Advice from the Cargo Cats: owner-operators should tighten security
by Donna Carlson
With every conceivable product now moving by truck, thieves are finding trailers and containers easy pickings. The National Security Council estimates that more than $10 billion in goods are now stolen annually in the United States.
Statistics are hard to pin down because of the way police agencies classify cargo theft. Thefts are named anything from grand theft auto to kidnapping to armed robbery or burglary. "It's hard to get a sure handle on it, but it has increased and is a significant problem," said Jim Harris of Jim Harris Investigations.
Now retired after 32 years with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, Harris is the founder of California's "Cargo Cats" (Cargo Criminal Apprehension Team). He says the six counties of the southern California basin are "a candy store for crooks" when it comes to cargo theft. According to Cargo Cats statistics, $1 million a day in cargo is lost to thieves haunting the numerous ports, rail yards and airports in southern California.
Ports in Los Angeles and Miami have always been prime targets of cargo theft, but now theft is expanding inland to big cities on major truck corridors. According to the authorities, cities like Chicago and Memphis are getting hit hard. "The hijackers and cargo thieves follow the truck traffic corridors," says Lt. Ed Petow of the Miami-Dade police force's Tactical Operation Multi/Agency Cargo Anti/Theft Squad (TOMCATS). "I'd say no matter where the truck is hijacked now, most of the goods come back through Miami. My best advice is to lock up your tractor and load."
Thieves may stake out a "target facility" or carrier that always runs on the same schedule in the same corridor. "An owner-operator stops for coffee, leaves the truck running and the load is gone in 30 seconds," says Lt. Petow.
Hijacking goes hi-tech
Years ago cargo theft was largely the work of organized crime. Cigarettes, liquor and designer clothes were the targets, but now thieves are going high-tech in their choices. "Computers and computer components are on the top of the list, but thieves will steal anything right down to toilet paper," says Lt. Petow.
Both Harris and Petow say once your freight has been stashed in a black-market warehouse, transferred to a container bound for South America, distributed to street vendors or taken to flea markets, the chance of subsequent identification and recovery is nil. It's hard to tell one widget from another once the load is broken down say these experts. There's also a chance that your stolen power unit may end up in a chop shop, or domiciled south of the border.
Harris says today's thieves are more fearless and sophisticated in their approach to theft. They buy inside information, steal Internet access numbers, forge papers, or even bypass security tape on containers by drilling out the hinge pins to get their hands on goods. "Stolen cargo can be resold by transferring it to a different container," says Harris. "Customs is so short-handed that only a fraction of containers headed for overseas markets get checked. Some thieves are so brazen that they forge papers and resell the load through a broker or even at a local flea market."
Chuck Johnston of Commercial Management/Truck Claims also thinks there are company employees on the take. "There are even a few 'dirty' drivers out there," he says. "From what we hear, a lot of cargo theft as well as theft of the truck and trailer involves insiders. This includes paying off an insider for product location in a yard or bribing a gate guard and driving off with a truckload of product in broad daylight."
Johnston says that if an owner-operator is unlucky and gets hijacked, cargo thieves will probably dump him somewhere and remove the cargo, then ditch the whole unit somewhere down the road. Or, some thieves will keep the tractor, strip it and sell the parts. "There's a lot of money in used parts," says Johnston.
"Owner-operators need to be aware of their surroundings," he says. "Most of the time hijackers will just take the truck, tie up the driver or leave him by the side of the highway, but they can get rough and statistics are going up on the number of drivers killed for their cargo."
Both Harris and Lt. Petow agree with Johnston about being careful. Harris says the phrase, "A rig at rest is a rig at risk," is often heard around California police headquarters. Lt. Petow advises, "Lock your trailer. A thief will always bypass a locked trailer for an unlocked one."
Here are some suggestions so your million dollar load doesn't become a statistic:
Theft Prevention Guidelines
If you are an owner-operator, these guidelines from Western States Cargo Theft Association will help you protect your equipment. If you are a company owner who employs drivers, the following driver guidelines will help prevent the theft of company tractors and trailers.
Be suspicious of individuals asking you to stop as a result of an alleged traffic collision. If unsure, drive to a police station or busy location before stopping. Hijackers frequently use this ruse to get drivers to stop.
Take the bill of lading and/or other paperwork with you when you leave the truck to eat, sleep or use a restroom.
Be especially watchful immediately after picking up the load and just before delivery. The majority of armed hijackings occur within a few miles of the pickup or delivery point. Freeway on-ramps and off-ramps are particularly dangerous.
Stay with the trailer or container during loading or unloading to protect the property, prevent pilfering and observe the condition of the property being handled.
Implement a "no stop" policy for drivers picking up containers for local delivery.
Make sure each of your drivers has a 24-hour phone number for dispatch or management personnel that he/she can call in the event of an emergency.
Require drivers to check and use seals, padlocks and kingpin locks when the trailer is dropped.
Require drivers to keep all cargo compartment doors closed and locked when unit is loaded.
Require the driver to get a signed delivery receipt prior to leaving the delivery location.
Insist that drivers not take loaded units home or to any other location that is not secured.
Require that drivers park units in a reputable truckstop or secure yard when waiting for their delivery time. A number of motels in southern California are being targeted for tractor-trailer thefts and break-ins.
If you are hijacked, always and immediately do as instructed by the hijackers. Listen to what is being said and to the sounds around you as this may provide law enforcement with valuable information as to where the thieves have taken your truck and load.
If you are hijacked or you find that your load has been stolen, immediately notify police (dial 911) and then your 24-hour dispatcher or emergency contact.
You are law enforcement's best witness. Try to provide them with descriptions of the hijacker(s)and the vehicle(s) they used.
Carry information on your person concerning the identification of the equipment you are driving. You will need license numbers, container and/or trailer numbers and descriptions. Law enforcement cannot make a stolen vehicle report or cargo theft report without this information.