January 27, 2012

Cargo Theft

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.”

Partnerships Make a Difference

Cargo TheftIn 2005, two large pharmaceutical companies were the victims of major cargo thefts at the same truck stop within a short time period, and each had no idea what had happened to the other. When they found out later, a meeting was called among pharmaceutical industry leaders, and the concept of a security coalition was born. The coalition would consist not only of industry members but also law enforcement.

Today, the Pharmaceutical Cargo Security Coalition shares information about thefts and best practices for reducing risk, according to Charles Forsaith, director of supply chain security for Purdue Pharma Technologies, who coordinates the coalition.

“We educate everyone in our industry,” said Forsaith, “and we work together with law enforcement to stop these crimes. That partnership has yielded a measurable decline in cargo theft.”

In 2008, for example, the pharmaceutical industry reported losses of 16 full trailer loads each valued in excess of $1 million. In 2011, Forsaith said, there were only four such losses valued over $1 million. In 2008, the odds of recovering a lost load were 31 percent. Today, he said, with the help of GPS tracking devices and a strong working relationship with law enforcement, the odds for recovery are better than 65 percent.

“We realized that we couldn’t put a stop to these crimes on our own,” he said. “In addition to educating our industry, we knew we needed buy-in from law enforcement, and we have been extremely pleased working with the FBI’s cargo theft task forces.”

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.”

- Inside Cargo Theft (11/12/10)
- Cargo Thieves Stealing Billions Annually (07/21/06)
- Violent Crime and Major Thefts