WBBH-TV : By Andy Pierotti
The NBC2 investigators takes you inside a theft ring so big, Florida law enforcement says you're likely a witness to it each time you hit the intestate. Commercial cargo theft runs in the billions of dollars, hitting a record high last year. NBC2 Investigator Andy Pierrotti explains its impact to consumers. Last year, criminals stole a cargo container every two days in Florida, costing more than $26 million. Marion county detectives know the problem all too well. "They're professional drivers. They know what it feels like to pick up a trailer, "says Marion County Detective Erik Dice. To combat the issue, his office sets up undercover sting operations where they put cargo containers in nearby gas stations in hopes of someone stealing it. Criminals take the bait too. Video obtained by NBC2 shows the county putting up a helicopter just minutes after a device attached to the cargo container notifies authorities it's stolen and on the road. In less than 15 minutes, investigators pull the driver over and arrest him. The operation highlights a billion dollar black market business where criminals steal cargo containers right under drivers' noses. "They're just like the ninja. They're here, there and they're gone," said driver Tom Strang. Criminals then sell it to the highest bidder. "They'll steal anything. From race car tires, to bottled water hurricane supplies to pharmaceuticals," said Det. Dice. In 2008, Lee County Sheriff's deputies recovered an empty stolen tracker trailer behind a gas station near the airport. It was once filled with more than $6 million of pharmaceutical drugs. "That's a typical case that we come across on a daily basis," said Lt. Twan Uptgrow, with Miami-Date Police. He leads a taskforce that combats cargo theft in South Florida called TOMCATS, or the Tactical Operations Multi- Agency Cargo Anti-Theft Squad. Cargo theft is not a victimless crime. When a criminal steals a cargo container, retailers have to make up the loss somehow. That means, prices for nearly every product you buy is higher because of a cargo theft. The crime cost companies nearly $30 billion a year. Cargo theft can happen anywhere, but most thieves will seize the opportunity when a driver leaves his truck unattended at a gas station. While it's a national problem, there are more thefts connected to Florida than any other state. "A big majority of those goods end up in Miami," said Lt. William Jackson, with Florida's Highway Patrol. From Miami, the cargo is then loaded onto cargo ships and sold overseas for pure profit. Florida Highway Patrol started tracking cargo theft in 2008, but as of now, not all local law enforcement is required to report it to them There are few arrests, but when someone is charged and convicted, jail time is almost always more lenient than robbing a bank. The average bank robber gets away with less than $10,000, while cargo thieves usually walk away with anywhere from $50,000 to $10 million.