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How Cargo Thieves Are Hitting Today and How to Hit Back

Cargo is still at greater risk of theft when it’s on the move than at a shipping facility, but 2020 saw a distinct shift in the risk picture, according to the BSI and TT Club Cargo Theft Report 2021 released in February. Globally, in-transit theft accounted for the greatest proportion of theft, at 71 percent, but that was down from 87 percent in 2019.

Mike Yarwood
Mike Yarwood

Losses from warehouses and other storage facilities increased to 25 percent, largely a result of bottlenecks in the supply chain at ports and warehouses and use of temporary overflow storage facilities, according to Mike Yarwood, TT Club’s managing director for loss prevention. In Europe, especially, the stockpiling of goods meant inventories came under particular threat, with 48 percent of 2020 reported thefts occurring at warehouses and production facilities. This is in sharp contrast with 2019 when only 18 percent were at such locations.

Closer to home, cargo theft takes on very distinct forms in Mexico as compared to the US and Canada, according to the report. In Mexico, hijackings of in-transit cargo trucks are a common tactic, while they are extremely rare in its Northern neighbors. The one exception is that criminals in the US and Canada have shown a willingness to carry out hijacking-style thefts of last-mile couriers, particularly targeting pharmaceutical shipments.

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Efforts by shippers in Mexico to thwart hijacking of cargo have not been terribly effective, the report suggests. “Cargo thieves in Mexico often use violence or the threat of violence during cargo thefts and tend to be knowledgeable and capable of overcoming typical security measures, particularly GPS tracking devices,” it concludes. “Other types of security countermeasures, including the use of security escorts, have at times proven incapable of preventing hijackings in Mexico.”

In the US and Canada, rather than hijackings, thieves tend to most frequently steal shipments of goods by targeting cargo trucks parked in insecure locations, according to the 2020 cargo theft report. “Thefts in these two countries tend to take the form of either pilferage or break-ins of trailers or thefts of entire vehicles or containers. Occasionally, thieves in the United States and Canada will carry out thefts of facilities, but in general, cargo truck thefts account for most incidents.”

Similar lessons can be drawn from CargoNet’s 2020 Theft Trend Analysis, which found a 16 percent increase in supply chain risk events across the US and Canada, primarily due to thieves targeting cargo at truck stops, retailer parking lots, and other sites where cargo could be left unattended.

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According to analysts at CargoNet, there has been an ongoing shift from full truckload theft to pilferages of loaded trailers while the trailer is at rest, meaning thieves burglarize cargo vehicles and take some—but not all—of the product on board. Trailer break-ins and pilferages have risen steadily in recent years.

Scott Cornell
Scott Cornell

“For those of us who have been involved in cargo theft for any length of time, we’ve always known that pilferage theft is basically the iceberg below the water,” explained Scott Cornell, transportation lead and crime and theft specialist at Travelers in a presentation to the Cargo Theft and Transportation Summit 2020. “There is much more pilferage theft that goes on than there is full-load cargo theft.”

This fact has gone underappreciated by the retail and logistics industries because pilferage theft is not well-reported since there is often no record of when it occurred. Because of the difficulty in tracking a single pallet or a few boxes of goods, drivers may not notice product missing from a full truckload until the shipment is unloaded and counted.

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This is changing, however, and as reporting has improved and with more pilferage incidents occurring, there is now increasing recognition of the losses that result from pilferage in cargo shipments. “Pilferage is a very timely topic, and becoming a larger and larger issue,” said Ralph Pepe, senior crime intelligence analyst for CargoNet, in the conference presentation, Uptick in Pilferage & Broken Seals: Legal Liability. Pepe said that most pilferage incidents are happening at truck stops, 34 percent, and in the parking lots of major retailers or shopping malls, 16 percent.

To prevent cargo theft, it’s important to appreciate how well professional thieves know the business, with many having held legitimate positions in the supply chain industry, according to Pepe. “They have as much insight into trucking as truck drivers do,” he warned. “They know when a reefer is set to a certain temperature it is most likely going to be full of a certain kind of product. They also know, depending on where they are in the country, what [commodities trailers are likely to be carrying] depending on the distribution centers in the area or receivers in the area.”

Both experts agreed that getting into a container without breaking a seal can be easy for professional thieves, identifying a half-dozen ways it can be done, such as by removing the keeper brackets to allow the opening of trailer doors. Quite often, if thieves think they will see a trailer or container again, they might remove a rivet and replace it with a re-usable rivet, which would allow them easy access to the same container or trailer as often as they want, explained Cornell. “Shippers are left wondering why they’re having load after load coming up short when the seals are intact,” he said, indicating the importance of frequent equipment inspections and data analysis for an alert that a certain trailer is being hit repeatedly.

For shipments to be secure as they sit unprotected in a retail or shopping mall parking lot, high-end padlocks and quality king pin locks are necessary to combat thieves that come prepared with bolt cutters, saws, and a grinder. There is a wide range in quality and the difference matters to cargo thieves.

“If they want to get in, they’re going to get in,” but the job can be made difficult enough to dissuade them through a layered security approach, he said. Also helpful are anti-theft trailers that are harder to work on with tools, center door HASPs that marry the two rear doors with a protected padlock, and good protection of bolt seals. “If you’re taking that layered approach you can protect both the integrity of the rear doors and the integrity of the seal,” Cornell said. “It makes a hard target that they don’t necessarily want to hit.”

Another smart solution is to place a tracking unit inside a trailer after it arrives at the store and until it’s unloaded, so store staff can receive an alert if it’s moved, say experts.

Click here to register for the webinar

For more information about managing supply chain, register for the live webinar “New Ways to Manage Supply Chain in Today’s COVID Environment” scheduled for Thursday, March 11, 2021. The content will also be available as an on-demand archived webinar after the live presentation.

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