Highway Robbery

Crime doesn't pay? Tell that to truck cargo thieves.

Cargo theft affects us all: Experts say it adds 20 percent to the price of a computer and about 5 percent to the price of a designer shirt. And yet, most people don't even realize it exists. That's because in the United States, cargo theft is all but invisible. In places such as Sao Paulo or Mexico City, trucks are hijacked daily. Shootouts are common. But in the United States, roadside hijackings almost never happen.

Instead, cargo heists happen quietly, right under the noses of police officers. Sixty to 80 percent of the time, experts say, it's an inside job. That could mean a driver is in on the heist (trucking companies are notorious for hiring ex-cons), or it could mean a warehouse worker who knows trucking routes and shipping schedules is feeding that information to someone on the outside.

"They'll wait for a driver to make a mistake," says Dan Purtell, a supply chain security consultant in Phoenix with First Advantage. "It takes a while for glow plugs to heat up, so drivers often leave their trucks running while they stop to eat or shower at a truck stop. Drivers carry two sets of keys, but it's easy to bust out a window or simply hook the trailer onto another tractor."

Cargo thieves also steal trucks that are parked at warehouses or unsecured drop lots. In Georgia there was recently a $22 million theft of two trailers loaded with pharmaceuticals. "They were preloaded the night before," Purtell says. "Common sense says you don't leave two trailers loaded with $11 million apiece in cargo in an unsecured lot. These guys just backed up to the distribution center and pulled away from there."

These types of heists are almost always carried out by organized crime syndicates. Their methods range from the advanced (hidden video cameras in trash cans that capture warehouse PIN codes) to the primitive (dumpster-diving for shipping routes). Consider these examples:

  • In 2002, a police helicopter spotted a group of men trying to steal $600,000 in computer monitors from a warehouse in Ontario, California. The men fled in a white van, tossing radios and gloves out the window as they drove. Later, after the men had been detained, police found that the warehouse alarm had been tampered with and a security camera had been disabled. At a nearby truck stop, they also found a tractor-trailer belonging to one of the men. And when they searched the men's hotel room, they found airline tickets for return flights to Florida. The men, all Cuban nationals, were suspected of similar heists in at least six other states, including Texas. Their attorney insisted they had no involvement in the "so-called Cuban Mafia." They were sentenced to terms ranging from 40 months to 5 years.

  • In 2003, a crew out of Miami stole $12 million in merchandise from a New Jersey warehouse. Once they knew they had the right warehouse, they cut its alarm wires and waited for police or warehouse employees to respond, a process they repeated until there was no response. At that point, they used the warehouse's own forklifts to load their tractor-trailers, which carried the goods down to Miami, where they were ultimately sold.

These examples, from methodology to the players involved, are typical of high-level cargo theft, says Alan Spear, an investigator for MRC Investigations, a private firm outside Chicago that specializes in cargo theft. In New York, Ecuadorian and Puerto Rican gangs have taken over what was once the domain of Italian crime families, according to the New York Daily News. One of the most well-known of these thieves is a New Jersey truck driver named Jose Maldonado, who has ripped off more than $3 million in cargo since 1993. He was most recently charged for helping a band of train robbers known as the ConRail Boyz, whom police say were the most notorious cargo gang of all time.

Suspected members of the Miami-based Cuban Mafia have carried out cargo heists in Los Angeles, Chicago, Memphis and other cities across the country. Another group, led by a Mexican national named Juan Luis Villalobos, stole about $7 million in cargo between 1998 and 2000—everything from sleeping bags to electronics to breakfast cereal. His underground network extended throughout the West, with key associates in Denver, Portland and Los Angeles.

But it's not just ethnic gangs that are involved in cargo theft. In 2002, a Memphis trucker named Catherine Harris testified that she twice sold stolen loads of cereal and cough syrup to a warehouse that was a known fencing operation. On one occasion she was paid $14,000 for a load of Kellogg's cereal. On another, she was paid $22,000 for a load of Procter & Gamble pharmaceuticals.

Cargo theft pays, and that's why organized crime does it. Compared to dealing drugs or robbing banks, its penalties amount to a slap on the wrist. Maldonado, for example, was arrested dozens of times between 1993 and 2003 on cargo theft-related charges. Each time he would wag his finger at police and smile, according to the New York Daily News. "You know, you know," he would say, meaning that within days or even hours he would be back on the streets.

Investigating these crimes is a nightmare. Typically the company that owns the property doesn't want it back because they can't re-sell stolen goods. That means police have to store it. Usually the cargo ends up being auctioned off. John Albrecht, vice president of Transport Security Inc. in Minnesota, estimates that it takes $10 to $15 in increased revenue to make up for every dollar lost to theft, a cost that's passed on to the consumer.

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