Pallets more likely to be stolen than entire truckloads

The image of tough guys hijacking truckloads of goods is a familiar one to fans of gangster movies. While trucks are the victims of most cargo thefts globally—75% of them, according to one report—these incidents increasingly do not involve the theft of the entire tractor-trailer.

Instead, cargo theft is increasingly characterized by pilfering: lifting a few boxes or a few pallets of products while a truck is parked at a stop. This tactic makes the job much easier for thieves, on several levels—they don’t have to hide the truck, for example—while making things more difficult for carriers, cargo owners, and law enforcement.

Even when thieves purloin an entire truckload, they are more likely to employ some scheme or scam to take possession of ill-gotten freight than to strong-arm a driver to give up his load. Technology has been deployed in an effort to counter rising cargo theft rates, but thieves have countered with their own technology.

CargoNet recorded 188 cargo thefts across the United States and Canada in third-quarter 2018, a 13% decrease over the same period in 2017. The average cargo value per theft event was $143,949, for a total estimated loss of $13.9 million across the United States and Canada in this period. 

Overseas, Transported Asset Protection Association (TAPA) identified the biggest cargo crime trend late for 2018 in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa (EMEA), as the significant increases in loss values. TAPA’s recently published regional cargo crime report for the third quarter of 2018 reported a total loss of $44.6 million, representing a year-on-year increase of 123.3% or around $25 million over the same period in 2017.  

Travelers Insurance

Scott Cornell, who heads the transportation business at Travelers Insurance, said the increase in incidents and value in EMEA is likely attributable to an increase in voluntary reporting. That assessment appears to be validated in the TAPA report, which noted that robust reporting in the United Kingdom “meant it was the country in EMEA with the highest number of cargo crime incidents in November” 2018, 74.3% of the monthly total. The UK also accounted for most of the total loss value that month.

Back in the USA, California was number one in the nation for cargo thefts in the third quarter with 35 reported incidents, according to CargoNet. Texas ranked second, with 28 reported cargo thefts, overtaking Florida, which dropped from the second-highest state for cargo thefts to sixth. Increases in cargo theft were reported in Illinois and Georgia and the Canadian province of Ontario. New Jersey, usually a hotbed for cargo theft, saw a 73% drop.

Food and beverage, household goods, and electronics were the usual and perennial top-three categories of cargo stolen in North America, with household products and electronics recording increases in theft incidents in the third quarter. In EMEA food and drink, furniture and household appliances, cosmetics and hygiene products, and clothing and footwear were the top four cargo categories stolen.

“Household goods thefts jumped because of the catastrophes like hurricanes, floods, and fires that occurred during that time,” said Cornell. “Unfortunately, bad guys will take advantage when they see opportunities and will steal things like building supplies and appliances because of the demand for them when rebuilding is going on.”

Scott Cornell – Travelers Insurance
Scott Cornell – Travelers Insurance
Awareness of cargo pilfering in North America has been on the rise since 2014, according to Cornell, and an effort has been mounted to increase the reporting of those incidents. “We have seen an increase in pilfering incidents over the last year and a half,” he said. “Values are going up due to more theft of electronics. Thieves can get $80,000 to $100,000 for two pallets of electronics. It’s easy to launder those products and sell them in bulk or dispose of them on the black market.” Stealing boxes and pallets, Cornell also noted, allows thieves to circumvent tractor and trailer GPS tracking devices.

As an example of the scams used by thieves to steal cargo, TAPA reported that in November, a fake carrier insinuated itself in a subcontractor’s pool of suppliers and was later found to be responsible for the theft of goods. The carrier worked normally for two weeks before being assigned to collect a particular load. The driver used documentation, license plates, and insurance information from a legitimate UK company to assist in the theft of the cargo.

When it comes to countering pilfering, raising the level of awareness of the problem among drivers is a key measure that carriers can take. “Drivers should be educated to do a walk around of the truck before they get back on the road after every stop,” said Cornell. Without that, it’s impossible to know for sure where the theft took place, and that hamstrings law enforcement efforts to catch perpetrators and recover goods.

High-security rear door locks are also available to harden potential targets of crime. “They are not impossible to defeat,” noted Cornell, “but thieves are more likely to pass on trailers with that type of equipment, especially when there are less-secure alternatives available to them.”

Technology and security

Technology has also stepped up to help secure truck cargo. “The cost of covert tracking devices has dropped significantly over the last few years and are now very affordable,” said Cornell. “Some of these devices can tell you when the door is open and if the trailer is empty. Others can monitor routes” and can determine if a load has gone astray.

Unfortunately, thieves, too, deploy technology to their advantage. Sniffers are able to detect tracking devices on board and jammers can scramble the signal. “These are commonplace in Europe and Latin America,” said Cornell. “They started to arrive in the U.S. in 2014 and their use has been increasing.” Thieves have also been known to use 3D printers to duplicate container and trailer seals.

The current situation is likely to continue, according to Cornell. The thieves are always “looking for ways to throw us off base,” he said. 

“They will always be devising methods to keep us on our toes.”