Ga. Bureau of Investigation starts major theft unit, has seized more than $17M of stolen cargo
BY KYLE MARTIN
The Augusta Chronicle
Nov. 29--Ricky Hamblin was killing time one recent afternoon when he noticed a stranger walking toward the cab of his tractor-trailer.
Hamblin stopped what he was doing and kept his neutral gaze locked on the stranger until the man introduced himself as a newspaper reporter.
Hamblin relaxed a little and explained that it's his habit to always watch his mirrors and keep an eye out for would-be robbers.
"I'm always scanning the area," said Hamblin, who was parked among dozens of other trucks at the Pilot gas station on River Watch Parkway by Interstate 20.
Hamblin is right to be leery, authorities say. Georgia is a major hub for shipping companies, with an estimated 43.5 million truckloads of cargo valued at $1.4 trillion passing through the state in 2009, according to the office of Gov. Sonny Perdue.
That's an attractive lure for thieves, who break the locks on trailers or force drivers to open them at gunpoint. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation created a Major Theft Unit specifically to address this problem and has seized more than $17 million in stolen cargo.
A majority of the thefts happen in the metro Atlanta area, but thieves are striking all across the state, said Special Agent John Cannon, who heads the Major Theft Unit.
In Augusta, sheriff's office reports show thieves steal whatever they find in cargo trucks, from beef broth and boxed wine to toilet paper.
Last year, trucks hauling frozen beef and $8.8 million worth of pharmaceuticals were stolen from Haralson County on the Alabama state line. Those types of incidents make cargo theft a "huge issue" for both truckers and consumers, said Edward Crowell, the president and CEO of the Georgia Motor Trucking Association.
"Everything the consumer buys costs more because of cargo theft," he said.
Crowell added that stolen goods, including medicine and improperly refrigerated food, will find their way back into the market.
Most cargo thefts are not impulse crimes, but organized and planned by specific groups. Some are more loosely organized than others, but most know exactly what they're looking for and already have a buyer set up, Cannon said.
The problem is that many of the goods are sold on the Internet and have already disappeared by the time authorities are aware of a theft, Cannon said.
Another problem is finding the jurisdiction to prosecute the thieves who are caught.
A theft can happen in one county, the goods sold in another county and the thieves arrested in another. A statewide task force has helped address that problem.
But often local jurisdictions report cargo theft as a simple auto theft, making it hard for the GBI to keep reliable statistics on the true scope of cargo theft.
Cannon said proper safeguards, such as heavy-duty locks, would safeguard against thefts. But the trade-off is that a strong lock signals that something important is locked inside.
"It's very difficult to compromise," he said.
As the holiday season approaches, increasing freight movement becomes an opportunity for thieves to target high-value loads.
FreightWatch recorded 77 incidents for the month of October, a 23 percent increase over September’s 55 incidents.
Electronics were the most stolen products in October, with 19 recorded incidents. Clothing/shoes and food/drinks were the second most targeted commodities, with 14 and 11 thefts respectively.
Truck stops continue to be the second most targeted location by cargo thieves. An average of $324,679 estimated loss value resulted from October’s 35 truck-stop incidents.
California continues to report the highest number of thefts, accounting for 34 percent of October’s total reported incidents. Florida, Texas, New Jersey and Georgia remain at the top of the list and continually report slight variances in the number of thefts from month to month.
Bureau says cargo theft crimes are a multi-billion-dollar problem and are growing
ARTICLE COURTESY FBI
You probably don’t hear much about cargo theft on the news, but it poses a real and rising threat to our country’s economy and national security. During the past five years, the groups involved in this crime have become better organized and more violent…and the price tag associated with the thefts is increasing.
Defining the problem. Cargo is any commercial shipment moving via trucks, planes, rail cars, ships, etc., from point of origin to final destination. If merchandise is stolen at any point in between—highway, truck stop, storage facility, warehouse, terminal, wharf, etc.—then it’s considered cargo theft.
Scope of the problem. Because cargo theft statistics have never, until recently, been a separate reportable category in the Uniform Crime Report (UCR) and because many companies don’t report cargo crimes (to avoid bad publicity, higher insurance rates, damage to reputation, embarrassment, etc.), the exact dollar losses aren’t known. Industry experts estimate all cargo thefts ring up as much as $30 billion in losses each year.
Cargo theft has many victims, from employees (i.e., drivers, warehouse workers) who can be hurt during an armed hijacking or robbery....to retailers who lose merchandise…to consumers who pay as much as 20 percent more to make up for cargo theft…to state and local governments who lose sales tax revenue…and even to insurance companies, manufacturers, and shipping companies.
What’s being stolen? Any product being shipped is potentially a target, but cigarettes, pharmaceuticals, and especially computer/electronic components are current high-value favorites being re-sold on the black market.
Industry experts estimate all cargo thefts ring up as much as $30 billion in losses each year.
Law enforcement response. Since the FBI’s jurisdiction doesn’t kick in until an interstate nexus is achieved, many of the cargo thefts in the U.S. are investigated by local law enforcement. But even when we get involved, we focus on criminal enterprises engaged in systemic or violent criminal acts. And if a case has an international nexus (as many do), we work with our legal attachés overseas, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and our international partners.
We have also joined forces with state and local law enforcement agencies on seven cargo theft task forces in five cities that are key transportation hubs—Miami, El Paso, Chicago, New York, and Memphis.
One interesting fact about cargo crime: it’s usually a “gateway” crime. In many instances, a cargo theft investigation will turn into a case involving organized crime, public corruption, health care fraud, insurance fraud, drug trafficking, money laundering, or possibly even terrorism. Criminal groups use the illegal proceeds they gain from stealing cargo to fund their criminal operations. And the fear is that terrorists could use their proceeds to launch attacks or fund training.
Industry assistance. Of course, law enforcement couldn’t effectively investigate cargo theft without the assistance of our retail and transportation industry partners. They:
Provide transportation help—i.e., trucking, shipping, and storing stolen goods for us;
Provide merchandise, warehouse equipment, and trucks for use in our undercover operations; and
Sometimes even have their own forensic labs to assist in the analysis of certain types of evidence.
And with the addition of the cargo theft category to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting System, once police are fully trained to identify and report such crimes, we should have a much better picture of the overall cargo theft problem and will be able to use our resources more strategically.
BY MARK A. HOFMANN
Christmas is coming and thieves have already kicked off the cargo theft season, experts say.
The season means more high-value, high-demand goods are hitting the highways. That presents opportunities for cargo thieves, experts say.
Fortunately, risk managers, security managers and others responsible for cargo protection can take steps to increase the likelihood that shipments will arrive at their destinations intact, according to observers.
Discussing the general issue of cargo theft at the recent National Cargo Theft Summit in Washington, Kevin L. Perkins, the assistant director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's criminal investigation division, estimated that cargo theft costs $30 billion annually.
Cargo theft involves an increasingly sophisticated criminal enterprise, often involving gangs from Latin America, Asia and the Caribbean, Mr. Perkins said. Cargo theft presents "much less risk than other forms of criminal activity," such as selling drugs, he said. Prison sentences typically are much shorter than they would be for other potentially very lucrative crimes, he said.
"It would make sense that the number of thefts would go up" as the holidays approach, said Joe Wehrle, president and CEO of the Des Plaines, Ill.-based National Insurance Crime Bureau. "Especially during the holiday season, why would you want to break into a store and steal a handful of TVs when you can get hundreds of them off of one load?" he said.
"When people think of Christmas, they think of toys," said Scott A. Cornell, national manager-special investigations group in Travelers Cos. Inc.'s Rochester, N.Y., office. "When we see the first load of video games or something related to video games, the toys are on the road and here we go."
Holiday cargo begins to move in September, Mr. Cornell said. There's more cargo than usual the rest of the year on the road and, equally important, the cargo tends to be high-demand items.
"That type of volume creates more targets for bad guys and more backlog for trucking companies and shippers," he said. Cargo has to be stored in secondary storage, such as trailers, before it's delivered, he said.
In addition, to deal with the increased volume, shippers may have to hire trucking companies they never have used before, said Mr. Cornell. As a result, they are not familiar with the truckers' security practices, he said. It's important for the shippers to talk with the trucking company's risk control manager and make clear what sort of security measures have to be implemented, he said.
"The thieves are out their doing their own Christmas shopping," Mr. Cornell said.
Regardless of the season, "if you take every theft that has occurred, especially in truck stops or warehouses, you're going to find that the employee or the driver had made some mistakes," said Capt. Tommy Bibb of the Marion County Sheriff's Office in Ocala, Fla.
An unattended and detached trailer is a particularly inviting target for thieves, Capt. Bibb said. "If you're going to leave the trailer unattended and detached, they need to have a good kingpin locking device," which goes over the yoke that attaches to the tractor, he said.
Quality is critical. "A cheap one won't do it," he said. Well-made kingpin locks could cost $100 each.
If a trucker pulls into a truck stop for a meal or shower, the driver should pull the rig straight in rather than back it in, Capt. Bibb said. "Park it where you can somehow keep an eye on it," he said, adding that most cargo thieves are very good at surveillance, watching drivers and waiting for the best opportunity to steal the cargo.
Travelers' Mr. Cornell offered similar advice. Loads should not be left unattended and unsecured, he said.
Risk managers need to review and reinforce security policy, he said. They need to make sure that drivers use the locking devices they have been provided as well as covert tracking devices, which ideally are placed within the cargo year-round, he said. He noted that some trucking companies rent the tracking devices during the high-volume holiday season.
"The biggest method of prevention is good policies and good enforcement of them," said Mr. Cornell. He advocated an "overall layered security approach" involving trained and vetted employees who are updated on policies and engaged in policies.
In addition, the risk manager or another manager needs to check to make sure that employees are following company policies, Mr. Cornell said.
Although not engaged in the making and shipping of holiday gifts, Johnson & Johnson nevertheless experiences an increase in the number and value of shipments at year's end, said Wayne Klokis, manager of the corporate risk management department. The New Brunswick, N.J.-based company's transit program falls into Mr. Klokis' bailiwick.
"We've have a pretty successful story in regard to our cargo thefts in general," said Mr. Klokis. In 2008, the company suffered a series of large pharmaceutical thefts, he said (BI, April 26).
But through a partnership with J&J's cargo insurer-London-based RSA Insurance Group P.L.C.-and internal security personnel, "we basically have had no thefts on the pharma side of the house" since enhanced security procedures were put in place in 2009, Mr. Klokis said.
He said J&J "tried to find the best of the best" of transporters to carry company products. This meant using GPS systems, having two drivers on shipments and even tailing shipments with security cars, Mr. Klokis said.
"Clearly when it comes to year-end, trying to get sales, it's critical. We undoubtedly see shipments and the value of the shipments increase, so we're on even higher alert at year-end to see that our shipments are protected," Mr. Klokis said. "As a result, our antenna is up to be on the watch against increased theft activity."