JOLIET — The figure is staggering.
Every year, between $15 billion and $30 billion worth of merchandise is stolen out of cargo trailers,intermodal facilities, railroad yards and warehouses across the United States. No doubt some of that loss gets passed down to consumers in increased prices.
To combat the problem, the state police formed the Zone 3 Cargo Theft Unit several years ago — the only one in Illinois and one of only a handful nationwide.
Since 2008, the group, comprised of a master sergeant, a sergeant and four agents, has recovered more than $6.2 million in merchandise, investigated 101 cases and made 31 arrests.
The need for such a unit in the area became apparent to Sgt. Kevin Matthias in 2006. The Tri-County Auto Theft unit, which has offices in Joliet and Kankakee, arrested two men for cargo theft. Because of limited funds and other responsibilities, the unit could not sufficiently address the problem.
Noting Will County’s proximity to Chicago, the county being the home to numerous intermodal facilities, warehouses and railroad yards, and with three interstates running through, Matthias began to explore the possibility of starting a cargo theft unit.
“The rails all meet here,” he said. “We are a hub.”
Garnering the support of state police command and private business, and the cooperation of other law enforcement agencies, the unit began in 2008. The National Insurance Crime Bureau also played a major role in the cargo unit’s formation. In 2009, an agreement between ISP and the FBI was signed, creating the Chicago Major Theft Unit.
The transportation system is complex, leaving the industry vulnerable. Rail containers are taken off trains and stored in yards waiting for pickup. Semi tractor drivers are dispatched to pick up and transport them to another yard or to the final destination. Several different drivers may transport the same container before it reaches its destination, as opposed to box trailers that are usually transported by one driver from start to finish.
“It’s a very complex system on how (items) get from point A to point B. It’s amazing,” Matthias said.
Groups of thieves
Matthias explained there are three groups who target cargo theft in the Chicago area.
On the lower end, street gangs usually hit trailers in truck stops and take what they can. Middle-Eastern groups tend to be “fences” and steal whatever is available. Cuban groups out of Florida are calculated and concentrate on warehouse thefts. They look for high-value containers transporting items such as pharmaceuticals or electronics.
Matthias said they may follow a trailer before stealing the load. They may switch out the tractor or re-paint the stolen trailer to avoid detection. In 2007, $12.5 million-worth of cell phones were taken in Bolingbrook.
The theft of pharmaceuticals happens infrequently but the value is high. A stolen load could be worth up to $10 million, not to mention a public safety concern when the stolen drugs are redistributed. Matthias said a theft can also lead to a severe shortage of prescription or over the counter drugs.
Many times the thieves are repeat offenders. In early 2010, a three-month undercover investigation led to the arrest of two men and the recovery of more than $1.6 million in stolen property. One of the suspects in that case was arrested a second time in July by the Will County CPAT for possessing counterfeit Viagra. Additional stolen property was recovered from his residence. And a third arrest in January for domestic battery netted the recovery of multiple open car titles.
The thefts are sometimes internal. In February, the unit arrested a trucker for a Bridgeview company, after he stole a large-screen television from Walmart and later sold it to an employee of a Mokena business. Further investigation revealed the man allegedly had stolen at least 10 televisions.
Cargo theft is not going to go away anytime soon. According to the FreightWatch annual report, the reported number of thefts rose 4.1 percent in 2010. Eighty one percent of the incidents were full truckload or container thefts, followed by 3.4 percent taken in warehouse burglaries and 1.3 percent involved either hijackings or warehouse robberies.