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Grand Theft Semi

Two men in a car follow closely behind a truck and trailer that’s pulling into a truck stop. The trucker parks, exits his cab and walks inside to use the restroom and grab a bite to eat. One of the men in the car follows him inside to keep an eye on him. In the meantime, his partner disables the truck’s GPS system, gets into the truck, hot-wires it and drives away. It only takes a few minutes.

The trucker still unaware that he has a problem, finishes his meal. Only after the food’s gone does he realize his truck is too. He calls 9-1-1.

The man watching him calls his partner and tells him: “You probably have 30 to 40 minutes’ head start on the police.”

That’s how the majority of outright cargo thefts happen: in unsecure locations, yards, truck stops or rest stops.

And that’s unfortunate. As Robert Morisset, president and CEO of the Calgary-based vehicle-security-system manufacturer MAGTEC Products Inc., says,  “Carriers put too much onus on drivers to be full-time security guards.”

He said this is the most common method of cargo theft: double teaming the driver at unsecured locations – truck stops, usually. There’s no violence, they simply follow the driver, wait for him to leave and they steal the load – no one gets hurt. At least not physically.

Of course cargo crime is not victimless. The cargo may be insured, but premiums skyrocket and can become unaffordable.

Randeep Sandhu is the founder and president of Load Solutions Inc., a general-freight carrier operating out of the south-central Ontario town of Puslinch. Worse than soaring costs, some companies can go under because they’re rendered uninsurable, Sandhu says. Of course the drivers’ and carriers’ reputations, the shippers’ brands and the general public all take a hit, too.  

In 2008, Sandhu lost four trailers: a load of beef, a load of chicken, a load of Bacardi and a load of tires. Nothing was recovered.

“It was our first experience with cargo theft and we were sitting ducks,” Sandhu says.

“Our yard was gated in and we had cameras up and running. We had heard stories of this kind of thing happening, but we thought the gates and the security cameras would deter thieves. In hindsight, it’s not enough of a deterrent. Now, the yard is manned 24/7,” Sandhu says.

Det. Robert Bennett is a Cargo Inspector with York Regional Police. “I’m looking,” he told Today’s Trucking, “at a valuable load that was taken, and it was definitely insider knowledge because the surveillance video shows the suspect tractor coming in, hooking up and taking the trailer away within four minutes; and there’s another 15 trailers there. They knew exactly which one to hook up to.”

Other times opportunistic thieves will frequent locations known for truck traffic and open up 10 or 15 trailers until they find one carrying goods they can easily steal and fence.

Cargo thefts typically happen on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays or over the long weekends and holidays. It can happen during the day or at night, but usually when the truck and trailer is parked. The thieves leave the dramatic hijackings to the big screens of Hollywood productions and action-packed video games.

“Education is very important,” Sandhu says. “Back in 2008, had I known that we have gangs of thieves operating, we would have been much more careful.”

One of the challenges police face is that cargo thefts are sometimes not reported right away.

Sandhu says he understands why some carriers might not want to report cargo theft: they lose more than just freight, they can lose customers and their reputation can suffer too.

“But if you don’t speak up, how is it ever going to be remedied? When it happened to us, we reported it to police first,” Sandhu says. “We’re really grateful for the job the OPP is doing because their resources are pretty limited.

“It’s our collective responsibility to stop it, not just police, but education and government involvement also. Thieves do it because they think they can get away with it.”

GTS—The Upgrade

Although yard heists are still the number-one reported kind of cargo theft, there’s another rising trend. Thieves are assuming false identities and in some cases, creating actual companies to con innocent carriers and shippers out of their freight.

CargoNet is a private-sector warehouse of information managed by crime analysts and other experts trained to prevent cargo theft. CargoNet shares information about known cargo theft incidents or suspicious activity with its members. It has about 150 members in the United States and last year CargoNet entered the Canadian market.

They’re now working with the Canadian Trucking Alliance (CTA) and have over 20 members so far.

They say deceptive pickups, including identification theft, were up by eight percent in August when compared to January 2013 – and that’s just for incidents reported to them.

Not only that, but these savvier thieves are stealing more than the old timers.

The folks at CargoNet say the value of cargo stolen by deceptive pickup was $203,744 per incident as opposed to $174,380 per incident for overall in 2012. That’s 17-percent higher.

So how does it work?

In an identity theft situation, the thief will steal the identity of a legitimate carrier.

“They’ll go on the Internet and gather as much information as they can so that they may pose as a legitimate trucking company in order to obtain a load or an agreement to move a load,” Scott Cornell, national director with a special investigations group at Travelers Insurance, said in a recent cargo-theft seminar.

Today, it’s relatively easy and inexpensive for these computer-savvy criminals to create a fake company or reactivate a dormant carrier number from a government website. They’ll use prepaid cell phones and credit cards to make it difficult to have their real identities traced and mask a rented or stolen rig with bogus placards.

Then, they use online load-posting sites to win transportation bids. When they later show up to pick up the freight, everything seems in order, so they pack their trailer and drive away with the goods.

“It’s quite sophisticated, the way they do it,” comments fleet owner Sandhu.

“Once, we were carrying a load and our truck broke down. We gave that load to a carrier we work with closely and they, in turn, sold the load in good faith to a third party,” Sandhu says. “The third party came in, gave the carrier all the documents and the carrier signed them up in their system. Then the thieves ran away with $50,000 worth of aluminum.”

Another way is by deceptive pickup, where the shipper is dealing with an honest carrier, but the con artists steal the load away from the real carrier by arriving early with fake paperwork and a masked truck.

They’ll make up some excuse for being early, take the load away and disappear before the real carrier arrives. By the time the real driver comes, it’ll be too late: the freight is already gone.

Unlike yard heists, when thieves steal the trailer from an unsecured location, this type of cargo theft most often happens on Thursdays and Fridays, when shippers and brokers are anxious to meet their delivery dates and satisfy their customers. The thieves hope that the urgency to deliver will cause some shippers, brokers and warehouse operators to rush the vetting process and miss some minor, but crucial details.

“When you’re a start-up and you’re struggling with cost, you can omit a couple of the steps, like screening drivers vigilantly, and it throws the door open for thieves to get in,” Sandhu says.  “We learned everything in trucking the hard way; by losing money and I really don’t think it has to be that way.”

Salvatore Marino, vice president of business development and logistics services at CargoNet comments: “Many companies and drivers out there are just waiting for something to happen because it’s difficult to change if you’ve never felt pain.

“The mentality is that they’ve been in business for years and have yet to be victimized. They’re rolling the dice because depending on the size of the company and the value of the load, their first theft might be their last.”

There are many security measures available to carriers and drivers; the challenge is balancing the cost with the return on investment.

“You don’t have to put a device in every pallet or every load, but depending on the cargo, you can find out your risk and vulnerability in advance,” Marino says.

Knowing the locations the thieves frequent and the goods that are most at risk of being stolen will help carriers and drivers protect their most valuable and vulnerable trailers.

That’s where CargoNet comes in. They know what’s being taken from different areas, which routes are most popular with thieves and can help carriers decide what security measures are worth taking and for which loads, Marino says.

Three GTS Cheats

  1. Tell your drivers to watch out for this known ploy: a vehicle strikes the trailer lightly from behind and as the truck driver is inspecting the damage, the other driver will try to rob the truck.
  2. If one of your drivers thinks a vehicle is following him, tell them to take down the color, make and license plate number of the suspect vehicle. Drivers will also need to know the description of the product they’re transporting, serial numbers, VIN numbers and locks.
  3. When vetting drivers or third-party carriers, save all e-mails sent and received. Make sure their e-mail and domain match exactly. Check their business address carefully. They’ll change small details that are hard to notice at first. So if a real carrier is located at 451 Attwell Drive, the fake will be at 451 Attwell Road. 
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cargo theft trucking