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Truck cargo ‘easy pickings’ for thieves

It’s discouraging to say, but trucking is fighting a losing battle on cargo theft. The bad guys are going to win almost every time. Most of the good news recovery stories we hear are the result of diligent fleet owners taking steps of their own to get their freight back.

To be fair, when the stars are aligned just right some credit does belong to law enforcement. But cargo theft is deemed a low-priority property crime by most police departments. There’s usually not a lot of interjurisdictional cooperation in the critical first 48 hours following the theft of the vehicle. That’s when you’d hope police would be on their toes and willing to put some resources into finding the rogue truck. 

trailer seal
(Photo: istock)

“After a fleet reports a theft, the police will usually send a uniformed offer around to take a report. He files the report at the end of the shift, and it could be a day or more before the report circulates to the right department,” says Mike Proska, deputy director of investigations at GardaWorld. “The best window of opportunity for recovery is within the first 48 hours. After that, our chances of making any meaningful recoveries are greatly diminished.”

Proska has an insider’s view of the problem, having worked in law enforcement and now in private investigations. Gardaworld provides insurance companies and motor carriers the investigative services for cargo theft incidents.

Proska’s view is that most cargo thefts are perpetrated by various organized crime groups, from South Asian gangs to traditional organized crime syndicates and outlaw bikers.

“Everybody’s in it because it’s such easy pickings,” he says. “There are hundreds of millions of dollars of goods sitting in trailers all over Ontario and across the country. Everybody tends to think that these incidents are mostly inside jobs. It’s the exact opposite. It’s more like a shopping spree.”

Proska says groups of three to six guys will check out truck yards and crack open trailer doors to see what’s inside. If they like what they find, they grab it and go. It’s the same thing with reefer trailers. A lot of food products are stolen and then resold on the black market.

“Any running reefer with a seal on the door is a target,” Proska says. “The thieves know there is probably food inside, and those are the easiest loads to sell.”

Recovery rates

It’s difficult to know how many loads are recovered because we don’t know with certainty how many loads are stolen. Fleets may choose to privately deal with a theft without the police, keeping things between the insurance company and customer, and hiding the true scope of the problem.

The insurance company will usually investigate the theft as best it can, often with the help of people like Proska. Before cutting a cheque to the client, the insurance company will look at how much effort the fleet put into theft prevention and loss mitigation, and how hard it worked to locate the stolen equipment. The loss goes against the fleet’s loss ratio.

Investigators will also look for links between the fleet and the theft. That’s just proper investigative procedure, says John Oldfield, client executive at NFP, formerly of Dalton Timmis Insurance Group.

“Security is hard and expensive.”

– Shawn Baird, Sharp Transportation Systems

“When a theft occurs, I always warn the fleet owner or the risk manager, ‘Remember, you’re the prime suspect,’” he says. “It’s going to be demeaning to you. It’s going to be hard on you. Don’t take it personally.”

Sometimes recovery is just random luck. Somebody, a company driver or a friend, notices a trailer parked somewhere it shouldn’t be. Sometimes, the GPS tracking devices alert owners to its whereabouts, if they can get to it before the thieves hack apart the inside of the trailer looking for hidden GPS. Crooks know that many trailers are equipped with GPS tracking devices that could lead police to the warehouse where the trailer is to be unloaded.

Often, the crooks will dispatch a couple of low-level gang operatives, kids really, to hack apart the inside of the trailer and find and disable the GPS. Once they know or think the GPS has been disabled, or that nobody has eyes on it, they’ll haul it back to a warehouse to be unloaded.

Some thieves will hide a trailer in a steel barn where the GPS signal can’t escape before they go to work disabling it. Sometimes, the goods are sold right out of the back door of the trailer under cover of the barn, a few boxes of pallets of meat at a time — just like a grocery cash-and-carry outlet. If it’s under a roof and hidden from view, chances are you won’t see it again until it’s empty.

A viable defence

Truthfully, the solution to cargo theft is not about getting better and finding stolen equipment, but preventing it from disappearing in the first place.  It begins with fleets, and the initiatives they take to prevent the crime. And perhaps the biggest obstacle to a successful defense is cost. Hardening access to the terminal should be step one. This would include fencing, password and cardlock-protected gates and high-resolution security cameras.

The cameras don’t help prevent theft, but they’ll tell you when the load was stolen. You can watch endless replays of the event, but unless there are live eyeballs on the monitors that can initiate a response, cameras aren’t terribly useful.

We learned of one fleet that had installed perimeter fencing with a card-locked gate. Thieves scaled the fence, hot-wired the truck, and drove it out the gate, which had a proximity sensor to open the gate to exiting vehicles. That kind of defeated the purpose.

In another case, thieves used a card to get into the yard in broad daylight, hooked up to a trailer, stopped at the guard shack and was handed the paperwork by the security guard. He left unaccosted. Nobody knew it was missing for several days. That load wasn’t recovered.

“Security is hard and expensive,” says Shawn Baird, president of Sharp Transportation Systems based in Cambridge, Ont. “We did an audit once on how many people on the supply chain might have some knowledge of any high-value load we moved. In some cases, it was upwards of 250 people. The only way to manage that is to keep changing cards and passwords. And that’s why we pay ten grand a month for two live security guards.”

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