Sometimes, despite precautions and planning, bad things happen, like having a load hijacked or a tractor trailer stolen from your yard in the middle of the night.
Although nobody wants to think about cargo theft, it’s a very real problem that costs the Canadian economy $5 billion per year, according to a study conducted by the Canadian Trucking Alliance (CTA). Although there are no figures on what percentage of stolen cargo is found and returned, there are steps that should be taken to increase the odds for a successful recovery once a load goes missing.
Plan the response
If the worst happens, drivers and companies should know exactly what they need to do to handle the situation effectively. That means having given the possible situation careful consideration, establishing all of the appropriate channels of communication and briefing drivers and dispatchers about what they should do if a theft occurs. Leaving people to deal with crises on their own creates the potential that important steps will be missed or critical information will be unavailable. It also puts people under unnecessary stress in an already stressful and anxious time.
“Believe it or not, you have to have processes on the front end prior to being victimized. If you’re starting with, ‘what do I do now?’ you’ve already done your company a huge injustice,” said Sal Marino, vice-president of business development for CargoNet, a Jersey City, New Jersey-based cargo security and tracking company.
Marion said there should be not only a standard operating procedure (SOP) that is clearly communicated to any and all employees who could find themselves involved in a “post-event scenario” but there should also be somebody in charge of making sure there is compliance with the SOP.
“And you have to have access to the appropriate contacts within your supply chain to be able to quickly pass data around effectively and efficiently at the drop of a dime. That internal resource needs to be trained and available to jump in post-event. To be fair to that point of contact, that person—whether it is somebody dedicated to security, or the health and safety person that is doubling as a security person, which is more likely the case than not especially in small-to-mid-sized carriers—needs to be provided the tools and the resources and the education and the training to put them in the best position to help your company,” said Marino.
He explained that the supply chain contacts are going to be the people who have all of the information about the missing cargo—the lot numbers, the product descriptions, the SKUs, the packaging markings, the ship counts and the value of the missing goods—the police will need for reports and investigations.
The first post-event steps
When the theft is first discovered, what Marino calls the “a-ha moment” there is one step that needs to be taken right away: calling 9-1-1. Using the emergency number as soon as possible gets the ball rolling on the investigation immediately. Waiting to call the police, or calling them after calling head office, puts an unnecessary impediment in the recovery efforts.
“The movement of this [stolen] property is so fast,” said Garry Robertson, national director of investigative services for the Insurance Bureau of Canada, the Toronto-based industry association that represents insurers across the country. “A lot of the thefts are taking place in close proximity to major highways and they want to get the stolen cargo mixed into the flow of other goods and onto other transportation routes instantly. The faster you can get the law enforcement agency notified, the faster they can start putting bulletins out, be it for the theft of the tractor trailer or the load.”
Robertson said that sometimes there is confusion about where to report a theft. If the cargo was being transported from one part of the country to another, the theft should be reported where it occurred (or where it was discovered). It is during this phone call that the basic information will be taken: make, model, VIN and licence of the tractor and trailer (if the vehicle was taken) and the type of cargo stolen.
Talking to the 9-1-1 operator is only the first point of contact with law enforcement for the day. It is not the last for the day. The typical process after reporting a cargo theft is that a police officer will be dispatched to speak with the person reporting the incident — be it a driver at a truck stop or a facility manager at a yard. It is during this interview that the driver or trucking company representative has the opportunity to fully share the details of what happened, and although members of law enforcement organizations are trained to ask questions, given the size and location of the department, the responding officer may not be completely familiar with cargo thefts.
“This is what you need to be talking to the driver about,” said Robertson. “The driver may well have a copy of the manifest of the information. Often it’s not asked for because they don’t think about doing that. As a truck driver, be able to tell them, ‘I have a manifest.’ Don’t just assume they’re going to ask you the question. Make them aware you have this information.”
The same type of advice applies if a load of cargo has been stolen from a trucking yard. If there is surveillance footage available, let the officers know. If there has been an opportunity to review it before the police arrive and the theft (or the thieves) have been caught on camera, have the footage queued up ready for the officer to view. Having the footage already downloaded or copied for the officer, is a helpful time-saver.
A new identity
Although cargo theft is often called a ‘victimless crime’ (because typically nobody is hurt, and the value of the stolen property can be reimbursed by insurance), any driver or company that has suffered a loss is definitely a victim, and that reality should be acknowledged and remembered throughout the course of the investigation.
Detective sergeant Paul LaSalle of the York Regional Police’s auto and cargo theft unit said that the role of the victim is one that needs to be taken seriously.
“The driver, or any victim, should make themselves the best victim they can be. If they were stopped at a truck stop, obviously they can do their own canvassing [of the other drivers to ask if they noticed anything] prior to the police getting there, because there are going to be other truckers that have pulled in and pulled out,” he said. “Other than that, the driver should just gather his thoughts and paperwork, preparing for the questions from the officer, getting as many details as he can.”
The role of the victim is one that needs to be played until the end, since the victim is an integral part of the justice process. If the police do eventually find the stolen cargo or the people who took it they will need the victim’s co-operation as the case progresses to and through the courts.
“It’s very important that they know right from the get-go, that we need them and they’re very important in the process. For the most part a lot of their involvement in the court process can be done through affidavit if they’re not very involved witnesses,” Det. Sgt. LaSalle explained. “Say you witness something — you saw the guy taking off in the truck — then you would probably have to go to court and testify to what you saw, whereas the owner of a trucking yard that comes in on Monday morning, opens up and finds his truck stolen and a week later we arrest somebody with the truck, a lot of that testimony is minor in nature, so much of that can be done through affidavit and we can save him the process of actually going to court.”
In most circumstances, the thieves only want the cargo. They have no interest in the tractor or trailer, so if the vehicle is stolen, it is usually dumped somewhere very quickly. Often it is left abandoned in an industrial parking lot. When that happens, it is common for the owner or manager of the industrial property to call the phone number on the side of the truck and ask the trucking company to remove the truck from the property. Det. Sgt. LaSalle warned trucking companies and owner/operators not to do that.
“My one piece of advice is if you ever get word where your truck is, call the police and let them investigate it prior to you racing over there to pick up your truck. We can, and have, gotten forensic evidence from inside a tractor.”
While it can be hard to collect physical evidence where the theft occurred, Det. Sgt. LaSalle said victims should still avoid contaminating the scene of the crime. “You want to preserve the scene as much as you can. It’s going to be difficult in a yard to gather much forensic evidence, but there still could be things like tire prints. They’re not going to be of great value because truck tires are very similar, but there can be evidence gained from cut locks and other things from the scene.”
Recovering the property
The reason why it’s so critical to report stolen loads is that police departments often come across warehouses of merchandise they suspect is stolen, but without reports or descriptions or serial numbers, they have no way of tracing the goods back to the companies that lost them. When they do have enough information about the cargo to figure out who owns (or is responsible for) it, then they can attempt to return it. Det. Sgt. LaSalle said while some cargo will be retained as evidence, much of it can be returned. If descriptions, or SKUs match or there are other ways of proving ownership, then the police can ask a justice for a return-to-justice authorization, which allows the stolen property to be returned.
While it’s important to know what to do if cargo is stolen, Det. Sgt. LaSalle, Robertson and Marino all agree that it is better not to become a victim in the first place if at all possible. Robertson said that all trucking companies should engage in risk mitigation, a process which can include working with their insurance companies to determine what changes and security improvements can be made that will not only help prevent thefts but that can also have a positive effect on insurance rates.
As for whether it’s worth it to invest time, effort and resources in beefing up security procedures and processes, Marino said the numbers make a strong case.
“We did a self-insured ratio impact study several years back that was based on a container load of Nikon cameras. Basically, the results were a 10:1 ratio. So for every $100,000 of loss value, your need to generate an additional $1 million in new, incremental sales to offset the cost of that $100,000, based on indirect impact,” he said.
“The way we see it, the best way to handle a recovery is to prevent it.”