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.