Cover Story
Grand Theft Cargo
Land Line watched an investigation firsthand and reports on how the world’s growing appetite for black market goods affects U.S. drivers

By Charlie Morasch
staff writer

 

Parked straight as an arrow, the Cobalt blue tractor and scrubbed-clean white trailer raised few eyebrows among the 10 other trucks parked in one of Miami’s many pastel and palm tree-lined warehouse districts.

The trailer, however, was loaded with stolen electronics. It hadn’t moved in 14 hours and was being watched by a team of undercover police detectives.

 “The driver’s still asleep,” said a detective sergeant, who wheeled an unmarked SUV past the parked rig that mid-September morning.

An estimated $25 billion to $30 billion in retail goods are stolen every year in the United States, with more than two-thirds stolen from commercial trucks, according to the National Cargo Security Council. Experts say a new wave of cargo theft rings, which operate more like small-scale mafia families than common street gangs, are responsible.

Many of the cargo thefts are investigated by Miami-Dade’s Tactical Operations Multi-Agency Cargo Anti-Theft Squad, also known as TOMCATS. Lieutenant Twan Uptgrow, commander of TOMCATS, said his investigators have linked at least one theft ring with terrorist groups outside the United States.

“Some of the buyers have ties to terrorist groups,” said Uptgrow.

Police say relatively low prosecution and very profitable rewards have fueled the growing crime. The right load can fetch $15 million to $20 million or more in goods, and first-time offenders risk little prison time compared to those convicted of violent or sex crimes.

When times are tough for workers, times are busier for thieves and police, Uptgrow said.

The white trailer pulled by the blue truck was at least the third scheduled operation of the week by Miami-Dade’s cargo theft squad.

“With the economy the way it is, we’re breaking records,” Uptgrow said.

Uptgrow was preparing to add more staff to his team when he spoke with Land Line early in the summer.

>TOMCATS

Miami – with one of the nation’s busiest ports – is a hub for stolen and counterfeit goods.

Television shows have showcased the city’s tropical warmth, art-deco urban architecture and international flavor.

The nuts and bolts of police work, however, reveal the city’s gritty side.

TOMCATS investigators tracked the stolen electronics load for 28 hours, poised to watch the driver’s every move.

Detectives had watched a team remove the cargo from the stolen trailer, take inventory, and place it in a new trailer before it was hooked onto the blue truck.

The task force was founded as a pilot project in 1993 with the help of former Florida Sens. Bob Graham and Connie Mack, and support from a then-Calvin Klein executive who was frustrated by increasingly expensive bottom-line losses from truck thefts.

“One of our goals is to prosecute on a federal level if we can,” Uptgrow said. “Everybody within the task force is sworn federally, and they have local and state powers.”

Most detectives work deep undercover, and the detective sergeant asked that his name and face not be published.

Miami-Dade has a backlog of applicants wanting to work for the unit, which is one of several regional cargo theft task forces in the U.S.

Unlike other Miami-Dade police officers, TOMCATS officers don jeans, tennis shoes and designer shirts, though they’re sheathed in bulletproof vests and holstered guns.

Officers frequently work undercover, and rarely disclose names or allow their faces to be shown.

“They’ve watched us as much as we watch them,” said the sergeant, an 18-year police veteran.

A unit called Cargo Cats operates out of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department in California, and similar cargo crime investigation units in New York, New Jersey, Houston and Memphis, according to the FBI.

The cargo theft investigation units typically are headed up by the FBI, which partners with local police departments.

In Miami-Dade, however, the 22-member TOMCATS unit is a more collaborative effort between the county police and the FBI. Several Miami-Dade detectives, as well as a U.S. Customs agent, a criminal analyst, a U.S. DOT officer, one Florida Highway Patrol trooper and a detective from the Broward County Sheriff’s Office work jointly with FBI agents to investigate the crimes.

The partnership allows TOMCATS to share in investigations and arrests, rather than merely work as a local assisting agency.

The police crackdown on cargo theft, however, has been matched by criminal organizations with their own creativity.

 “These groups are highly organized,” Uptgrow told Land Line. “For example, they can have a cargo theft group based out of south Florida; they will go to Kentucky, Texas, Georgia and other areas of the country to do surveillance on loads they want to take.

“They will rent vehicles in those areas, target locations to make thefts. They’re highly organized. They research it; they’ll know whether to pursue a load if it’s something they really want.”

>The bad guys

A few minutes after 11 a.m., the blue truck’s driver awakes and starts stirring.

The sergeant leaves the area and lets other TOMCATS investigators do their job.

Truck cargo theft has often been associated with mafia or random thieves. TOMCATS officers say that in actuality many smaller groups have formed their own partnerships based more on making money than on traditional mafia hierarchy.

The theft rings often are described as “lateral” organizations that work together only through loosely based business relationships and less like traditional mafia families with established hierarchies, Uptgrow said. Their less formal approach makes it tougher to take them down than a traditional crime organization.

Many theft rings are composed of people with international connections. The groups are rarely larger than 25 members and are run by leaders who live in million-dollar homes and drive Land Rover SUVs among other high-dollar toys, police say.

Even though TOMCATS has seized everything from laptop computers to loads of dog food, organized theft rings mostly target specific loads of such valuables as electronics and pharmaceuticals, quickly moving the goods and selling products at 10 percent of retail cost.

The rings will fly their own drivers on commercial flights, or send them in rented cars, to track and later steal loads, Uptgrow said.

Earlier this year, TOMCATS stopped thieves who’d targeted a trailer with $17 million in computer chips.

“Those are the types of loads somebody targets,” Uptgrow said. “They know what they want to target.”

Many times, TOMCATS officers say, trailer thefts in the Midwest and southeastern U.S. are shipped out of the U.S. by container through the Port of Miami.

The rings now rapidly move stolen pallets from stolen trailers, sometimes taking only a few hours to steal and then fence the goods in the black market.

Recently, the gangs have begun efficiently separating pallets of stolen goods before they’re fenced – in the rings’ own version of LTL. Separating the stolen goods makes GPS-tracked loads harder to track, only adding to headaches police already face.

“It’s frustrating,” said the TOMCATS sergeant. “Every time we learn something they adapt.”

Earlier this summer, TOMCATS seized 48 pallets of Grey Goose vodka worth an estimated $1.2 million.

The sergeant said some theft rings will be caught after holding onto stolen goods too long.

Others will simply be caught by observant police.

Earlier this year, an officer spotted a large forklift sitting near a welding business and started investigating. His investigation led to the TOMCATS recovering 60,000 pounds of stolen marble.

But the billion-dollar industry of cargo crime also has its version of petty shoplifters.

As drivers and truck stops have dealt with increasing diesel theft, TOMCATS has seen a rapid increase in fuel theft among some local fuel delivery drivers.

The drivers will work with others to skim 200 or 300 gallons of fuel at a time, Uptgrow said, selling the fuel on their own.

Earlier this spring, TOMCATS stopped a black market fuel operation run out of a suspect’s backyard, in a residential neighborhood. The suspect had 15 large drums of fuel in his backyard. He pumped the fuel using electricity from a car battery and jumper cables.

“He had it rigged up to where just one match would blow up the entire neighborhood,” Uptgrow said. “If just one person had thrown a lit cigarette, it could have blown up the entire neighborhood.”

After an hour of patrolling one warehouse district surrounding the stolen electronics load, the TOMCATS sergeant took a cell phone call from an informant.

A stolen load of designer clothing was in the area.

>Protecting your truck

Freightwatch Group is an international cargo security firm that specializes in theft prevention.

American cargo thieves rely mostly on nonviolent methods, the firm said in a company-issued paper in 2006. In Europe, however, cargo theft rings have become violent in response to increased theft prevention and enforcement, Freightwatch Group said.

“U.S. cargo theft is not likely to mimic Europe’s trend of violent cargo theft in the near term. U.S. distribution security practices are still weak and provide abundant opportunities for nonviolent thieves,” Freightwatch Group said. “However, as in Europe, increased awareness and new security practices could change the dynamic.”

Most truck hijackings occur within a few miles of the load’s pickup point, Uptgrow said.

“In some cases, freeway on and off-ramps have been particularly dangerous. They’ll climb up and force their way into the cab,” he said.

TOMCATS officers say they routinely notify large trucking companies that they’ve located a stolen trailer before the company is aware it’s missing.

Most loads have been stolen while a driver is away from the truck for dinner or on break, often while the truck is idling. Thieves simply drive off with the goods.

“It only takes these guys a minute,” said Uptgrow. “Since they’ve been following the load down the interstate, as soon as they see the opportunity they’ll go ahead and take it.”

TOMCATS officers advise truckers to plan ahead when possible and park in secure areas. It’s best to find rest stops and other spots where other truck drivers will see them. Watch for cars or vehicles following your truck when you leave the highway.

“Hijackers don’t like crowds. Don’t stop in deserted areas while waiting to make deliveries,” Uptgrow said. “Try to stop at reputable truck stops along the route, and maybe try not to stop at the same location each time.”

Team drivers also stand a much-improved chance of protecting their loads, he said. Company drivers working alone should have regular communication with their dispatchers.

TOMCATS urges truckers to call local police if they’re suspicious about another vehicle following them. Drivers pulled over by an unmarked police car should call 9-1-1 to verify.

 “A few hijackings have occurred in which persons have pretended to be police officers in unmarked cars,” Uptgrow said. “Try to pull over in a well-lit area where someone else can witness what’s going on.”

TOMCATS remained tightlipped about what happened in the mid-September stolen electronics stakeout with the blue truck towing a white trailer, saying only the investigation is ongoing.

Investigations can take several months and sometimes longer as the unit tries to arrest every connectable cargo thief they can, tying worker bees to the king bees leading the theft rings.

“Check back in a few months,” Uptgrow said.

Any trucking companies or drivers who think they can’t be targeted are living a fantasy, said Uptgrow, who compared cargo theft to home burglaries.

Most home burglars, however, aren’t willing to share profits among 20 or more partners or willing to buy airline tickets and rental car fees to land a score.

“If they really want your load,” he said, “they’re going to get it.”

 

charlie_morasch@landlinemag.com

March/April
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