What is cargo theft?

Cargo theft is a serious issue that causes hundreds of millions of dollars in losses every year. The FBI defines cargo theft as:

The criminal taking of any cargo including, but not limited to, goods, chattels, money, or baggage that constitutes, in whole or in part, a commercial shipment of freight moving in commerce, from any pipeline system, railroad car, motor truck, or other vehicle, or from any tank or storage facility, station house, platform, or depot, or from any vessel or wharf, or from any aircraft, air terminal, airport, aircraft terminal or air navigation facility, or from any intermodal container, intermodal chassis, trailer, container freight station, warehouse, freight distribution facility, or freight consolidation facility. <sup>[1]</sup>

Cargo theft poses a significant risk to supply chains. Although cargo theft has always been an issue, the COVID-19 pandemic has given thieves a greater opportunity to take advantage of shipped electronics, home and garden supplies, food and drinks, and other miscellaneous items.

How bad is it?

In the first quarter of 2020, the average value of cargo lost in each incident of theft was $105,000 in the United States. Compared to the last quarter of 2019, this figure is up from just over $80,000 per incident, resulting in an approximate 23% increase in theft. Further, cargo theft throughout the year continued to rise. There were 217 incidents in the first quarter of 2020 and 365 events in the third quarter; in the third quarter alone, it is estimated that $33.77 million was stolen across the United States and Canada. The average value of each incident jumped from $105,000 in Q1 to $151,500 in Q3.

Theft in individual states also saw dramatic increases throughout 2020. Texas reported 65 cargo theft events in Q3 alone, a 210% increase from the same time period in 2019. Eight out of the top ten states that experience the most cargo theft incidents reported similar increases, with California and New Jersey being the only states to report a decrease. However, even with a decrease in reported theft, California has seen the most significant amount of cargo theft throughout all of 2020 compared to other states.

The most targeted products in Q3 of 2020 were in-demand commodities such as disinfectant wipes and sprays, toilet paper, water, and other items that have seen a dramatic increase in demand in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Across Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, over $99 million worth of cargo was stolen in the first half of 2020. Much of the stolen property was sought-after PPE also due to the pandemic.

What can be done to prevent it?

Cargo thieves use a variety of methods to steal product. The following information is taken from Travelers.com and define the different types of strategies cargo thieves use to acquire stolen product:

Straight Theft: cargo is physically stolen from a location where it sits… Cargo thieves are looking for whatever they can steal and sell quickly. Think truck stops, parking lots, roadside parking, drop lots and other areas where cargo could be left unattended, especially in store parking lots or empty lots on weekends. Thieves may look for temperatures on refrigerated trucks that indicate the presence of pharmaceutical loads, candy or other types of desirable cargo. Trailers with little to no security deterrents are easier and likely targets.

Strategic Theft: or theft that uses deceptive means, continues to evolve. This type of cargo theft can involve unconventional methods, including the use of fraud and deceptive information intended to trick shippers, brokers and carriers to give the load to the thieves instead of the legitimate carrier. Trends include identity theft, fictitious pick-ups, double brokering scams and fraudulent carriers as well as hybrid combinations of these methods used together to create even more confusion. Cargo thieves often look for loads being brokered late in the afternoon on Fridays in hopes that time constraints and deadlines will lend to mistakes and less stringent vetting of the carrier. Thieves may even generate false loads and post them to solicit bids in order to obtain the information they need to steal a company’s identity.

Technology: Some cargo thieves are using “sniffers,” devices that help detect covert GPS technology, even those embedded within a trailer. Once a device is detected, they then use a GPS jammer to block that technology so it can’t be used to help law enforcement locate stolen goods. Others stage stolen loads in a parking lot immediately after the theft and wait to see if law enforcement will come in search of it.

Cyber: Phishing emails may be sent in an attempt to install Trojan Horse malware that can infect a company’s system and grant access to sensitive data. This may allow cargo thieves access to pick up and delivery information, which they can use to print out copies of paperwork to commit fictitious pick-ups.

Pilferage: Better industry reporting in recent years has led to greater acknowledgment of pilferage issues. “It’s become more apparent in recent years, but pilferage has always been the larger part of the iceberg just below the surface,” explains Cornell. “There’s often a lag in detection that there has even been a theft because the drivers may not realize it until they reach the point of delivery, after making multiple stops along the route. As a result, police may be reluctant to file a report if the driver is unsure of where the theft occurred.”

There are a few ways to prevent these types of cargo theft incidents from taking place. Straight theft can often be mitigated by ensuring no trailers are left unattended, especially in areas known for cargo theft. High security door and air cuff locks can also help prevent these acts. Strategic cargo theft can be slowed by working closely with shippers to ensure proper identification of drivers is confirmed at the point of pickup; identification numbers, specific cargo information that is unique to that shipment, and truck/trailer confirmation through VIN or license plate numbers significantly reduces the amount of cargo lost. Technology-based cargo theft is especially difficult to mitigate because the end goal is not always to steal the cargo itself; thieves want to determine if police are able to detect that the cargo has been compromised, and if they are not tipped off, authorities will not know the cargo is missing until it is far too late. Cyber attacks to steal cargo can often be prevented by implementing strict security procedures online. Is any cargo-specific identifiable information available online through company or vendor websites? Is driver or truck information accessible online? Knowing what information only the right person should know is a great way to ensure the cargo is delivered or handed off to the correct parties. Pilferage, however, can only be stopped if drivers and other people responsible for the goods are adamant about checking their cargo at every potential exposure; when the driver stops to refuel, did they check the cargo before leaving? When the cargo is delivered, did the driver confirm the name and title of the person receiving the goods?

Preventing cargo theft is a laborious process that only works if strict procedures are followed. Any misstep provides ample opportunity for thieves to take what isn’t theirs.

References: Land Line Media, Land Line Cargo Theft Report, AJOT/CargoNet, DCVelocity, FBI, and Travelers