Truck fleets fend for themselves in cargo theft fight

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It’s much easier to keep the horse in the barn than chase it down once it’s escaped. Fleets that employ effective preemptive strategies are less likely to see freight go missing than those that assume cargo theft probably won’t happen to them.

The problem is the crooks are more brazen and much better organized than many believe. You’re up against a determined adversary who knows the systems in place to prevent theft are woefully inadequate. They operate with impunity. They know full well that almost nobody even looks twice at a driver hooking up to a trailer in a drop yard.

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(Photo: istock)

Marty Paddock, owner of Packers Logistics, has lost a few loads to cargo thieves. And he has nothing good to say about the sort of assistance fleets can expect in tracking and recovering the stolen loads.

He once received a call from a grocery store manager wondering when Paddock was going to pick up a trailer that was sitting in the store parking lot. When he arrived at the store with a tractor, it was a trailer that he recently reported as stolen — still hooked to the tractor that had been used in the heist, and with the reefer unit still running.

He used the air lines on his tractor to air up the stolen tractor and dragged it out from under the trailer with a chain. He then hooked his own tractor to the trailer and drove it away.

“All the while, there was a Metro Toronto police officer sitting in his cruiser in the same parking lot,” says Paddock. “I basically stole my stolen trailer back and left the other stolen tractor sitting in the middle of the parking lot and drove away. The cop never even came over to see what I was up to.”

Knowing an outcome like this can happen, it puts fleets in the position of having to fend for themselves.

“I have taken many of the usual precautions we hear about, including installing GPS tracking devices on my reefer units,” he says. “They cost me about $1,000 but the thieves knew exactly where to find it and simply tore it off the truck. If they don’t rip it off the truck, the have to the technology to jam or disable the things. Lots of good that did me.”

Likely targets

We hear frequently from various organizations dedicated to combatting cargo theft that the three most frequently stolen loads are food and beverages, electronics, and household goods such as toys, clothing, cleaning products, and the like. The operative term here is “most frequently.” Fleets hauling such loads are probably already familiar with the warnings, but fleets that haul other stuff shouldn’t lull themselves into believing that crooks aren’t interested in their freight, too.

Most of the consumer-related loads wind up at locations like flea markets, farmers markets, corner stores, and restaurants. Basically, anywhere the evidence can be eaten or carted home by an unsuspecting shopper with an eye for a bargain. Tell that to the company in Guelph, Ontario, which recently lost a load of 11 Skyjack lifts and 25 rolls of vinyl worth $300,000. That load isn’t headed for a flea market. In fact, the lifts are probably inside a cargo container bound for some banana republic.

The Wellington County division of the Ontario Provincial Police tweeted details of the theft in early October, including a picture of the driver and the truck he used to cart the lifts away. Police say the driver used fraudulent pickup information and a stolen trailer in a seemingly normal transaction. The company name was listed as TT Transport of Quebec, and the stolen trailer had Elite Logix written on the side, Global News reported.

This type of theft described above is called strategic cargo theft. It’s quite different from random or even targeted thefts of tractor-trailers full of cargo. In this case, the thieves use fraud and deceptive information intended to trick shippers, brokers and carriers into giving the load to the thieves instead of the legitimate carrier.

“They are well organized and they know exactly what they’re doing. Very rarely do we see this type of theft as opportunistic.”

Scott Cornell, travelers

“They know how freight brokers operate, they know where they can take advantage, they know that they can impersonate or steal the identity of a legitimate trucking company and pose as that trucking company to book a load, pick it up, and disappear with it,” says Scott Cornell, national practice leader – transportation with Travelers’ inland marine division. “They are well organized, and they know exactly what they’re doing. Very rarely do we see this type of theft as opportunistic.”

Cornell says thieves may even post false loads of their own, seeking bids from carriers to haul them so they can obtain particular information needed to steal another carrier’s identity.

In other cases, the thieves manage to get a lead on a load they want, and then pose as the legitimate carrier with all the appropriate information, possibly hacked from the carrier’s own internet servers. Cornell says they will often arrive at the shipper some time earlier than the scheduled appointment and try to get the freight onto the truck and out the gate before anyone notices.

“An early arrival for a loading appointment isn’t that unusual,” Cornell says. “They will often do this late on a Friday afternoon when time constraints and deadlines can lend to mistakes and less stringent vetting of the carrier.”

And as we all know, it’s not at all uncommon for one trucking company to pick up a load on behalf of another trucking company.

Carriers should work with shippers to establish pickup protocols that include vetting the identity of the driver, and visually checking the truck at the dock is the truck dispatched to pick up the load.

“These tactics are meant to be deceptive, but there are usually red flags if you know what to look for,” says Cornell. “We walk our clients through these scenarios and explain what to look for as they’re screening a potential carrier or getting ready to book a load.”

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Loads come and go all the time. But was this the truck scheduled for the pickup? (Photo: istock)

Inside Jobs

Watching every transaction for red flags might help, but when you’re up against insiders who supply the thieves with information on which trailers are worth grabbing, the battle escalates to a whole new level.

The first time Paddock had a trailer stolen from his yard was a few years ago on an evening when it was snowing. The thief cut the locks on the gate, and based on the tracks in the snow, drove directly to the trailer he wanted, hooked up, and drove it away.

“There weren’t even any footprints around the trailer or anywhere else,” Paddock says. He knew exactly which trailer he was looking for. That tells me someone at the shipper was coerced into giving the driver load details and the trailer number.”

“There weren’t even any footprints around the trailer or anywhere else.”

Marty Paddock, Packers Logistics

In Paddock’s opinion, the only solution is a gated facility with security guards posted to track inbound and outbound traffic, denying entry to any unexpected arrivals.

“Locked gates aren’t enough,” he says. “I have even had thieves show up in the yard while we were there working. They are that brazen. And cameras do no good except to tell when the load was stolen, because there’s no follow-up from law enforcement. They just don’t give a shit. They see it as a victimless crime.”

On that occasion, he confronted the thief, who fled in his stolen tractor without the trailer. Paddock gave chase in a pickup truck, so keeping up to a bobtail tractor wasn’t a problem. The thief drove onto the QEW highway, ran for a couple of miles, and then pulled over onto the shoulder.

“The guy bailed out of the truck, ran through the ditch, jumped a fence, and hopped into the back seat of a waiting SUV that had been tailing the tractor along the south service road,” Paddock recalls. “That gives you some idea of how very well organized these guys are.”

The unseen enemy: us

You can abandon any notion that you’re dealing with amateurs when it comes to cargo theft. It’s perpetrated mostly by organized criminals and gangs with inside knowledge of how this industry works. They know our weaknesses, and probably one of the biggest is complacency. As Paddock noted, thieves think nothing of driving into a yard with employees present and grabbing a trailer. Who is really going to take any notice of just another driver hooking up to just another trailer?

Cornell says fleets need to take a three-pronged approach to combatting cargo theft. First is making drivers aware of the problem and teaching them about cargo theft: ways to prevent it, things to watch out for, and good preventive procedures to follow.

The second prong would be the use of hard locking devices such as kingpin locks, landing gear locks, air cuff locks, high-security rear-door locks, and seal locks. “These devices can help deter and prevent cargo theft,” he insists.

The third prong is the use of technology — things like covert tracking. “GPS systems can help track the load and help recover the load if there’s a theft,” Cornell advises.

While Paddock might beg to differ, GPS can help if it’s used intelligently. Don’t put the unit where thieves can get to it and disable it. If it can be scanned and jammed, that’s another challenge.

In Paddock’s opinion, the best defense is a good offense. “A solid perimeter fence with a locking gate is a good start, but security guards are a must if you have anything on the property cargo thieves are likely to want,” he says. “We’re not getting any help from law enforcement or the insurance companies, so it’s up to us, the fleet owners, to take steps to protect our assets.”  

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Jim Park was a CDL driver and owner-operator from 1978 until 1998, when he began his second career as a trucking journalist. During that career transition, he hosted an overnight radio show on a Hamilton, Ontario radio station and later went on to anchor the trucking news in SiriusXM's Road Dog Trucking channel. Jim is a regular contributor to Today's Trucking and, and produces Focus On and On the Spot test drive videos.

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  • A great article John Smith. Anyone who has been in the industry more than a few years has experienced theft and seen the total lack of interest law enforcement has in dealing with the problem. Years ago the Florida Trucking Association along with a large food retailer built a bait trailer. It was equipped with multiple cameras inside and out (some of the rivets in the side wall were actually cameras), motion detectors and multiple GPS systems. Left at a truck stop, it was frequently stolen but everyone lost interest in the project after a while.

  • Jim great article and right on target. The problem is only increasing. I am with BABACO Alarm Systems, Inc. We have been in business since 1930 and are a leading provided of asset and cargo security solutions. Site link below.

    We would welcome the opportunity to discuss with you sharing best practices to limit both theft and pilferage and how that might make its way into