Strategies to Prevent Trailer Theft by Organized Criminals

July 3, 2024
The urgency of addressing high-value trailer thefts necessitates a return to the fundamentals of physical security systems

Consider how a trailer worth $330,000 vanished in a mere 17 minutes. A recent incident underscored the audacity of highly motivated organized criminals who targeted distribution centers undeterred by traditional security measures. These criminals brazenly prowled through industrial zones, seeking out vulnerable points. In a daring move, they set their sights on a tractor connected to a trailer in a facility's live-loading process. Disconnecting the tractor, they drove it to a neighboring site, using automated cutting tools to breach the gate.

Consider the implications: the breach triggered an alarm at the central station, but the lack of an effective personnel barrier allowed another team to enter the parking area and identify the target trailer. The stolen tractor was hitched to a trailer that was not properly connected to the dock and driven away. In just 17 minutes, a $330,000 loss was incurred. This stark reality became the foundation for our prevention strategy, with the aim of implementing a physical security system that would maximize the potential for the police to respond in less than 17 minutes.

So, what myths do we address when dealing with organized criminals?

  • Conventional fencing and gates will prevent unauthorized access and incidents. Battery-powered cutting tools overcome this common measure in a matter of seconds.
  • Video surveillance will deter the criminals. Traditional video surveillance designed solely for forensic purposes will be ineffective at preventing incidents and have a limited impact on identifying offenders and prosecution.
  • Well-lit areas will scare the criminals away. Often thought of as a deterrent, lighting also aids the adversary in navigating the site and identifying vulnerable assets.
  • Alarms sent to central stations will prompt police response to a security breach. Police departments are understaffed and underfunded. Unverified burglar alarms are a low priority, and there will typically not be a timely response, leaving adversaries with ample time to complete their crimes.

What is the approach to properly secure high-value trailers from determined adversaries? Let’s go back to the most fundamental physical security basics:

  •  Intelligence and Threat Assessment
  • Deter
  • Deny
  • Delay
  • Detection
  • Assessment
  • Response and Interdiction

Delay Measures

Fencing and vehicle gates may not create a significant delay measure, but when coupled with detection technology can establish criminal intent when humans are detected in areas where their presence can only occur when the perimeter is breached.

King Pin Lock -- King pin locks are devices designed to secure semi-trailers. They work by preventing the trailer from being connected to a tractor (the truck part) and driven away. King pin locks are typically used when a trailer needs to be left unattended for an extended period, such as at a shipping yard or a storage facility where motivated criminals can target them. The king pin lock may not be invincible, but it will slow down the theft which is the goal of the delay measure.

Wheel Lock -- Wheel Locks can immobilize a trailer by locking onto one or more of its wheels, making it difficult to move. Tractor-trailer wheel locks are typically made of heavy-duty steel and have two main components: a clamp and a locking mechanism. The clamp is designed to fit around the trailer or tractor's wheel (usually one of the rear wheels). The person responsible for applying the wheel lock positions it near the wheel they want to immobilize. It's important to ensure a snug fit around the wheel. The clamp is then manually tightened around the wheel. It's designed to be adjustable to fit different wheel sizes.

Once securely clamped, the wheel lock effectively prevents the wheel from turning. After the clamp is in place, a locking mechanism secures it tightly. This can be a padlock, a cylinder lock, or an integrated locking system with a unique key or combination. We would recommend avoiding padlocks where possible given the ease with which they can be defeated by battery-powered cutting tools.

Dock Lock – A dock lock can help deter and prevent trailer theft in specific situations, particularly when trailers are parked or loaded/unloaded at a dock or shipping yard. A dock lock, often referred to as a trailer or truck lock, is a device designed to secure the connection between a trailer and a loading dock. It works by immobilizing the trailer and preventing unauthorized access or detachment of the trailer from the loading dock. A dock lock is installed on the loading dock, typically as part of the dock leveler or a separate unit.

When a trailer backs up to the dock for loading or unloading, the dock lock engages with the trailer's rear impact guard (often called the ICC bumper). The lock uses a hydraulic or mechanical mechanism to secure the connection. Once engaged, the dock lock is meant to prevent the trailer from being pulled away from the dock for safety purposes, but it also can prevent a thief from driving the trailer away. This is not a device that can be used for ground-level overhead doors. They are also worthless if not consistently engaged when the trailers are dropped at the dock.

Detection, Assessment, Response and Interdiction Outcome

To overcome the unverified alarm burden, it is critical to include a video verification element in a physical security program with an elevated threat of trespassing, burglary, or trailer theft, as was the case here. Video central stations, or video monitoring centers, are facilities that will provide remote surveillance and monitoring services for organizations. These stations have advanced technology and trained personnel to monitor security cameras, alarms, and other devices in real time.

Organizations can install video surveillance using analytics or more advanced artificial intelligence, intrusion detection sensors, and other security detection technology on premises. Detection devices or technology are then pushed to a video central station for adjudication and response measures. In some cases, IP speakers located close to the cameras can be used to speak back through to the adversaries which can be extremely effective at getting adversaries to reverse course and depart a property.

 This solution was deployed to achieve a successful outcome in this case study. After speaking with the police and explaining how the detection technology, in concert with the video central station, would work, they committed to a response time of four to five minutes under the worst circumstances, which brought us in well below the seventeen-minute design goal of the project to prevent additional trailer thefts.


The video central station with speak-through capability for the IP speaker and for additional live video viewing necessitates an inbound connection to the owner’s network if the video and IP speakers are connected. This can create a lot of additional unforeseen work to enable a secure connection if it is allowed. Any security solution that requires an inbound network connection must be managed with extreme care. IT needs to be discussed at the very earliest opportunity before a solution is put under contract. 

Advancing Technology

Most recently, some enhancements in technology have brought a new level of automation for detecting, interacting, deterring trespassing and theft, and ensuring a timely police response. The solution works as follows:

  •  A fixed camera with artificial intelligence (object classification) monitors a protected area.
  • Upon detection, a corresponding pan, tilt and zoom camera with a bright white light locks onto the object that has breached the security of the protected area and fluidly and effectively tracks the movement of the object within the limitation of the camera’s field of view. This obviously alerts the adversary of the detection and will often result in immediate departure from the premises.
  • An IP speaker will then project a pre-recorded message to the adversary.
  • After a set period (e.g., 30 seconds), if the object breaching security remains in the area, a second more aggressive message can be projected or an alert is pushed to a video central station which can notify the police.

 This is an outstanding solution in a scenario where you may be dealing with adversaries who are not organized criminals and who would likely depart the premises after the initial illumination and voice message from the site security system. This configuration could also be deployed without necessarily having an inbound connection to the owner’s IT network.

The Role of GPS

GPS may be the next best solution if you cannot afford or fail to prevent trailer theft. Trailer GPS tracking devices, or asset tracking devices, are used to monitor and track the location and status of trailers, containers, and other mobile assets. These devices use GPS technology and cellular or satellite communication to provide real-time tracking information. The GPS tracking device has a receiver, receiving signals from multiple GPS satellites orbiting the Earth. These satellites provide precise location and time data.

These devices should be concealed where possible, otherwise they can be damaged and rendered useless. Users can set up various alerts and notifications. For example, the system can generate alerts if the trailer deviates from a predefined route, exceeds a certain speed, or enters or exits a designated geofenced area (e.g., the shipping yard). These alerts are sent to designated personnel via email, text message, or other communication channels. This information can be relayed to the police to assist in tracking down the assets and the adversaries.


Serious security issues such as high-value trailer thefts can be resolved by returning to the basics of physical security systems and programs taught for decades. Coupled with evolving technology and building from a definitive basis of design measured in how long it will take the adversary to complete the commission of a crime, security advisors can deliver effective solutions to address clients' pain points. In this case study, the adversaries proved that they could get onto the property and remove a high-value trailer in about 17 minutes. Using sound physical security principles, leveraging technology, and partnering with local law enforcement, the owner now has a solution that will ensure police respond in four to five minutes, thus reducing the likelihood of similar incidents in the future.


About the Author

Frank Pisciotta | Frank Pisciotta, CSC, is president of Business Protection Specialists, Inc

Frank Pisciotta, CSC

President and CEO