How a Memphis Task Force Combats Cargo Theft
How an FBI-led task force in Memphis is combating a multi-billion-dollar criminal enterprise.
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How a Memphis Task Force Combats a Costly Problem
After many hours on the road, the long-haul driver pulled his tractor-trailer into a Tennessee truck stop for a break and a hot meal. But by the time he looked over the menu, a crew of professional thieves had made off with his rig and all its contents.
Cargo theft is a multi-billion-dollar criminal enterprise in the U.S., and the FBI has seven task forces located around the country to combat the problem. In the Memphis region, according to Special Agent Conrad Straube, coordinator of the Memphis Cargo Theft Task Force, “there is an average of one cargo theft every day of the year.”
Memphis—located along major interstate highways and home to a variety of product distribution centers—is a hot spot for cargo theft. The thieves steal trucks with trailers or just the trailers and their contents. Often, goods are stolen from distribution center warehouses or even from moving rail cars.
On a recent day, Straube and his task force partners from the Memphis Police Department, the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office, and the U.S. Marshals Service were on the road, following up on leads at truck stops and other locations in and around Memphis. The task force is busy—and successful. From January 2011 to the end of September, it recovered more than $1.5 million in stolen cargo and vehicles.
Task force member Barry Clark, a detective with the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office, explained that some of the theft crews are so organized that each member has his own specialty, from the break-in artist who can steal a rig in seconds to professional drivers, surveillance experts, and the guys who know how to defeat the specialized devices that lock trailers carrying extremely valuable loads. “This is their business,” Clark said. “And they are good at it.”
Crew leaders know where to find willing buyers, too—from small mom and pop stores who don’t ask questions when they buy at prices below wholesale to online merchants who may or may not know they are purchasing stolen goods.
Although many crews target specific cargo such as electronics and pharmaceuticals—always in demand and easy to sell—other thieves steal whatever they can get their hands on. Straube and his team have recovered stolen trailers full of dog food, hair dryers, lawn mower engines, and even Popsicles.
“When you talk about the victims of cargo theft,” Straube explained, “beyond the trucking companies and manufacturers, you have to include all consumers. Because when these items are stolen, it eventually drives up the cost of merchandise for everybody.”
Cargo theft is also a “gateway” crime, said Special Agent Eric Ives, a program manager in our Criminal Investigative Division at FBI Headquarters who coordinates major theft investigations from a national perspective. “Groups that do these crimes are often funding other illegal activities, like buying drugs or weapons. And compared to many crimes,” Ives added, “cargo theft is highly profitable and not particularly dangerous.”
Conrad agreed, adding that thieves often rob warehouses on a Friday night, and by the time the crime is discovered and reported Monday morning, the stolen merchandise may already be on a store shelf or auctioned online.
That’s why our task forces—comprised of local, state, and federal law enforcement—and our partnerships with private industry (see sidebar) are critical in the fight against these costly crimes, Ives said. “Cargo theft is a sophisticated and organized enterprise,” he added, “and we take this threat very seriously.”