VIOLENCE in cargo theft is increasingly common in Europe and the trend will spread to the US inside five years, a leading firm of political analysts has warned.
Texas consultancy Stratfor, in a new report jointly written with Freightwatch Group, puts the cost of cargo theft worldwide at $50bn a year in direct merchandise costs alone.
If the evaluation is extended to take in the cost of product reordering, loss of customer confidence, additional security and secondary ship-ping, the true cost is probably far higher.
Much crime of this type goes unreported, with companies believing there is little point in taking it further.
Chances of recovery are low and insurance companies foot the bill, leading to a widespread perception that these are 'victimless' offences. But, even so, reported incidents have soared over the past decade.
Reduced border controls, free movement of cargo and just-in-time manufacturing have fostered a climate where such crime is growing.
The report contrasts the US to western Europe, where 'more aggressive and violent tactics reminiscent of criminal behaviour in South America, eastern Europe and Asia' are now seen.
Europe responded to a growth in cargo theft in the late 1990s by hardening security.
High value loads worth millions of dollars were no longer entrusted to unknown drivers, while background checks are now conducted and truck-mounted systems installed.
But because opportunities for 'easy' hits largely dried up thieves became more ready to resort to violence.
'The use of bogus police checkpoints, knockout gas that is used at truck stops to disable drivers and violent vehicle entries while a high-value vehicle is negotiating congested traffic are now common,' the report said.
In August this year, for example, a security escort in Britain was deliberately rammed in an in-transit theft incident.
The US is said to be five years behind Europe in terms of this trend. But, as cargo security tightens in that country too, criminals are likely to respond in the same manner.
The report singles out the Hialeah gang in Miami, which is dedicated to full truckload thefts.
Other Florida gangs have affiliates in New York and New Jersey. Local operators are prevalent in Chicago, where they also strike in rail yards.
Gangs are also thought to operate in Georgia, Texas and south California.
Typically, the method is simply to follow loads leaving distribution centres, expecting the driver to stop within four hours.
Locked and secured tractors can be entered in five minutes and simply driven away, with the load switched to a clean vehicle in little more than half an hour.
With police unlikely to devote many resources to non-violent offences, this is seen as low risk and high reward.
However, the US Department of Justice plans to add cargo theft to the Federal Bureau of Investigations uniform crime reporting system by the end of this year.