Highway Robbery

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

Stolen cargo typically changes hands multiple times before it ends up in a warehouse. A private security firm investigating a cargo heist in Houston determined that the cargo changed hands 15 times within a three-day period. Ultimately, a legitimate business bought it.

Cops also say carriers are reluctant to prosecute drivers who are in on the heist because, as Peters puts it, "they don't want word to get out that they hire crackhead drivers.

"Once the freight's recovered, the owner's happy, the insurance company's happy, and that's pretty much it," Peters says.

Cargo thieves sometimes put aluminum foil on satellite tracking systems to block the signal.
Cargo thieves sometimes put aluminum foil on satellite tracking systems to block the signal.
Cargo thieves sometimes put aluminum foil on satellite tracking systems to block the signal.
Cargo thieves sometimes put aluminum foil on satellite tracking systems to block the signal.

Crooks have been stealing booty since it was strapped to camels—and probably long before that too—so it's unlikely that cargo theft will be stopped anytime soon. Private security consultants say adding the crime to the FBI's UCR program will make a huge difference. Police work is driven by these stats, which track all major crimes. They gauge the safety of a city. They determine the effectiveness of a police chief. And once cities realize how huge cargo theft is, experts say, they will be more likely to put additional cops on it. Still, most big-city police departments are understaffed as it is, and it's hard to see a department pulling detectives from narcotics or vice to chase after stolen truckloads of perfume, especially considering that cargo theft is typically a nonviolent crime in the United States.

So private carriers are coming up with solutions of their own, as are trade groups representing the industries that are most often ripped off. High-tech firms from around the country, for example, have formed a security alliance, the Technology Asset Protection Association, that tracks where thefts of electronics most often occur. They also share tips on the best ways to avoid the loss of freight to thieves.

Dan Purtell is regularly hired by companies from around the world to map out logistics. He will recommend carriers that are known for their safety. Big carriers, he says, carefully check the criminal records of their drivers. They also instruct their drivers on the best ways to avoid cargo theft. Drivers carrying a high-value load, for example, drive in teams so that the truck never has to stop. When one driver tires, the other one takes over.

In some cases, Purtell hires security escorts, both covert and overt, to follow high-value loads. He also advises his clients which airports are safest to fly in (DFW gets high marks, he says) and which cities they should avoid altogether (Atlanta is one, he says).

Carriers have also become more sophisticated in the technology they use. Most big carriers equip their tractors and trailers with hidden GPS tracking systems. Others use "smart containers" which are equipped to detect any changes in the temperature of the container, or whether a door has been opened.

"If a trailer is going from Los Angeles to St. Louis, they can ask, 'Why was that trailer opened in Phoenix?' It's great technology for cargo theft, and it's great technology for counter-terrorism."

In the last year, Purtell says, there has been a global rise in cargo theft. He attributes this to the opening of new markets in places such as Africa, Asia and South America. "We've been selling to the safe world, and now we're selling to the dangerous world."

Experts such as Purtell agree that in the United States there is a need for more cargo theft task forces that are specially trained to deal with the problem. The key to taking down cargo gangs, he says, is intelligence. And that only comes when police departments from across the country work together.

He's not so sure that Dallas needs a cargo theft task force, however. As bad as the problem is here, it's worse in other places that are having to fight to keep their task forces in existence.

Detective Wallace may not agree. More and more trucks pass through Dallas each day and, with them, so do more and more cargo thieves.

"It's all I work on," Wallace says. "And I'm completely snowed under."

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