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The Unspoken Issue

June 5, 2017
More communication needed to solve cargo theft

Cargo theft remains a big problem for the trucking industry and the freight world as a whole—a problem that leads to losses of some $15 billion to $30 billion a year, according to figures compiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

And yet our nation’s top law enforcement agency believes that figure may actually be too low, as cargo crime remains an under-reported and, yes, an often unspoken affliction affecting the freight business.

Certainly, more communication and collaboration is needed between law enforcement, motor carriers, shippers and, as need be, the general public.

Still, in the opinion of more than a few experts in the cargo crime field, there remains too much silence surrounding this critical issue, which in many cases is leading to the inability to construct a complete picture of the severity and scope of the problem.

“I just don’t think anyone is tracking cargo theft accurately,” Scott Cornell, transportation business leader and crime/theft specialist for Travelers Insurance, told me recently.

“We preach about the need for more re­porting regarding cargo theft but also about the different kinds of crimes being committed as well,” he stressed. “For example, take the issue of pilferage. This is where only a pallet or two of freight is being stolen, not a full load. And depending on what the freight is, a couple of pallets may be worth $70,000.”

Yet stealing just part of a load makes cargo theft even harder to track. A truck driver might not realize a pallet (or two) has been pinched until he or she reaches his or her destination—often crossing several states and multiple police jurisdictions along the way. This leaves both driver and fleet without a clear idea of where the crime occurred or to whom it should be reported. 

“There is also always an ‘ebb and flow’ to cargo crime,” Cornell added. “Law enforcement does great work.  They’ll break up key theft rings, make arrests, and put people in jail. But then the problem will resurface because it’s a ‘high reward, low risk’ type of crime. As long as you don’t use a weapon or commit violence, you don’t face significant penalties.”

That’s starting to change in many states and at the federal level, as tougher laws regarding cargo theft get placed on the books. But for now, the key to stifling cargo theft as a major freight industry issue is to keep increasing the cooperation, collaboration and especially communication between all parties involved, Cornell emphasized.

“Stealing just part of a load makes cargo theft even harder to track.”

- Sean Kilcarr, Fleet Owner Editor-in-chief

However, Robert Hooper Jr., CEO of Atlantic Logistics, who is also an economist by training, told me autonomous vehicles will be a reality far sooner than any of us expect—especially in trucking—simply because of the cost advantages. Simply put, the cost of auto­nomous technology—a cost estimated to be $25,000 at most, according to Frost & Sullivan’s research—is far, far below that of even the lowest truck driver pay rate, which he said ranges between $35,000 and $125,000 a year.

“We need to keep educating everyone involved—shippers, consignees, motor carriers, freight brokers, etc.—that there is no one thing, no ‘silver bullet’ to this issue,” he explained.

Cornell said that means employing a “layered” approach to freight security—one that involves good procedures and protocols about shipping and receiving freight. This includes sharing current information about cargo theft hot spots, using physical locks and air cuffs on trailers, and using covert tracking devices on trailers and palletized goods.

And that also means being more open about cargo theft incidents, which can often be a difficult conversation to have.

“When a load is stolen, everyone wants the cargo back,” Cornell said. “But if it doesn’t come back, the question often turns to who is responsible. And that is when communication can become very ‘cautious’ among all the parties involved.”

He hopes that this reluctance among freight industry participants to share information regarding cargo thefts for fear of being blamed declines because communication remains a critical ingredient to solving this continuous problem.

“Today, I’m now seeing some of the best collaboration in my nearly 28 years as a [cargo theft] investigator,” Cornell told me. “There’s great cooperation and good resources being deployed to fight this issue.”

Let’s hope that continues so trucking can keep getting a better footing in its ongoing battle with cargo criminals. 

About the Author

Sean Kilcarr | Editor in Chief

Sean previously reported and commented on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry. Also be sure to visit Sean's blog Trucks at Work where he offers analysis on a variety of different topics inside the trucking industry.

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