Cargo theft has been around for centuries. History has seen robbers attacking merchants on trading roads, to pirates seizing ships at sea, to bandits on horseback robbing stage coaches.
Fast forward to today. Trucks have replaced horse-drawn wagons, and today’s cargo theft perpetrators are often part of international crime syndicates. The global economic crisis increased demand for black-market goods. But cargo theft statistics are difficult to track.
Today’s major cargo thieves in the United States are sophisticated, organized and generally not home grown. Thieves are often recruited and trained by Cuban crime syndicates, then sent to Florida to establish their operations. In California, violent gangs such as MS-13 (also known as Mara Salvatrucha) have been known to finance their activities through cargo theft. In Canada, the Chinese Triad crime organization is becoming a major player in the cargo theft arena. There are even concerns that money generated by various US organized cargo theft rings is being funneled to terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda and Hezbollah to fund future attacks against the United States.
Adding to the cargo theft problem is the fact that it is seen as a low-risk, high-reward type of crime carrying minor criminal penalties. The FBI reports that less than 20 percent of stolen cargo is ever recovered.
Cargo theft statistics vary, but it is generally agreed upon that cargo theft is a $15 to $30 billion-dollar problem each year in the United States. Exact numbers are impossible to determine in that many cargo crime incidents go unreported, and the numbers related to those incidents that are reported differ greatly by agency. Regardless, the most recent cargo theft statistics available continue to be sobering.
The FBI reported cargo theft 628 incidents in 2015 with an average case value of $44,426. Freight Watch International recorded a total of 193 incidents of cargo theft in the United States during the third quarter of 2016. The average value per theft was $120,536. Third-quarter incidents were up 14 percent from the second quarter of 2016, but the average dollar value per theft fell by 26 percent.
Compared to the third-quarter cargo theft statistics from 2015, incidents rose by 7 percent, while values dropped 38 percent.
Numbers released by cargo theft and recovery service provider CargoNet differ slightly. They noted 447 incidents in the third quarter of 2016, a 2 percent increase over 2015. Of these incidents, 309 involved theft of a motor vehicle, 201 incidents involved theft of cargo and 35 incidents were perpetrated by fraud. CargoNet recorded $23.7 million in cargo stolen in the third quarter of 2016, down $8.2 million from 2015. They report that the average cargo theft was $118,000, down from $144,000 in 2015. Average third quarter statistics show that cargo theft in the United States and Canada dropped 9 percent from 2015. One major factor affecting accurate cargo theft statistics is the fact that many police jurisdictions use different coding for cargo theft incidents such as property damage, vandalism, and robbery.
California was listed by Freight Watch International as the worst state for cargo theft, with 38 percent of the total incidents. For the third quarter of 2016, California saw an increase of 11 percent versus the second quarter and a whopping 95 percent increase over the third quarter of 2015. Texas came in second with 16 percent of the total cargo thefts, and Florida was third.
Electronics continued to be the costliest commodity loss but dropped from $14.5 million in the third quarter of 2015 to $7.8 million in 2016. Household items were the second costliest loss at $4.6 million, a 138 percent increase from 2015. Food and beverage commodities remained the most-stolen category but fell 22 percent from 2015 to 2016.
Incidents involving the theft of full truckloads continued as the most prevalent method of cargo theft in the third quarter of 2016, representing 78 percent of all reported thefts with an average loss of $120,298. Facility thefts saw a 98 percent increase in theft rate and a 266 percent increase in theft value. Warehouse locations remained the most common place for cargo theft. Holiday weekends saw a 40 percent increase in cargo theft cases, probably due to large shipments in anticipation of holiday sales.
Because so many incidents go unreported, quoted cargo theft statistics don’t match exactly. But it is universally agreed that cargo theft is a major economic threat, particularly to the retail industry. And it continues to grow. In early 2018, the Insurance Bureau of Canada said that cargo theft remains a significantly unreported crime. Fear of rising insurance premiums and unwanted negative publicity are cited as reasons. The company says that since 2014 when they began tracking cargo theft statistics, incidents have increased, probably due to increased awareness and not necessarily due to a change in non-reporting behavior.
This post was originally published in 2017 and was updated May 10, 2018.