National cargo theft crime reporting system planned

April 24, 2008
Reporting will be voluntary at first, making theft numbers harder to quantify

Apr. 16--SAFETY HARBOR -- A long-awaited national crime reporting system for cargo theft will begin in November, but it will be voluntary, at least initially, law enforcement officials learned Tuesday.

"That's a problem," said Marion County Sheriff's Capt. Tommy Bibb, an organizer of the National Cargo Security Summit, which started here Tuesday. "It makes it hard to put an exact number to the crime unless they make reporting mandatory."

Officials want mandatory reporting so that they can get a true handle on the crime's nationwide reach. Reporting is mandatory for crimes such as rape, murder and car theft.

The reporting issue was one of many discussed at the summit, which continues today in this city just north of Clearwater. More than 100 people from 20 states have gathered.

Experts say $10 billion worth of merchandise is stolen from cargo ship containers and 18-wheeler trailers each year in the United States. Some authorities believe that the cost to the public is three times higher than that, once the rising cost of transportation and insurance rates are factored in.

News of the Uniform Crime Code for cargo theft came Tuesday from Kenneth Kaiser, an FBI assistant director. Another issue receiving attention: prescription drugs.

They are becoming the most popular target of thieves, and could be more profitable than cigarettes and electronics. Each stolen trailer load of pharmaceuticals can be worth as much as $100 million, officials say.

"We're also talking about health risks when it comes to cargo crime," said Miami-Dade Lt. Twan Uptgrow, who heads a cargo theft squad called TOMCATS.

Even if the stolen drugs are recovered, they can't be sold to the public, because no one can be sure they haven't been tampered with or damaged -- by high temperatures, for example.

Cargo theft also is becoming even more prevalent around the world. Alan F.

Spear, director of cargo security loss control for AIB Global Marine and Energy, said there's an extreme problem in South America and Mexico.

Spear said there were 10,000 hijackings in Mexico City alone in 2006, though there is some doubt about that number. However, he said there's no doubt that gangs of men toting high-powered guns are attacking drivers and taking trucks in Mexico.

"We're not seeing that here," he said, "and we don't want to see that here."

Spear said motorcycle gangs target trucks in Canada and pirates target entire ships in Malaysia and the Philippines.

China has very few, if any, cargo thefts. That's because stolen merchandise follows middle-class lines and there is virtually no middle class in China -- only extremely poor and extremely rich, Spear said.

Cargo theft is often considered to be a victimless crime, mainly because the load may be stolen in one jurisdiction while the driver is from another state and the truck is based in yet another city.

But Mike Palermo, a Newark, N.J.-based FBI agent on the Violent Crime and Interstate Theft Task Force, disagreed. "It's not a victimless crime," he said. Everyone is a victim because of the rising insurance and trucking costs.

Today, the last day of the summit, officials will focus on finalizing a new national strategy, focusing on Congress and the hopes of getting key legislators to consider holding hearings.

The cargo theft crisis was first realized in Marion County in 1999, when Sheriff Ed Dean kept seeing reports of 18-wheeler loads being swiped from area truck stops. He assigned Bibb to investigate. They soon learned Marion County led the state in the number of thefts.

They later teamed up with Dade County cargo theft officials, who operated the nation's first multi-agency task force. They formed the nation's first statewide cargo theft task force, which now includes officers with the Florida Highway Patrol, Department of Transportation, Florida Department of Law Enforcement and other agencies.

The Florida task force's name recently was changed to the National Commercial Vehicle and Cargo Theft Prevention Task Force, the first and only one of its kind.

"I have been impressed," Dean said of the attendance, adding the speakers were all valued experts in a variety of fields, including trucking companies, insurance companies and law enforcement.

Copyright (c) 2008, Ocala Star-Banner, Fla. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.