Truck News


Crime stoppers (May 01, 2000)

An estimated $1 billion worth of cargo goes missing in Canada every year, with most trailer thieves moving and unloading their ill-gotten gain in under 15 minutes. If a thief is motivated and has time...

An estimated $1 billion worth of cargo goes missing in Canada every year, with most trailer thieves moving and unloading their ill-gotten gain in under 15 minutes. If a thief is motivated and has time on his side, you’re beat.

But investments in anything from a lock to an alarm system could go a long way toward protecting your equipment and cargo, simply by slowing thieves down.

After all, they’re usually going to be in a hurry.

“The bottom line is, securing your truck and trailer is like securing your house. Whatever level of prevention you take, from a lock to a GPS system, everything is based on the cost of doing business,” says Det. John Biggerstaff of Metro Toronto Police’s cargo theft unit. “The highest security features cost. Is that for everybody? I don’t think so.”

Short of hiring an armed guard to watch over your equipment and its cargo, where should you start? What are the best security features?

Locked down

A simple padlock is a common and effective barrier for trailer contents – when the right design is used. When shopping for locks, the key (pardon the pun) is to pay more attention to the shackle than the key system itself.

“If the shackle’s not worth a damn, it’s useless,” says Don Bick, a former police officer who now operates a private investigation firm known as Bick and Associates, in Mississauga, Ont. “The shackle has to be thick, and short if the padlock’s on the barn doors. That’s where they try to attack the lock.” A short shackle won’t permit a thief to build enough torque to snap the lock open with a pry bar.

Some designs come with an additional protective shield around the shackle that makes the break-in even more difficult.

Padlocks, says Bick, will sometimes jam in salty, cold or sandy conditions, but some designs are available with what looks like a rubber galosh for the lock, to protect it from exposure.

“Tolerance is important here, too. My thought is for truckers to try out locks in bad conditions before they invest. But a good lock should set you back in excess of at least $35,” he says.

Even the transmission can be locked with products such as Mul-T-Lock, which essentially looks like the shackle of a padlock, fitting into a mold installed next to the transmission and bolted to a saw-resistant stand with a tamper-proof (shearhead) nut. Other lock designs will fit around pedals.

“I’d sure as hell put a steering knuckle lock on,” adds Bick. The steel lock worth about $120 hooks through your truck’s steering knuckle and keeps a thief from turning the wheels even if he’s able to start the engine.

Pin locks

“Every (trailer) should have a pin lock even though, for many criminals, this might not even be a deterrent,” Biggerstaff says.

The most effective designs are made out of hardened steel rather than cast iron, while costs range anywhere from $70 to more than $200.

Cheaper versions can simply be snapped open by ramming the pin into the fifth wheel.

“For pin locks, anything under the $130 range is virtually useless,” says Bick.

“I call the two-three pound pin locks the ‘thin-skin’ pin locks. They can be forced open quite easily. You can cut one of those off with a cutting torch in two to three minutes,” he says.

Better designs weigh more, and offer some tolerance so a little movement won’t destroy the locking mechanism.

The power

Some drivers have rigged their own circuit breakers to immobilize tractors unless, say, a cigarette lighter is plugged in. But you can also buy ready-made devices that will serve the same function.

“The Predator” is among the devices known as immobilizers, disabling the ignition system 35 seconds after an ignition key is removed, and disarming after the key is replaced.

“With a professional system, it takes the thief some time to find the wiring. It buys some time,” says Peter Steele, president of Auto Care Technologies, which distributes the product.

The air

Gladhand locks, in the $40 range, fit over air line couplers and are effective at preventing the average thief from driving a trailer away. (Not everyone has the time or knows how to cage open a brake.)

So too are there locks that fit around protection valves within the cab, to ensure air supplies are locked down.

Trailer seals

Transportation seals – traditionally used to prove whether a load has been tampered with – can generally be divided into indicative and barrier seals.

“An indicative seal is a simple seal that can be broken by hand or with scissors, whereas a barrier seal requires a bolt or cable cutter to remove it,” says Dick Atlas of E.J. Brooks Company.

If a driver’s route does not require any kind of long stop, or if the cargo is not a hot commodity, a plastic or metal indicative seal should provide a sufficient deterrent, says Atlas.

According to the Ontario Trucking Association, police investigations have revealed that suspects dislike wire cable seals on trailer latches, since they are more difficult to cut with bolt cutters.

The barrier seals, which have to be broken with an actual tool, provide more of a deterrent to a thief. “We make bolt-type seals of a very high-quality steel that’s difficult to cut,” says Atlas.

When considering cable seals, consider designs that are between 3/16- and 1/4-inch thick, Atlas says. “You can cut these with a bolt cutter only after a long time of chomping at it. The advantage to the owner is that a lot of theft is done on impulse and the thief is not likely to have the tools with him.”

Heavy hardware

Atlas says truckers should also pay attention to the condition of hardware that’s already on doors.

“Thieves may try to break handles, latches or keeper bars,” he says. “What some people will do is put a cable seal around the keeper bars and latch, so again they have to cut the seal.”

Products such as the reusable Omni Sealock will lock over the trailer keeper bars. Other products, meanwhile, secure the actual bolts and hasps in addition to the hardware on the barn doors.


Alarm systems are another option for fleets that want to make a serious investment in monitoring the status of their tractors and trailers.

“We provide total focus on the trailer,” says Victor Gauthier, of Calgary-based Secured Cargo. “We stayed away from locks ’cause you can still break a lock. The alarm system is riveted into the trailer frame, so as soon as they try to break the frame off, it would cause the alarm to go.”

A sounding siren and strobe light is usually enough to scare a thief away, he says.

“The biggest deterrent in the world is noise,” says Gauthier. “For anyone within hearing distance, they’ll hear a siren about the level of emergency vehicles. We’re talking about 116 decibels, the maximum allowable by law.”

Meanwhile, the driver at the wheel of a truck with a Secured Cargo system is sent a page that offers a warning about the theft.

Some systems go off too quick, Gauthier warns, referring to some alarms. If they’re too sensitive, they’re triggered by everything from heavy winds to leaning on the barn doors.



Modern technology has taken alarms a step further, with tracking systems that can help police locate stolen equipment.

Ontario Provincial Police Sgt. Cam Woolley and his Truck Troop team were recently able to track down a stolen tractor-trailer because the carrier had invested in a global positioning system.

“Technology is the answer to (cargo theft), and the prices are dropping,” he says. “It’s one thing to retrieve the trailer, but another when you retrieve it empty … The most effective products for this level of crime are those that send out a signal, identifying the trailer’s location.

“With these tracking devices, we can catch more vulnerable cargo (more quickly), and the devices aren’t that expensive
if it catches these (theft) rings,” he says.

The Marsh Theft Watch system, meanwhile, works in tandem with the Cancom satellite network, feeding information about stolen trailers to other truckers in the area.

“We have 11 carriers represented, equaling 5,500 tractor trailer units,” says John Slade of the Marsh Canada insurance company, referring to the venture launched with the Ontario Trucking Association. “If a trailer is stolen in say, Montreal, the driver reports the theft to a 24/7 telephone number, and Cancom puts it up on their satellite on the global positioning system, where the message comes back down to those units on the road.”

Any driver who finds the trailer can report back to police or through Cancom, and receives a $250 award.

“This will really be most effective if everybody realizes that time is of the essence in getting these things reported,” says Slade. There is no cost to register with the system, nor does a participating carrier have to be insured by Marsh.

A trial period for the new program has been extended for another six months.

“We’ll hopefully do some promotion at truck stops,” says Cancom’s Mike Hamm of the neighborhood-watch-like system. “We don’t sell it as an anti-theft device, though,” he says. “When we’re notified via a 1-800 hotline that a truck was stolen, we zero in and pinpoint the vehicle,” he says. At that point, capturing the stolen truck and/or trailer is an escalation procedure that involves bringing in the carrier and the police.

“When the trailer is not attached, we are bringing in another initiative that will allow you to monitor if the cargo is on board, and if the doors are open or closed” says Hamm.

Hamm says that Cancom hopes to bring this system together into a back office software program that will also monitor dispatch and logistics information. “It eliminates dual entry. Everything’s on one database.”

Hamm says the company expects the technology to be in place by spring, with integration by summer.

Common sense

Some security advocates say the best protection against theft is a combination of deterrents, such as pinlocks, padlocks or seals and a comprehensive security system.

“If you really want to make the truck and trailer impregnable, first of all get physical protection first, like your gladhands and kingpins, and then some kind of tracking system,” says Gary Hawes of Allianz Insurance. “Make it really difficult for anyone to get access to that trailer. Back the trailer door up to another trailer, for example, and use two kingpin locks.”

Ultimately, common sense remains an important component of any defence – whether or not you invest in high-tech locks.

“All of these things can be bypassed if you have the time,” says Hawes. “You want to have some kind of deterrent, but if you drop a trailer in a lot where it isn’t visible, the deterrent is no longer a deterrent.”

Trailers with sensitive cargo should not be left unattended for long periods of time, he adds. “If you’re carrying highly targeted items, you should be going from point A to point B.”

Don’t tell other truckers what you’re carrying, and watch the keys.

“How many drivers have a second set of keys to lock their doors when their trucks are idling at trucks stops?” asks Biggerstaff of the most common security problem.

Hawes adds that it’s equally important not to leave behind an open lock – even for a minute.

“It’s easy for a thief to change the lock, leave it open, and then have their own key to it to access your trailer later,” he says.

Fuel thefts

Bick says recent high fuel prices have meant an increase in a very different, but evermore prevalent, kind of theft: fuel theft.

“What’s been happening is typically drivers are issued fuel cards, often without limits, and they’ll keep both card and pin number visible on the visor or dashboard,” says Bick. In one case 11,000 litres of fuel were pumped out and charged against a stolen fuel card within a 24-hour period.

“It’s a big thing. Truckers have got to know this is going on. You wouldn’t put your ATM card on the dashboard of your truck, with the pin number next to it,” he says.

For this reason, Bick advocates buying locking caps for fuel tanks.

It seems like little is sacred, or too safe, anymore. “Security always interferes to some extent with operations,” says Bick.

But it can ensure that thieves face the most interference. n

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