated or not, Aud’s story is an example of how high-value heists continue to hit the trucking industry, even as the number of incidents falls.

“Overall incidents have decreased, but load values have gone up,” says Andy Geyer of FreightWatch International, a cargo monitoring service that compiles reams of data on thefts nationwide. “The things that are being targeted are becoming more specialized.”

FreightWatch figures show 899 theft incidents nationwide in 2010 valued at $423.6 million, with food, electronics, and building materials leading the pack for stolen goods. But those numbers may not match other reports, due to the fact that not every state or legal jurisdiction defines cargo theft the same way.

“It depends on how it occurs. If they’re stealing partially out of the back of a truck, some jurisdictions call it a theft, some call it a burglary. If they steal the tractor, some call it an auto theft,” explains detective Erik Dice of the Marion County, Florida, sheriff's office and the Florida Commercial Vehicle and Cargo Theft Task Force. His state is one of a handful that pushed for a federal act establishing a Uniform Criminal Reporting definition of cargo theft that took effect in 2010.

(Photo: UniFreight International Ltd.)

(Photo: UniFreight International Ltd.)

“We’re still trying to educate agencies [and] get them all on board with some kind of consistency. It’s pretty consistent what an arson is or a homicide, but cargo theft, not all states recognize it as a separate crime.”

According to Dice, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has estimated cargo thefts nationwide between $15 billion and $30 billion annually, and the agency will soon release new figures under the UCR standards.

Dice also agrees with FreightWatch that the number of incidents has fallen, but says that, in Florida at least, so has the total value. State police records show 215 incidents totaling $22 million in 2004 dropping to 130 thefts for $16 million in 2014.

Then there’s how you determine value.

“The insurance company, the legal system, the merchandiser, the defendants; they’re all going to argue different values on a load,” Dice says. “Is it the cost to manufacture a load? The cost of the raw materials in the load? The retail value of the load? The insurable value?”

Take insulin, which might be distributed in lots spread over 10 tractor trailers. If one trailer is stolen, the product in the other nine has to be recalled so that there’s no chance of it comingling with a potentially pilfered (and tainted) product. Should all 10 trailers count toward the loss?

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Stealing a whole trailer, by the way, is not uncommon.

“I’ve lost a couple of trailers,” says Jeff Foster of Jeff Foster Trucking, which owns over 300 tractor trailers. He describes quick-change artists—who may have been trailing the shipment from the loading dock—unhitching and re-hooking rigs during a driver’s bathroom break. That’s why many companies require that drivers go non-stop for the first 200 miles or more, assuming they can.

“You can only be on duty for 14 hours, and you can drive only 11,” Foster says of federal regulations. “The crooks could outsmart you.”

Thieves also keep up with technology. Loads of any reasonable value are secured with seals on the trailer doors, but this security measure has become increasingly breached. “Recently, there’ve been several cases of people using 3-D printers to make replicas of the seals,” Dice says of a scam where trailers are emptied en route and then re-sealed.

Or the seals are simply cut off, as Wyzeena Heeny found out while trucking a shipment of Super Bowl-branded Doritos two years ago. Thankfully, a bolt-cutter-proof lock saved her. But that won’t matter if it’s an inside job. Desiree Wood remembers celebrating the end of commercial driver’s license school at a restaurant with a questionable fellow student who’d done prison time.

“He grabbed a basket of chips on the table, pushed it toward me, and said, ‘Pretend this basket is full of money, and you didn’t have to do anything [to get it]. We just park our truck, go someplace, and when we come back, poof! It's gone!’” she recalls. “I told him to never talk to me about the topic ever again.”

So what can the public do?

Not much, drivers and authorities say.

“There’s not a lot for consumers to do,” Dice says. He’s often asked why truck drivers don’t dime out bad seeds more often.

“I tell them, if you ever see someone trying to unlock a car with a coat hanger, your first thought is, ‘Man, I’m glad I didn’t lock my keys in my car!’ Same thing at truck stops with truck drivers. A truck backs up to a trailer and hooks up. That’s what truck drivers do.”

Still, if the industry truly wanted to crack down on cargo theft, it could take a page (albeit a hugely expensive one) from the Department of Defense.

“I used to haul munitions. I used to go to the Colt manufacturing plant and get M16s and take them to the FBI academy down in Quantico,” says 36-year driver Ingrid Brown.

“When you leave the installation, they ping you every five to 15 minutes. If they don’t get a response, they don’t wait to ping you again. They send every law enforcement agency around to find you,” she says, adding they also follow arms shipments with unmarked cars for hundreds of miles.

“This was 13 or 14 years ago. I don’t haul that now. That’s why I’m able to tell you. Today, I won’t tell you what I haul.”

We can only guess. Mushrooms?

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