(CBS) As the economy inches toward recovery, a lot of businesses are still struggling to keep up. But an illegal industry is doing better than ever: cargo theft. Losses from these robberies add up to as much as $37 billion a year in the U.S. -- forcing all of us to pay more for everything from computers to medicine to sneakers. Chief Investigative correspondent Armen Keteyianhas an exclusive look inside the criminal world of cargo hijacking.
At a Dallas warehouse, a band of thieves arrived in eight stolen tractor trailers - taking $850,000 in flat-screen TVs. Seventy-six million dollars worth of prescription drugs disappeared from another warehouse, in Connecticut.
Now, CBS News has learned that both of these crimes and many others committed in the last two years are tied to cargo theft rings run by Cuban-Americans in South Florida. Two men who've worked for these rings spoke with CBS News. We'll call them "The Trucker," and "The Broker."
In 2009 there were 864 reported thefts of goods from trucks or warehouses across the country - more than two per day. And 2010 is on track to be even worse.
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"Right now, thieves are winning," said David Wallace, retired detective Dallas Police Department. "When the cargo is stolen, it costs each one of us - insurance rates go up and trucking companies have to pay for the loss."
"The Trucker" earns a legitimate living hauling freight. He says the real money comes from doing what he calls the "dirty work."
"I steal the truck or I steal the cargo and the container," he said.
The most popular items to be ripped off?
"Computer hardware, hard drives," he said. "Viagra, penicillin, antibiotics, insulin," he added. "They all want that."
Last year $184 million in prescription drugs were stolen from trucks and warehouses nationwide -- a 350 percent increase from 2007. That prompted the FDA to send a letter last April to pharmaceutical companies and distributors warning: "...these crimes threaten the public health."
"Some of those drugs have to be refrigerated because they can kill people if the are not," Keteyian said. "Does that ever cross your mind or worry you?"
"No, no," the "Trucker" replied. "I mean you are in it for the money. They are in it for the money."
At some truck stops, 18-wheelers sit unattended as their drivers hit the rest room or grab a quick cup of coffee, only to be stunned when they come out and see their rig is gone. The easiest way to steal the cargo? Just take the entire truck.
How easy is that? "The Trucker" showed us on his own truck. Using nothing more than the small key to a padlock, and a pair of pliers -- from start to finish, he was gone in less than 30 seconds.
That leads us to "The Broker," whose job it is to sell the stolen goods. They're not just ripping off cargo. One ring was so brazen it stole an entire warehouse in Miami, breaking in and using it as a showroom to sell its goods.
The buyer comes out and gives a bag of money to "The Broker." At one time, he said he could have a "million and a half" dollars in his hands.
The bags of money keep coming, given the fact penalties for cargo theft are surprisingly weak. Most times, it's a minor felony that never leads to jail time.
Wallace said a stolen 18-wheeler with a load of property on it "is the same thing as stealing your 1963 Volkswagen."
"The Trucker" said he's "not really" worried about being arrested. He's headed off to other jobs - fueling a real-life game of grand theft cargo that shows no signs of slowing down.
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