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Number of cargo thefts is down; but dollar value about the same

Dave Wickenhauser on Mon, February 18, 2019

Last Updated: Sun, February 17, 2019


A load of stolen cell phones worth nearly $12 million was recovered in Louisville, Kentucky Photo by the FBI

In a report recently released by SensiGuard Supply Chain Intelligence Center the number of cargo thefts were down by 19 percent across the United States last year. But there is more to the story … some highlights of the report:

  • The average value of cargo stolen remained relatively the same, down by only 2 percent.
  • The overall threat level remains high, one level below the highest rating.
  • Three states, California, Texas and Florida experienced half of all cargo thefts reported for the United States.
  • These numbers may be lower than the numbers of actual thefts, as SensiGuard notes that not all cargo thefts are reported.
  • Electronics were the most sought-after cargo for thieves in the United States.
  • Food and beverages top the list for cargo thefts worldwide.
  • Cargo thefts of mixed loads and LTL loads are growing in number.
  • Pilferage of cargo, rather than stealing whole trailers full, is becoming increasingly popular among thieves.

The extent of the problem

According to SensiGuard's report there were 592 cargo thefts reported across the United States in 2018, 19 percent fewer than the previous year. That works out to about 50 thefts per month, having a value of about $142,342 per theft.

As noted, California, Texas and Florida experienced half of all cargo thefts reported; which SensiGuard attributes to those states' large sea ports, resulting in more cargo traffic, attracting cargo thieves.

The top 5 highest cargo theft states in order from highest:

  • California – 26 percent of thefts in 2018, 9 percent less than in 2017.
  • Texas – 15 percent of thefts in 2018.
  • Florida – 11 percent of thefts in 2018.
  • Illiniois – 10 percent of thefts in 2018, a 72-percent increase; which rose it from seventh to fourth place.
  • Georgia – 8 percent of thefts in 2018, 10-percent less than the previous year.

Despite the decline in the number of cargo thefts reported for 2018, "Organized cargo thieves in the United States still present a threat to highly targeted shipments,” noted the SensiGuard report. “The continued organization and evolution of their methods mean that the threat of cargo theft will grow in the United States.”

SensiGuard explains the increased incidences of an historically less common type of cargo theft – pilferage; which is where thieves steal only a portion of a truck's cargo.

SensiGuard says thieves do that to scope out future thefts, or to simply reduce their risk and increase their chances of selling their stolen goods without getting caught.

CargoNet, another company that tracks cargo theft, offered this scenario: “If I was going to be a bad guy would I want to go steal a whole truckload of dishwashing liquid or do I want to strategically steal two pallets of Apple laptops?” said Keith Lewis, vice president of operations. “I would take a couple pallets because I would make a pretty good haul and be done with it,” Lewis said.

In contrast to the decline in the number of full-load cargo thefts last year, so-called pilferage thefts increased by 18 percent over last year, and almost quadrupled since 2014. Almost one-fifth of all cargo thefts are the pilferage type these days.

CargoNet's Lewis explained the methods that pilfer thieves employ:

“They are doing a strategic pilferage, where they are sitting outside of an electronics warehouse or trolling truck stops near big-box retailers,” he said. “They know the trucks coming in Sunday night bedding down at truck stops will have electronics in them, so they take a few items off this truck or that truck.”

Some additional highlights as noted in SensiGuard's 2018 report:

  • The decline in cargo theft since 2014 is slowing.
  • Illinois saw a 72 percent increase in its cargo-theft rate in 2018 and ranked No. 4 nationwide, with 10 percent of all reported cargo thefts last year.
  • Personal-care cargo theft had the highest average value in 2018 – at $544,935 per theft.
  • Fictitious pickups account for 3 percent of all reported thefts but remain the most underreported mode, according to SensiGuard.
  • Theft of full truckloads accounts for 74 percent of all cargo theft, most often at unsecured parking locations.
  • Cargo thefts in Canada increased by 18 percent in 2018 compared with 2017.

Cargo theft is not a crime

Surprisingly, according to the FBI, cargo theft is not considered a crime, per se. Offenders must be charged under one of 13 other criminal codes, including robbery, motor vehicle theft, burglary with breaking and entering, false pretenses, impersonation, bribery, wire fraud or embezzlement.

To counter-act this apparent incongruity, the state of Mississippi has introduced a bill making cargo theft a chargeable crime, with fines up to $1 million and prison time up to 10 years.

Why is food cargo theft becoming more attractive to thieves?

According to an industry report, nuts, pet food and beer and other lower-dollar-value food products are often targeted in the United States because thieves find those products are usually untraceable and easier to sell, compared to the high-value, serial-numbered items like electronics or pharmaceuticals.

Plus, food thieves have a lower profile than, say, their electronics or medicals thief counterparts.

Stolen beer and dog food is easily sold on the black market to "fences," or even at swap meets and small "mom and pop" stores. Stolen dog food has even showed up being sold on eBay and Craig's List.

Accordingly, worldwide these kinds of thefts currently make up about 27 percent of all cargo thefts.

CargoNet said food thefts can be driven by a simple factor of supply and demand. For example, a few years ago because of a worldwide shortage the California nut industry was hit by an increase in theft of nuts in transit from growers to processors. According to CargoNet, 31 reported thefts just in the first half of 2015 resulted in some $5 million lost.

And the problem continues. “How are you to track individual nuts?” said Sgt. Shawna Pacheco, a supervisor in the California Highway Patrol’s Golden Gate Investigative Services unit and a member of its Cargo Theft Interdiction Program.

“When those nuts get transported to a warehouse where they are processed — some are legal and some are stolen – but all are crushed and bagged, so good luck telling the difference,” she said.

How to avoid cargo theft

Be vigilant:

This might be a no-brainer, but truck drivers need to be extra-vigilant of their surroundings and circumstances.

Be aware of any other vehicles following closely, especially after making several turns. Park in well-lit places, especially within the viewing scope of surveillance cameras. Invest in a trailer lock. Many shippers will use nothing more than the security tab, but if you put your own high-strength, cut-proof lock on the trailer it might be just enough to thwart the casual thief.

At the shipping facility make sure you are comfortable with whoever is receiving your load. Thieves do work among shippers, and loads can be stolen right from under their noses.

Know your load

As illustrated in this article, high-value loads are not necessarily the most sought after by thieves. Yes, electronics do get targeted, but thefts of food and beverages are quickly growing in number. Determine the risk factor before-hand, and set your vigilance accourdingly.

Put yourself out there

Pride might prevent a driver from calling police after spotting the first sign of suspicious activity, but even if it is a false alarm it's better to have called them than risk the consequences if the suspicious activity did turn out to be a theft in the making.

Also, as a company driver you should know what your company's theft prevention protocol is. If your company does not have cargo theft measures in place, talk to them about the importance of prevention.

What you can do as an owner-operator is be in frequent contact with family and/or friends who would know where you are headed, where you are or where you should be. There are mobile phone apps that allow someone to "follow" a phone on a map in real time. Any deviation from a planned route would alert someone to call police.

Sources: Trucks, Trucks, Overdrive, Factor Finders

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