The thieves target mostly shipments of food and beverages, which are easy to sell on the black market and hard to trace. Some end up on the shelves of small grocery stores. Others go to huge distribution warehouses like the one authorities raided in August in North Hollywood, Calif. It was filled with stolen steaks, shrimp, energy drinks, ice cream and other frozen foods.
Last year, carriers reported nearly 1,200 cargo thefts of all kinds nationwide, about the same as the previous year, according to CargoNet, a division of Verisk Crime Analytics, which estimated losses that year at nearly $216 million. Since many thefts go unreported, the real figure is almost certainly far higher.
The most common crime is still the "straight theft" of trailers left unattended in parking lots or at truck stops. But CargoNet says the new trucking scams are growing at a rapid 6 percent each quarter. Of the average three to five truckloads stolen each day in the United States, at least one involves what are known in the industry as fraudulent or fictitious pickups.
The thefts emerged three or four years ago and are now "the latest, greatest thing" for organized groups seeking to steal freight, said J.J. Coughlin, vice president for law enforcement services at LoJack SCI, a supply chain protection company.
LoJack examined 947 cargo thefts last year and identified 45 of them as fictitious pickups. So far this year, the number of fictitious pickups has probably already doubled, Coughlin said. The average loss last year was more than $170,000 per incident.
Although cargo thieves prey on companies across the nation, the hot spots are places with shipping ports or rail hubs. California leads the nation. Large numbers of thefts have also been reported in Texas, Florida, New Jersey, Michigan, Illinois, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Tennessee.
Scott Cornell, national manager of a special investigation group focusing on supply chain security at the insurance company Travelers, said the thieves take advantage of the Internet, which allows them to do "so many things online where nobody sees you," including setting up a company and bidding on loads.
Within a few years, Lewis said, identity theft-related scams are expected to become the most prevalent method of cargo theft.
Experienced thieves know where the major manufacturers are located. And some are savvy enough to pick out which brand of electronics or appliances to steal by bidding on loads posted online. Someone wanting to steal a truckload of copper, for instance, would target shipments coming out of Carrollton, Ga., where a major copper-wire manufacturer is located.
Food and beverages were the most commonly stolen items, accounting for 23 percent of all thefts last year, followed by metals at 16 percent, and electronics and household goods at 12 percent each. Other products made up the remaining 37 percent, including pharmaceuticals at 3 percent, according to CargoNet's 2012 report.
One reason food shipments are popular targets is because they have a lower value than electronics or pharmaceuticals, which are often more heavily protected. Plus, food generally does not have any serial numbers to trace.
The loads are also difficult to recover. Companies often do not know they have been scammed until their shipments fail to show up, usually four to five days after they were stolen, Coughlin said.
By that time, the goods have probably already been sold on the black market.
The trucking and insurance industries are fighting back, urging freight brokers to take extra precautions, such as checking information before awarding shipping contracts to unfamiliar truckers.
The California Farm Bureau Federation warns about clues that could indicate a suspicious hauler: temporary name placards or identification numbers on the truck, abrupt changes in the time of the pickup and lack of a GPS tracking system on the truck.
Another suggestion is to get a thumbprint from the truck driver.
"This is growing at such a rapid, scary rate," said Sam Rizzitelli, national director for transportation at Travelers Inland Marine Division. "It warrants a lot of attention."
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