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From trailer wraps to warehouse sensors, the things that scare off cargo thieves

Cargo theft doesn’t just happen on the road, it can also happen at the warehouse. ( Photo: Shutterstock )

A lot of discussion takes place around cargo theft, and many ask why there is so much focus on theft when the numbers indicate that it is declining. The truth is, as FreightWaves previously reported and was confirmed last week at a panel discussion during the Transportation & Logistics Council (TLC) Annual Meeting in Charleston, SC, cargo theft is not actually declining and is simply underreported.

According to SensiGuard’s Supply Chain Intelligence Center, cargo thefts declined 15% in 2017 from 2016 to 649. CargoNet reported a similar decline with a 12% drop to 741 thefts. Those numbers, though, are only the reported totals.

“That is not a true fact [that theft is declining],” explained John C. Tabor, senior vice president of supply chain for National Retail Systems, during the TLC conference.  “CargoNet theft members are doing better, but cargo theft is on the rise.”

Tabor noted that one factor in the appeal of cargo theft is related to mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders. “Anyone caught with a pound of weed is going to go to jail for 10 years,” he said. “If you steal a trailer, you’re not likely to go to jail.

“If you rob a bank of $3,000, you go to jail for 10 years,” he elaborated. “Steal a million-dollar load and get a [comparative] slap on the wrist.”

According to Tabor, Fridays and Saturdays are the busiest days for cargo theft; California and Texas remain the top states for thefts; and food and beverage loads are the most often stolen.

The panel presented some tips on how to avoid becoming a cargo theft victim. Sandar Lengyel, director of security for NFI Industries, noted how easy it has become for thieves to duplicate paperwork of carriers and steal their identities.

“Most of it has to do with the web and web access,” he said. “It’s cybersecurity.”

Another easy way is when a driver accidently leaves a bill of lading somewhere. Once a thief has access to paperwork that can be duplicated or basic business information, it’s real easy for “criminals to set up a fake trucking company,” Lengyel said. They then will bid on loads online and go pick up the load with the fake paperwork, never to be seen from again.

It’s all about doing due diligence, Lengyel said. Among the factors criminals consider before stealing a load are:

  • High-value loads
  • Cross country hauls, especially over weekends. These often feature Wednesday to Friday pickup times and Monday/Tuesday delivery windows.
  • Out of state brokers
  • Team driving situations, which can indicate a high-value load

Lengyel also said that thieves will often bid on a load within 15 minutes of it being posted. He advised applying added scrutiny when posting a load for the weekend and be wary of drivers who want to drop the trailer.

“If they are going to drop a trailer over a weekend, they need approval from us,” he said. “If a driver says the drop is a ‘secure yard,’ pull up Google Maps and check it out. You can see if the yard is secure. Is it protected by a 3-foot fence? [Does] that sound secure? What are they protecting it from, gnomes?”

Some red flags that can suggest something suspicious include a phone number that ends in something like “2000.” He said most companies will have specific phone numbers, and once you have the phone number, put it into Google and see if it brings up the company. If it doesn’t, it might not be legit.

Do the same for email addresses, Lengyel advised. Most companies will use company-specific emails, not gmail or yahoo accounts. Also check for changes in fonts on insurance certificates.

“Documents can be stolen and thieves will apply for jobs just to steal a document at an interview,” he noted.

He also told shippers to look at the truck that enters the facility. Does it have a sign taped to the side of the cab? Also, be wary of a company that wants to communicate with fax numbers, as few companies still use those.

Lengyel added seven steps a shipper should perform to protect themselves:

  1. Check phone numbers on FMCSA’s website (
  2. Call the telephone number listed on SAFER to verify the driver/broker
  3. Verify the insurance broker
  4. Obtain a certificate of insurance
  5. Conduct a web search on the company
  6. Verify emails
  7. Verify and contact three commercial references

Tabor said that more and more, cargo theft is taking place at locations other than on the road, including the warehouse, where burglaries are on the rise.

“Thieves bypass alarms because few warehouses have alarms on roofs or walls,” he said, noting that more thieves are cutting doors in half so that sensors can be left intact. Once inside, they simply open receiving doors and start unloading the warehouse. To prevent this, Tabor suggests installing 360-degree motion sensors.

He also said that trailer seals are becoming outdated. “Anybody who wants to defeat a seal, there are 7,000 ways to defeat it,” Tabor said. “Now thieves are 3D printing seals from the major seal companies and there is no way to tell.”

National Retail Systems has moved to a thumbprint system, Tabor added. “You can’t fake a thumbprint,” he said. “I’ve only had 3 drivers refuse and I can guarantee they were thieves.”

Tabor said NRS has not had a stolen load in 11 years but sees about 3 attempts per year. He also told carriers to use FreightWatch’s lane analysis tool that monitors where thefts are occurring. “Inputting the lane to be run shows where thefts are happening and drivers can be told not to stop in those areas,” Tabor said.

Adding GPS to trailers is also critical, he said, so if something happens, you can track the trailer. On tractors, Tabor said to embed the GPS in the dash rather than mounting it where thieves can quickly disable it.

Finally, Tabor advised carriers to put wraps on their trailers. “Between 65% and 70% of trailers on the road today are white trailers. A stolen white trailer blends in quite easily on the roadway. “You can identify 53 feet of J.B. Hunt or Schneider, but that white box, all you can tell [law enforcement] is maybe a license plate number,” he said.

Lengyel summed up the panel discussion with a simple step everyone can take: make friends with law enforcement.

These steps won’t necessarily stop cargo theft, but they will make you less likely to become a victim.

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Brian Straight

Brian Straight covers general transportation news and leads the editorial team as Managing Editor. A journalism graduate of the University of Rhode Island, he has covered everything from a presidential election, to professional sports and Little League baseball, and for more than 10 years has covered trucking and logistics. Before joining FreightWaves, he was previously responsible for the editorial quality and production of Fleet Owner magazine and Brian lives in Connecticut with his wife and two kids and spends his time coaching his son’s baseball team, golfing with his daughter, and pursuing his never-ending quest to become a professional bowler.

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