Are GPS jammers the next frontier in cargo theft?

By Greg Grisolano, Land Line staff writer | 8/4/2014

Two recent cargo thefts in Florida and Georgia may have given law enforcement a window into the evolving methods some thieves are using to help perpetrate the stealing of tractor-trailers and their valuable cargos.

FreightWatch International specializes in tracking supply chain information and cargo thefts around the globe. According to the company, as GPS tracking devices become more prevalent in cabs and cargos, sophisticated theft rings may be responding by deploying illegal technology used to jam or scramble the tracking signal.

In a July 29 report, FreightWatch cited two unsuccessful thefts: one in June 26 in Brevard County, Fla., and the other on July 22 in Bartow County, Ga. The thieves were either apprehended or forced to abandon the boosted vehicles, leaving behind jamming equipment in the process.

“While the recent jamming events have not proven to be successful, the use of jamming technology represents a potential challenge to the theft recovery process and should be taken seriously,” the FreightWatch report stated. “Outside the U.S., jamming technology has been used by cargo thieves for some time, and there are effective risk mitigation techniques deployed in those regions.”

The July 22 incident involved the recovery of a trailer loaded with more than $2 million in pharmaceutical narcotics. The theft was thwarted in just under an hour, in part because the stolen trailer had a hidden GPS tracking device in it. While the suspects weren’t apprehended, police did find a jammer device with the stolen rig.

The CEO of the company that installed the GPS device in the pharmaceutical load said the availability of jammers for sale in countries outside the U.S., and via the internet, “permits almost anyone to obtain the technology very easily.” 

“With industry’s increasing use of GPS tracking technology to protect their high value shipments, increasingly sophisticated and organized cargo theft gangs will undoubtedly increase their use of these devices,” said Gary Bryant, CEO of Hiddentec USA Inc. and Global Tracking and Recovery Solutions. “Ideally, the FCC and law enforcement authorities will have to identify ways of detecting these jammers and enforcing existing federal laws that prohibit the possession and use of GPS/GSM jammers.”

Based in the United Kingdom, Hiddentec is a multinational enterprise with more than 20 years’ experience manufacturing and deploying GPS transponder technology in over 40 countries.

Bryant said that while the concept of using GPS jamming equipment is a recent phenomenon in the U.S., his company’s global experience has given them substantial insights in designing and implementing countermeasures into their devices. Those countermeasures include switching the signal from a GPS to a cell signal or even a radio frequency to allow for continued monitoring.
“There’s nothing any solution provider can do to eliminate cargo theft completely, but by using multilayered GPS technology like that offered by Hiddentec, and incorporating a state of the art Global Tracking Operations Center to ensure 24/7/365 monitoring, tracking and recovery capabilities, you can make yourself a hard target and displace the bad guys to those companies who haven’t made the investment in protecting their high-value goods,” Bryant said in an email exchange with Land Line.

Chuck Forsaith, chairman of the Pharmaceutical Cargo Security Coalition, said the proliferation of jamming devices is a situation the logistics and cargo security industries should keep close tabs on.

“Whether that’s a clear indication of an escalation of that particular activity or not … it’s definitely different than what we’ve seen in the past,” Forsaith said in a phone interview with Land Line. “But to label it a full-scale escalation would be difficult unless it happens I think a couple more times.”

After a 22-year career as a state trooper in New Hampshire, Forsaith has spent the past 14 years working in the private sector, where he now serves as director of supply chain security for Purdue Pharmaceuticals. He said jamming devices can range from items small enough to plug into a cigarette lighter to more complex apparatuses the size of a laptop, with a variety of antennas that can be used to scramble signals for everything from a GPS to Wi-Fi, cellphones or even police radios.

According to the Federal Communications Commission, federal law prohibits the operation, marketing or sale of any type of jamming equipment in the United States. But Forsaith said that doesn’t prevent people from ordering the devices on the internet, or acquiring them on the black market.

Forsaith said the Georgia case in particular fits the MO of cargo thieves operating in and around the Florida area, in that the suspect or suspects will “steal a tractor-trailer unit and relatively quickly, usually within a fairly short distance of the theft, dump the original tractor and add their tractor to the combination.”

The reason is that individual tractors are typically unique whether because of the paint job or other markings, making them easier for police to recognize.

“The substitution of a very generic-looking tractor mated with what’s most likely a very generic-looking trailer, makes it much more difficult for law enforcement to be able to pick that out on the highway as it’s passing by,” he said

Although the suspect or suspects in the Georgia theft case tried to use a GPS jamming device, the attempt was unsuccessful for what Forsaith said could be a variety of reasons.

“What you can reach as a logical conclusion is the law enforcement agency that recovered the jammers indicated that the jammers were, in fact, on,” he said. “However, the GPS unit that led to the recovery of the tractor trailer didn’t appear to be affected by it. Now whether that’s because the jammers themselves were defective, whether it has something to do with the location of the GPS device … there’s a whole host of reasons why that may not have worked.”

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