It had never experienced cargo theft, so the California distributor was shocked when two loaded containers vanished in broad daylight while parked in its yard. But to the outside team that was called in to investigate, things looked suspicious from the start. To begin with, the thieves knew which two trailers were fully loaded, even though 95 percent of the trailers stored in the yard were empty on the day in question. For another, the trailers stolen were only vulnerable for 90 minutes—they had been placed in the yard at approximately 2: 00 p.m. and were scheduled to be picked up between 3: 15 and 3: 30 p.m. Skeptical that outsiders with two available tractors had randomly stumbled across the two loaded containers within that small window of opportunity, the investigators were eventually able to persuade the company that it was the victim of an inside job. Subsequent investigations showed the theft had indeed been orchestrated by one of the company's own supervisors.
The distributor probably shouldn't have been surprised. Cargo theft—whether it's an inside job or a heist engineered by outsiders—has become one of the new growth industries. Industry experts now put the cost of cargo theft at $10 billion to $20 billion annually in the United States, up from an estimated $1 billion in the late '70s. As more trucks travel the nation's highways, criminals have discovered there's a fortune to be made by stealing what are essentially "warehouses on wheels." Lax security at many warehousing and transportation outfits means there's a low probability of being caught, and criminal penalties for cargo crime are extremely light. Small wonder so many criminals have realized it's far less risky to get caught with a truckload of stolen goods than a shipment of cocaine or heroin.
As the crooks become more organized and entrepreneurial, it's not unusual for product to be negotiated and sold before it's ever stolen. We've even seen cases in which shady dealers provide detailed shopping lists of what they want their operatives to steal. One day the list might include electronics, cosmetics, computers, fragrances and home entertainment equipment. On another, it might be cigarettes, jewelry, pharmaceuticals and food.
Though cargo theft was once the exclusive domain of established organized crime families, dozens of new cargo theft rings have sprung up across the United States in the past decade. Some steal unmanned trucks. Others go in for armed hijacking. Yet others devise sophisticated deception schemes. A trucker with bogus identification and paperwork recently showed up at a distribution center and picked up a container loaded with $80,000 worth of product. Neither the gate guard nor the dispatch office had any indication that they had been scammed until the real trucker showed up for the container later that day.
Of course, outsiders are not always to blame. Disappearances of trucks parked at storage facilities or diners (or even as the result of armed hijackings) are not always the outside jobs they appear to be. As the California distributor learned, many times these thefts are either set up or personally committed by employees (typically drivers working in collusion with shipping or receiving staff) or even by vendors or contractors.
Seven ways to play it safe
Whether they ship high-value goods or modestly priced commodities, companies understandably feel besieged from both without and within. I'm frequently asked to recommend steps they can take to protect their cargo.What follows is a list of some of the more effective safeguards: