Who’s tracking who?

By Charlie Morasch, contributing writer

Increasingly, one law enforcement veteran says, cargo thieves are watching trucks stops and other public parking spots to find potential loot.

OOIDA Director of Security Operations Doug Morris says some thieves will knock on the truck door, and will break a trailer seal upon hearing no response. Occasionally, thieves will sit in a vehicle at the truck stop for an evening and watch drivers leave their loads behind.

“They know right away that truck will be there for a while, unattended,” Morris said. “They’ll break the seals, break the lock and see what’s in there.”

Three to five loads of shipping cargo are stolen from trucks every day in the United States, according to the supply chain protection company LoJack SCI. While the average value of loads stolen in 2013 was $170,000, cargo security experts say loads that are most vulnerable may be lower-valued shipments of food and beverages that lack shipper-added GPS tracking devices.

That’s a problem for owner-operators and other drivers who may be on the hook for a stolen load.

While GPS technology and other anti-theft devices have become increasingly affordable, most cargo theft devices are still pricey for an individual owner-operator. To bridge the gap, OOIDA’s Morris says many owner-operators and small trucking companies are adapting cellphone and applications to make the technology work on their terms.

Morris worked for nearly 30 years in law enforcement with Maryland State Police. He now oversees the administration of OOIDA’s TRACER system, which alerts truckers and law enforcement officials when trucks, trailers and loads are stolen.

“I’ve talked to guys who leave their truck and trailer at a truck stop on a Friday night and think it’s OK,” Morris said. “They’re familiar with the truck stop, and it’s in a decent area. They come back Sunday night or Monday morning and it’s gone.”

Many cargo insurance policies cover 24 to 48 hours, he said.

“A lot of times leaving a truck unattended for 24 hours – that’ll come back on you,” Morris said. “You have to keep an eye on it.”

Some drivers who may be new to the business have incurred debts for loads they didn’t realize they were responsible for, Morris said.

“I’ve seen some real horror stories with guys being stuck with paying a loss of a $100,000 load,” Morris said. “It’s kind of foolhardy to believe you have a load on there worth some money and that it will be left alone, that no one will mess with it.”

Apps like Fleet Tracker and Virtual Fleet Supervisor are available at the Google Play store and on iTunes for Apple devices. The GPS-enabled systems have high customer ratings, though their claims to track “owner-operators” and other third parties add a Big Brother feel that appears to go beyond vehicle and cargo tracking. Virtual Fleet Supervisor is available for $39 and a $19.95 monthly subscription.

A European company called UBISAFE has introduced a small box that can be attached to trucks, cars, motorcycles and bikes. Drivers who download the company’s free app can use their mobile phones to track the location of their vehicle. The service, which costs about $6 per month, can even be used to send text messages alerting vehicle owners of their property’s location and traveling speed.

According to the company’s ubisafe.com website, the box itself costs about $225.

While vendors like UBISAFE have introduced a host of GPS-enabled security devices for tracking loads, Morris says he’s seen owner-operators adapt cellphone technology to their advantage.

“There’s stuff out there and it’s not cheap,” Morris said. “A lot of guys are buying a cheap phone and phone service, putting an app on there and wiring the phone into the battery system. If it moves, it will alert the phone they’ve got with them.”

Apps like Find My Phone or Phone Locator are widely available at app stores and are free. They send information about a phone’s location to another device, and are designed to help phone owners find their phones if they’re stolen or lost. For truckers, the apps can be installed on cheap phones hidden in a truck, Morris said.

“If the truck moves, they can get a text message notification sent to their personal cellphone saying it’s moved,” Morris said.

Morris said produce haulers and others who move refrigerated freight have adapted technology designed to track temperature changes in reefers to sense an intrusion into their cab or trailer.

“There are all kinds of apps out there that guys are using that aren’t specifically designed for tracking cargo,” Morris said. “But it’s cheaper than buying the GPS unit and the monthly subscription that goes along with the GPS unit.”

Technology or not, the problem of truck cargo theft isn’t going away. FreightWatch International estimated that cargo theft losses averaged $232,000 per load in 2014. Ninety percent of the losses occurred when trucks were unattended.

“It’s the same problem areas,” Morris said. “Atlanta, Florida, New Jersey. The areas around Dallas have gotten really bad now.” LL