The very last thing you want when your real-estate agent is showing your house is for a neighbor to wander by and ask about your termite problem. So it is with trucking and cargo crime. Everyone wants the problem solved, but nobody wants to talk about it.
That leads to differing opinions on the extent of the problem. Sgt. Rob Ruiters of the RCMP’s automotive crime division, National
Pipeline/Convoy Program, suggests that rates of unreported cargo theft are in the 50 to 60 percent range, while Marsh Canada vice-president, Greg St. Croix, says that as many as four out of five incidents may go unreported.
"We believe this is a $5-billion problem in Canada, but we may be seeing only the tip of the iceberg," St. Croix says. "We know that over $500,000 worth of property disappears every day in the Greater Toronto Area [GTA] alone."
Fleets have their reasons for keeping a lid on the problem, ranging from fears of premium increases resulting from claims to the loss of customer confidence.
"Nobody wants their customers to know they are being ripped off," says St. Croix.
That puts police in a difficult position. To them, a criminal is a criminal is a criminal, regardless of whether he’s stealing a load of computers, a load of cigarettes, or driving around with 100 lb of cocaine in his trunk. Ruiters says the problems police have in breaking out cargo theft from other types of property crime is that it’s treated simply as theft.
"If a cargo theft is reported, it shows up on police records as ‘theft over …’ It’s in the same column as a burglary," he says. "If someone asks about statistics on cargo theft, we can’t tell them much because it’s not broken out separately."
That becomes an issue when you approach government asking for help. "How do you go to the legislators and say we have a problem with cargo theft when we don’t even know the extent of the problem?" Ruiters asks.
Crooks will keep grabbing freight that’s left for the picking until you do something to stop it.
Ruiters says everyone from the trucking industry to police departments to government has to give up thinking of cargo theft as a property crime and start thinking in terms of organized crime.
"This isn’t a theft problem, it’s an organized crime problem," he says. "As soon as we start referring to it as an organized crime problem, it will begin to raise the priority on the policing scale as well."
Historically, it hasn’t been a high priority for law enforcement. Because of that, very limited communication exists among police forces in what is called "The Shopping Triangle" — an area encompassing the Kitchener-Waterloo area to the west, the GTA, Peel and Halton counties to the north, and Durham region to the east.
Within this territory, which one could safely call the centre of the trucking universe in Ontario, less than half a dozen police officers work the cargo crime beat, St. Croix points out.
While southern Ontario remains ground zero for cargo crime in Canada, other cities have their problems, too — particularly Montreal and Vancouver. It’s an issue in other parts of the country as well, but to a lesser degree. Two aspects make the GTA unique in terms of cargo crime: there is a wider variety of commodity on the ground worth stealing than almost anywhere else in Canada, and the problem has been going on so long in that area, industry is finally ready to admit it can’t continue fighting in isolation.
So rather than worry about where it’s happening, which police force is dealing with it, and who is not talking to whom, Ruiters says it’s time for a national approach to the problem.
"To become fully engaged on this, we need everybody in Canada involved, not just Ontario," Ruiters notes. "We’ve got auto-theft squads in parts of Canada, but they don’t know much about cargo theft. We’ve got jurisdictional issues across southern Ontario. The Ontario Provincial Police can’t do it alone. The RCMP needs to be involved."
So, Ruiters convened a meeting in Ottawa in late November between a small group of carriers from eastern, western, and central Canada, as well as enforcement officials from those same areas — and from southern Ontario too — and members of the RCMP organized crime and auto theft units. Also present were three committees from within the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police: traffic, organized crime, and the private sector liaison committee.
"Those are the people who can push this up the political ladder," says Ruiters.
In fact, there’s a new bit of legislation floating around Parliament Hill that would recognize auto theft as a particular crime under the criminal code. Ruiters is hoping it can be amended before it’s approved to include not just the theft of automobiles, but crimes where vehicles are used in the commission of the offence, i.e., stealing a truck in order to steal a load of cargo.
"We’re hoping the new legislation will give us the tools to raise the issue of auto theft, cargo theft, and freight theft," Ruiters says. "But the police can’t lobby for more laws and stiffer penalties. Industry has to give this a great big push."
And at the same time, industry has to start protecting itself much more vigorously. There was a time when industry maintained that cargo theft was a law enforcement problem. But law enforcement said ‘we’re after the fact. It’s an industry problem.’ "Now," Ruiters, stresses, "it’s recognized that ‘we’ have a problem — trucking, insurance, and law enforcement."
Loads left unattended at fuel islands are easy marks for crooks.
The number-one thing trucking can do right now is to police itself better. For years, it’s been a trusting, closed shop kind of atmosphere, but it has opened right up in recent years. The criminals recognized that fact a long time ago, but industry hasn’t done much to change the way it operates. For starters, Ruiters says, industry has do more background checks, and be much more careful about who they hire.
"I find it amazing that a company would entrust a driver with a half-million-dollar load of cargo and truck when you haven’t finished your background checks," he says. "When you’re hiring drivers with faxed applications without face-to-face interviews so you can grab them before your competitor does, you’re opening yourself up to all kinds of risk."
Law enforcement comes into play only after the theft has occurred. It’s a great deal easier to prevent the crime than to solve it.
HOME GROWN SOLUTIONS
Trucking isn’t exactly defenseless, but it could be said that we’re underutilizing the tools at our disposal. There’s some pretty sophisticated technology available to help with either theft prevention or load tracking. And there are physical and logistical measures that could be taken to secure loads — and equally importantly, information — but the uptake there hasn’t exactly been universal.
Tamara Souter of CargoWatch, a Ontario-based, non-profit group dedicated to reducing or preventing cargo theft, says trucking hasn’t invested heavily in this technology so far, and that has left it open to some criticism.
"At the very least, fleets should be using tamper-proof locks and door hinges," she notes. "Most, if not all, of the truck manufacturers now offer password-protected ignition lock-out systems, and there are a variety of tracking systems available as well. None of those methods are guaranteed to stop a thief, but they help. And so does driver training, but we don’t see a lot of that going on either. Fleets do need to be more proactive."
Ruiters says broker fraud is a real problem too. That happens when a carrier’s information is used to fraudulently obtain a load off a load board. The thieves literally drive up to the dock, pick up the load, and disappear with it. Because the pick up looks legitimate, the event isn’t given a second thought until the load fails to arrive at its intended destination sometime in the future. Depending on the lag time, the freight could be anywhere by the time its absence raises an alarm.
COME IN, HELP YOURSELF
Cargo theft in the U.S. was reported to be up nearly 17 percent between the fall of last year and the spring. That’s a 30 percent rise from the same period a year earlier, according to the North American Cargo Theft report issued by Chubb Marine Underwriters.
While this group does not track or report Canadian statistics, it’s believed that the figures would be similar — but nobody really knows.
Robert Furtado, LoJack SCI’s CEO, says the trend implies that organized crime rings are becoming increasingly bold in their pursuit of cargo, even stealing from secure areas with monitoring and surveillance systems.
"The fact that thieves are stealing goods increasingly from secured areas is further proof that ‘cargo at rest is cargo at risk,’ even if the cargo is located in an area with some measures of physical security," says Furtado.
Hungry termites won’t give up until they have consumed most of your house. As it is with cargo crime, the crooks will keep grabbing freight that’s left around for the picking — until you do something to stop it.