Two weeks ago, while a driver was having his morning coffee at a truck stop in Niagara, Ont., a skilled thief disabled the wheel-lock device on his highway tractor-trailer, started the rig and drove off with the load.
Findings of the Canadian Trucking Alliance’s report on cargo crime in Canada
-- Organized crime -- requires a network of criminals to both commit the theft and distribute the stolen goods. Among other things, they infiltrate carrier companies and target drivers to transport drugs across the border.
-- Law-enforcement challenges -- penalties do not match the seriousness of the crime (for instance, the report cites police officials who say someone caught with $10,000 worth of cocaine will spend time in prison, whereas theft of a million-dollar load of plasma TVs might not end in jail time). It's believed there is a lack of enforcement resources available to police forces to combat the crime.
-- Proposed measures to address cargo crime -- redefine simple "theft" to include "cargo theft" that has ties to organized crime; ensure penalties fit the crime; increase opportunities for stakeholders to exchange information and raise the profile of cargo crime within the policing community.
The load of Playbooks has not been found and some of them may have ended up under Christmas trees throughout the U.S. Midwest.
Police were able to retrieve the Niagara cargo and capture the crook a few hours later, only after a friend of the driver saw the truck and called the driver wondering why he was so far off the beaten track.
It was a lucky break in what has otherwise become a $5-billion-a-year problem for the trucking industry across the country.
Industry officials are normally loath to publicly acknowledge any insecurity in their industry. But they are mounting a public-awareness campaign in the hopes of increasing police co-operation and curtailing financial losses in a business that's trying to operate on razor-thin margins.
"Cargo crime is a concern across the country," said Bob Dolyniuk, executive director of the Manitoba Trucking Association. "There are some locations where it is a bigger issue than others and Manitoba truckers tend to operate throughout Canada, including areas where there is a high rate of cargo crime."
Earlier this year, the Canadian Trucking Alliance, in co-operation with the RCMP, other police agencies and the insurance industry, commissioned a report that highlights increasing levels of violence and organized-crime involvement in cargo crime.
"You don't hear a lot about it," said David Bradley, CEO of the Canadian Trucking Alliance. "It's seen by many in authority as a victimless crime."
But the enormous losses have a ripple effect through the industry, from the cost of insurance to increased costs for shippers and ultimately increased costs for the truckers' customers and consumers.
Since 9/11 the trucking industry has made huge investments in security, but the crooks are getting smarter.
"Organized crime hires helicopters to follow equipment leaving facilities (where they know high-value loads, like electronics, are being shipped), then go after them," said Garth Pitzel, director of safety and driver development at Winnipeg's Bison Transport.
Bison has spent millions of dollars beefing up security at its terminals across North America and instituted rigorous safety protocols for its drivers.
"Our biggest concern is the safety of our employees and contractors," Pitzel said. "We no longer bid on tobacco shipments; the risk is just too high. We used to haul for certain electronics manufacturers, but we no longer do because of the risk. Organized crime is behind a lot of the larger thefts."
Every Bison terminal is now fenced, with swipe-card entry pass gates and camera surveillance, and every trailer has GPS and satellite communication connections. The company is certified in all of the North American protocols like FAST (Free and Secure Trade), PIP (Partners in Protection) and C-TPAT, (Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism).
Tom Payne, president of Payne Transportation and chairman of the Manitoba Trucking Association, said its Manitoba operations are not so much of a worry as its Quebec terminals.
"Our office in Montreal is heavily gated with 24-hour security," he said. "But it's a real issue because most Manitoba companies are long-distance operators. That means they could be hauling snowmobiles from Quebec, electronics from the Vancouver port or tobacco and alcohol from the States," all of which are particularly attractive to crooks.
Bison and others have instituted strict operating protocols for drivers, but criminals are adapting and getting bolder.
Police across the country work closely with the industry, but the Criminal Code does not differentiate truck-cargo theft from any other robberies -- it's just over or under $5,000. The industry would like to see harsher penalties against the perpetrators of truck-cargo crime.
The study conducted earlier this year found that about 60 per cent of incidents are not reported.
The industry is trying to beef up data on cargo crime in the hopes it can encourage more co-operation from police.
"We need to provide data to make our case," Bradley said. "The issue is getting resources to police forces so they can enforce and finally if we get a guy to court, have the courts co-operate and put them away for a good long period of time as opposed to a slap on the wrist. There's lots of work to do and at times it seems like a losing battle."
The trucking associations across the country have recently teamed up with the Insurance Bureau of Canada to implement a new cargo-crime incident-report form.
The idea is to allow for an anonymous forum where incidents can be documented without requiring either insurance companies or police to be involved.
Bradley said when it was first implemented earlier this year, they were getting an average of three reports a day.
After the first month, the flow has slowed and Bradley said it's important for the industry to document every incident to bolster its case with police departments across the country.
Officials from both the Winnipeg police and the RCMP said truck-cargo theft is not something they track.
The RCMP's Sgt. Line Karpish said, "Anecdotally, it's not common."
Most trucking company officials agree with that, but that's not to say it never happens in Manitoba.
Gary Coleman, CEO of Big Freight System Inc., said his company has lost loads in the city.
"It is an issue," Coleman said. "We work hard to mitigate the risk and protect the asset. We do lots of driver training, including where to stop and where not to stop."
The latter includes vacant, unlit and unfenced lots.
Bison's standard operating procedure after loading -- even if it's innocuous cargo -- is to keep driving for four hours. So if hijackers are lying in wait for the truck to stop they'll have a long time to wait.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 27, 2011 B8