The Hollywood image through the years might depict truckers being accosted by gun-wielding organized-crime figures who hijack a cargo of cigarettes or booze and then drive off, leaving the bewildered driver to walk home.
Real-life cargo heists today might involve organized crime, but the thieves are more likely to be wielding sophisticated GPS systems or social media accounts that redirect freight to bogus addresses.
“As the old saying goes, ‘On the internet, you can be anything you want.’ And there are enterprising people applying that maxim in their fraud and cargo-theft efforts,” said Ryan Shewchuk, director of enterprise security for Pitt Ohio, a national trucking company based in Pittsburgh. “Online tactics are often combined with the more traditional social engineering tactics, like just plain lying on the phone or in person, or using forged documents and credentials.”
And eastern Pennsylvania is one of the main areas being hit by thefts, according to a recent report by CargoNet, an organization created in 2009 to track cargo thefts and to assist the cargo industry, police and insurance companies.
Several experts said they weren’t surprised, as coastal areas where transportation hubs meet create opportunity for thieves. Any place with massive transportation systems –such as Central Pennsylvania and the Lehigh Valley or inland cities such as Chicago – are more likely to be targeted by criminal gangs. Other places where name-brand electronics or clothing are shipped in abundance also would be potential targets, they said.
Real goods, fake stops
For the first quarter of 2019, New Jersey-based CargoNet noted two distinct trends: Burglaries of loaded trailers are on the rise. And, after two years of dormancy, thieves are starting to again create fictitious drop-off sites where thieves misdirect cargo so it can be stolen.
Shewchuk and other experts pointed out that the use of social media and other modern technologies makes it easier for thieves to create fake customers and customer addresses.
“Their goal is to impersonate legitimate people and businesses, or convincingly portray fake people and businesses of their own creation,” Shewchuk said in an email. “Some are foreign-based and steal cargo that is within the U.S. without setting foot on our soil.”
“Others conduct the ‘cyber’ aspects of their schemes outside of the U.S. and also have people working with them on the ground domestically,” he added. “There are many scheme variations, and they can be fairly impressive and sophisticated.”
CargoNet reported 140 cargo thefts nationwide in the first quarter of 2019. The average value was $145,772 for a total of $12.8 million in stolen goods, the organization reported. The biggest targets: food and beverage items, followed by household goods and then electronics. California saw the most activity, followed by Florida and Texas, it also reported.
Trooper Brent Miller, director of communications for the Pennsylvania State Police, said organized crime is often behind the thefts. His agency works with CargoNet and private security councils to discover trends that will help fight the problem, several people noted.
Cargo theft cases in Pennsylvania are handled by the Auto Theft Task Force, which handles thefts involving a range of vehicles, Miller said. That means the department does not maintain separate cargo-theft statistics, he said. Overall, the task force recovered 670 vehicles valued at more than $9.5 million in 2018.
What works, what doesn’t
Both Miller and Shewchuk said modern technologies, such as GPS systems and security cameras, help address the problem, but the technologies have limitations.
GPS systems sometimes are put on the actual load, if the load’s value warrants it, Miller said. The tracking devices help with the arrest of suspects, but many thieves are smart and adapt to new technologies, several experts said.
“As technology evolves, so does that of the criminal element,” Miller said. “The unit has charged cargo-theft suspects in possession of jamming devices used to block GPS signals and thwart tracking by law enforcement.”
Security cameras also have limitations, Shewchuk said.
“Cameras can be very useful tools, but their protective value is sometimes overhyped or misunderstood,” Shewchuk said. “As with any event, if you’re watching a recording, it already happened.”
He and others said efforts to combat theft need to focus on prevention and must be “layered,” meaning multiple steps must be taken.
“Investments made in supply-chain protection emphasize other things, too, like employee training, domain awareness and measurable standards,” Shewchuk said.
The employee training begins at the truck-driving schools.
Shelly Truck Driving School based in York County teaches new drivers over a four-week course, said Dominick Grossi, Shelly’s executive director. Several of the 160 hours of training are spent on theft-prevention techniques, which include basic advice about parking in well-lighted areas and making sure cargo is secure, Grossi and others said.
Grossi said he drove in the 1980s, when truck stops could be dangerous because of illegal activity – from theft to prostitution.
“It seems to be safer than when I drove,” Grossi said. “Truck stops were a lot dirtier.”
Today, professional drivers are heavily regulated and must adhere to numerous rules, which leaves little room for “fooling around,” Grossi said. “If you are out on a route, you are working.”
Others, such as Kevin Stewart, agreed that common-sense approaches to safe driving techniques can go a long way to prevent problems. Stewart, who is president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association, said drivers are encouraged to park where there is a lot of activity and to be aware of trends, as well as having “general awareness” about where they are traveling.