When you consider the size and weight of a shipping container, you’d probably think that they rarely get stolen. After all, they are on the back of a truck, so how would thieves get the cargo undetected? And that is true.  The average 20-foot shipping container can weigh between 3,970 to 4,850 pounds empty.  And high cube containers for specialty freight can be even heavier.

In the United States, cargo theft is an industry.  One that causes between $15 to $25 billion dollars per year in losses, for business owners, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau. The most recent data provided by the NICB reported that 8,676 cargo vehicle thefts were reported annually, or about twenty-four (24) per day. The majority of thefts occurred on Monday and Friday’s, or 78% of all container thefts. 

Based on the NICB survey, the top ten states for cargo theft are not surprising. They reflect the ports that have the highest freight traffic annually. The ports that had the most frequent incidents of container or freight theft per year were:

  • California (1,770)
  • Texas (1,255)
  • Florida (921)
  • Illinois (712)
  • New Jersey (468)
  • Georgia (438)
  • Alabama (214)
  • North Carolina (204)
  • Indiana (192)
  • Missouri (181)

Source Web 2021: nicb.org

What are the most common products that are stolen?  Generally, consumer goods are highly targeted by cargo thieves.  This includes commodities like alcohol, cigarettes, and packaged foods.  Sundries or over the counter pharmaceuticals are easy to sell on the Black Market.  So are fashion items.

The Growing Problem of Container Hijacking and Theft

Just as theft prevention methods like GPS have become more sophisticated over time, so have the methods that crime syndicates use.  You see, cargo theft is a business that provides tens of millions of dollars to criminals. And it’s not the little guys that hijack containers and trucks. They are highly trained and organized groups that target your freight.

The statistics on cargo theft in the United States are not very accurate, according to law enforcement agencies like the FBI. When a container theft has occurred with tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars of property lost, it becomes front page news.

There are two problems with that.  First, the carrier may choose not to report the theft to the authorities. It looks bad on a carrier and publication of a large theft can reduce confidence in their services. And cost a trucking company lost business. Even though the theft was beyond their control in most cases.

The second reason that cargo theft may not be reported, is for public relations reasons. Companies themselves (who carry cargo insurance) may not want to publicize the loss. It can look bad on their business, and also make them an increased target for future thefts. Essentially advertising that the company regularly imports or exports high value cargo.

How Do Cargo Thieves Know What Is Inside a Container?

Theft has become high-tech and sophisticated.  Many investigations have found that cargo theft syndicates hack into tracking systems. Each container has a GPS so that real-time reporting on the location of the freight can be traced.  Those same systems that are used to make sure containers do not get lost, can be exploited by criminals.

Each container has customs information.  The paperwork that accompanies every container details the manufacturer and the buyer. And also, the contents of the container.  For high level criminal syndicates, hacking into customs and inspect information can be like online shopping. They can specifically target goods that are easy to sell quickly on the black market.

Conversely, criminals that ship contraband products (including illicit drugs or drug manufacturing supplies) can also use law enforcement systems.  By hacking into inspection information and schedules, criminal groups can also learn if the container they are shipping will be randomly inspected. If so, they will not show up to the pier to collect the container and be incarcerated for the illegal contents inside.

How Does GPS Work to Reduce Cargo Theft?

Did you know that on every container that is shipped, there is a GPS tracker installed inside the container?  If you have ever seen a large container vessel coming into Port of Houston, Texas, you can understand why each container needs separate tracking. 

The average vessel can carry over 21,000 TEU and larger vessels can carry up to 23,000 TEU.  There are twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) and forty-foot (2-TEU) ISO standardized containers.  The 2-TEU containers are more commonly used, and 90% of bulk cargo is transported by ocean vessels as container freight.

Each GPS unit can have a battery life of five years or longer. And it can report the location of the container over 3,000 times per day.  The container GPS constantly reports the location of the container. Whether it is on a vessel, truck, train, plane, or crossdocking at a secure warehouse.

To date, using GPS has been an effective deterrent to protect containers against theft. However, in recent years, GPS jammers have been invented to stop the signal. Criminals can actually pause the GPS signal to create a window for theft.  After which time they abandon the truck or the container in a random location.  Radio frequency identification tags (RFID)is another way to track containers. However, like GPS, signals can be jammed to obstruct the report of the location of the freight.

What Steps Do Truck Drivers Take to Prevent Cargo Theft?

Sophisticated cargo theft rings put truck drivers at significant risk. Imagine picking up a container that is being tracked by armed criminals, ready to hijack at the first opportune moment? Yet that is a risk that every truck driver takes when they pick up a container. Whether providing drayage services from a vessel to a commercial business, or to and from rail depots and other transmodal methods.

When a truck driver is transporting a container, the GPS for the cargo is still active. Unless it is disrupted by criminals with the intention to hijack the goods.  For this reason, owner operators and fleets invest in advanced security systems, including cameras for evidence, motion detectors and alarms.

A trucker is doing more than a basic pick up or drop off of freight. They are taking personal responsibility for the integrity of the container and goods they are transporting.  And they protect it, by minimizing their risks wherever possible. That includes choosing safe rest stops and overnight locations where law enforcement may be present as a deterrent.

Pilferage of Cargo and the Responsibility of a Truck Driver

Less organized or sophisticated criminals are responsible for thousands of cases of pilferage annually. That is when they break into a truck or container, when the driver is resting or briefly absent from the vehicle and unload a portion of the valuable goods.

When a trucker has been the victim of pilferage, they are the first to suffer the loss.  While the goods are commercially insured, it is the driver’s credibility and trustworthiness that is called to question. Did they do everything they could to prevent the theft? Were they somehow involved?   It can be hard for a driver to know when the lock was picked, over the hundreds or thousands of miles of highway and rest stops.

While collaboration between truck drivers and criminals is rare, it has happened. Overdrive just reported a trucker from Kansas who was convicted of working with an organized crime group.  The trucker now faces twenty (20) years in jail, permanent suspension of his CDL, and a $1.3 million dollar fine.

At Canal Cartage, we have worked with the same owner-operator contractors for decades, in some instances.  We carefully interview and complete a full background check on each driver we consider.  Our reputation depends on being a logistics provider in Houston that commercial businesses can trust. Owner-operator drivers must also undergo a safety abstract review, and a criminal record check, before they are assigned any leased contracts through Canal Cartage.

Featured Image: bayberry | Deposit Photos

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