Cargo thieves struck five times at rest stops around Memphis in November and December, stealing truckloads of computer game consoles on their way to stores in the run-up to Christmas.
“They were theft gangs operating out of Miami and New Jersey, all targeting the same area at separate times over a three-week period,” said Dan Burges, director of intelligence for Freightwatch International, a logistics security service firm. “That implies the thieves had some kind of knowledge of the cargo being shipped and of the security being used. For a large number of shipments stolen at the same time in the same area, one can only assume the criminals had done a lot of research and knew they would be successful.”
The fact that the New Jersey State Police recovered one of the shipments in Newark and that part of another was found in Miami is small consolation for shippers wrestling with increasingly sophisticated cargo thieves facing high rewards with minimal risk.
Shipments of high-value cargo such as the game consoles are a tempting target of cargo thieves, because they have a ready market willing to take the goods and because the thieves rarely get caught in the act. “When they do get caught, the penalty is minimal, Burges said. “Probation is very common, or they are often sentenced to time served.”
Those sentences are light because cargo theft is perceived as a victimless crime, with no violence. “The more money they make, the less reason there is for them to stop,” Burges said.
Although the overall number of cargo thefts increased last year, the average value per theft in the U.S. declined, according to Freightwatch’s “2011 U.S. Cargo Theft Report,” released in January. That’s because shippers of high-value cargo are meeting the sophistication demonstrated by the thieves with sophistication of their own. “We’ve seen a lot of the major manufacturers in that sector ramp up their supply-chain security,” Burges said. “They can’t put all the bells and whistles on every shipment, but they are doing it for high-value cargo.”
Still, shipments of high-value electronics were the most attractive target for thieves last year, replacing pharmaceuticals, Freightwatch reported. Although the number of electronics cargo thefts was flat, the value of the average electronics shipment stolen almost doubled to $998,000 per incident from $512,000 in 2010. The average value of pharmaceuticals stolen plummeted last year to $585,000 per incident from $3.78 million the year before. “The high-value stuff, especially in the pharmaceutical sector, is going unscathed,” Burges said.
The average value of cigarettes stolen last year fell by nearly two-thirds, to $400,000 per incident from $1.26 million in 2010.
While the overall number of cargo thefts of truckloads or warehouse burglaries increased 8.3 percent to a record 974 incidents last year, the average value per incident declined 31 percent. The number involving electronics dropped to 165, or 17 percent of the total, from 38 percent of all thefts in 2006.
Nevertheless, electronics were the second most frequently stolen shipments, after food and drinks at 23 percent of the total, and ahead of building materials and industrial products, which accounted for 14 percent of thefts.
Most of the truckload thefts — 85 percent of all those recorded last year — occur while drivers are at rest stops. “In some cases, the drivers are in collusion with the thieves,” Burges said. “They park at a rest stop, walk away while their pals drive the truck off and then report the theft to the police.”
Cargo thieves focus on targets of opportunity in the regions around the major U.S. gateway ports and around inland rail terminals where imports are shipped via landbridge. The top six states in terms of 2011 cargo theft were California, Florida, New Jersey, Texas, Georgia and Illinois. Thefts in these states accounted for 75 percent of all recorded incidents. California alone, where thefts clustered around the ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach and Oakland, accounted for 26 percent of all thefts. Illinois, which saw the number of incidents jump 60 percent last year over 2010, overtook Tennessee as the sixth most active target for thieves.
Weekends and holidays are thieves’ favorite time for their nefarious activities. They are especially active in the two big shopping seasons. After the Christmas holidays in 2010, the number of thefts flat-lined through the winter months of 2011 and then started to ramp up from April on, reaching two peaks: when consumer goods were being shipped to retail stores in time for the back-to-school school rush in August and at the start of the holiday shopping season in October.