By Amos Maki
In November, a trailer full of new, pre-released LeBron James shoes made by Nike was stolen in the Memphis area.
But thanks to a local task force dedicated to stopping cargo theft, the Oregon-based sports apparel giant, which operates a massive distribution center in Frayser, was able to recover nearly all of the shoes, which were valued at around $700,000.
As a worldwide distribution hub, Memphis is often ground zero for cargo thieves who look to steal everything from household goods to electronics and clothing apparel like the LeBron James shoes.
“If somebody wants something, it can be stolen and there is a market for it,” said Memphis Police Department Detective James “Drew” Harden, the police department’s representative on the Memphis Cargo Theft Task Force.
“Think of the monetary gain if someone stole a 53-foot trailer and sold the merchandise for profit,” said Harden. “Even at pennies on the dollar, there’s still a lot of profit.”
The Task Force is comprised of representatives from the FBI, Memphis Police Department, U.S. Marshals Service, Shelby County Sheriff’s Office and the Tennessee Highway Patrol and is one of seven task forces the FBI has tasked nationwide with policing the activity. Next fall, Memphis will play host to a national cargo theft conference with more than 300 representatives from law enforcement agencies from across the U.S.
Cargo theft is a now multibillion-dollar criminal industry, one whose impact eventually trickles down to the price consumers pay at the checkout line.
“It increases the prices you and I pay at virtually any store,” said Todd McCall, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Memphis division.
Electronics, cigarettes, pharmaceuticals and clothing remain popular items for thieves, but Harden and McCall said household items such as clothes detergent have increasingly been targeted.
“You’re not likely to see a rash of thefts of potatoes, but if you’re talking about gaming systems or smartphones, you’re looking at a couple million dollars running down the road in these trailers,” said McCall.
Harden and McCall described a murky underworld where criminal outfits and greedy employees are waiting to steal a shipment. In most cases it’s a low-risk, high-reward crime.
“It’s a crime that doesn’t necessarily involve a huge amount of violence,” said McCall. “You can be in and out with a significant theft in a short amount of time.”
Some thefts are inside jobs in which an employee steals cargo or tips off criminals who do the dirty work. Others are the result of criminal organizations that will track shipments from manufacturers or distribution centers for hundreds of miles, patiently waiting for the right time to pounce.
Harden and McCall said it wasn’t uncommon for thieves to target truck stops, where they wait for a driver to leave his rig unattended or follow it until another opportunity becomes available, such as when a container is deposited at a drop lot.
“You will see thousands of tractor-trailer rigs parked at truck stops every night and it’s a common thing for thieves to want to steal those,” said McCall.
“It’s easier for them to find a trailer in a lot where they can cut the lock and get the trailer and leave,” said McCall. “Some of these individuals are very good and look for specific loads and others are more opportunistic.”
After stealing the cargo, the thieves have to sell their goods and reach out to their own distribution chain, hawking their stolen merchandise on the Internet, to mom-and-pop convenience stores or to trusted friends.
“To me, it is the very definition of organized crime,” said Harden. “These cargo thieves are local crews and crews that travel the country.”
From Oct. 1, 2013, to Sept. 30, 2014, the Memphis Cargo Theft Task Force made 60 arrests, up from 45 the year before. Around $3 million in property was recovered or seized, along with $400,000 in cash. Arrests can often trigger federal prosecutions because interstate commerce is involved.
As the task force cracks down in the Memphis area, the thieves are adjusting.
“Now they’re moving into smaller jurisdictions outside Memphis,” said Harden. “We’ve been successful and industry has stepped up its security, so it’s pushing it outside Memphis.”