Protecting Truck Cargo on Nation's Highways

Crime doesn't pay? Tell that to truck cargo thieves

"Scum talk to scum" is the way Peters explains how stolen products find their way into the black market. "They have their connections just like you do. Business is business."

That explains how word recently got out that a trucker in Dallas was selling gas to other drivers on a stolen credit card. Over a two-week period selling diesel fuel for cash at a buck a gallon, the trucker put upward of $200,000 on the card.

In March 2004 Dallas police, working with the Tarrant Regional Auto Theft Task Force, got word from an informant that a load of stolen cell phones was going to a warehouse on Harry Hines Boulevard. Police executed a search warrant and found the warehouse was stacked to the rafters with stolen goods, including a trailer half-full of Maytag appliances, boxes and boxes of cheap electronics and about 50 motorized scooters. The owners of the warehouse were suspected of buying other stolen merchandise as well and fencing it to locally owned stores.

Crimes such as these represent the highest level of cargo theft and they are above Peters' pay scale. The gas theft, for example, was more than a crime of opportunity. The credit card belonged to a trucking company. The suspect in the case had someone inside the company who could change the PIN on the card each time it reached its limit.

These sorts of cases often fall to agencies such as the FBI or the Secret Service which investigated the gas case. In Dallas, there is no cargo theft task force, which melds the efforts of the FBI and city police to take down cargo gangs. Instead, there is one detective assigned to cargo theft David Wallace and he is the only officer in town who works cargo heists that involve organized crime. Walt West who heads the Tarrant Regional Auto Theft Task Force and regularly works cargo theft cases (most of which end up in Dallas), said organized cargo gangs that operate in the area almost always come from out of town.

In the next few months Wallace plans to file cases against several of these gangs, but he was reluctant to talk about any of them for this story, worrying he might spoil an open investigation. He did say that one case involved the heist of Maytag appliances from a facility in Farmers Branch. Another, which has already resulted in one conviction, involved a truck driver who stole 3,000 Samsung cell phones.

Proving a load of cell phones is stolen is one thing each phone is marked with a serial number but there is no way to prove a load of toilet paper or cereal is stolen unless it's still on the crate it was originally shipped on. There's also no way to prove the warehouse storing it knew it was stolen when they bought it.

Stolen cargo typically changes hands multiple times before it ends up in a warehouse. A private security firm investigating a cargo heist in Houston determined that the cargo changed hands 15 times within a three-day period. Ultimately a legitimate business bought it.

Cops also say carriers are reluctant to prosecute drivers who are in on the heist because as Peters puts it, "they don't want word to get out that they hire crackhead drivers.

"Once the freight's recovered the owner's happy, the insurance company's happy, and that's pretty much it," Peters says. Crooks have been stealing booty since it was strapped to camels and probably long before that too so it's unlikely that cargo theft will be stopped anytime soon. Private security consultants say adding the crime to the FBI's UCR program will make a huge difference. Police work is driven by these stats which track all major crimes. They gauge the safety of a city. They determine the effectiveness of a police chief. And once cities realize how huge cargo theft is, experts say, they will be more likely to put additional cops on it. Still, most big-city police departments are understaffed as it is, and it's hard to see a department pulling detectives from narcotics or vice to chase after stolen truckloads of perfume, especially considering that cargo theft is typically a nonviolent crime in the United States. So private carriers are coming up with solutions of their own, as are trade groups representing the industries that are most often ripped off. High-tech firms from around the country, for example, have formed a security alliance, the Technology Asset Protection Association, that tracks where thefts of electronics most often occur. They also share tips on the best ways to avoid the loss of freight to thieves.