Tailored suits, frozen shrimp, computer chips, toilet paper—the flotsam and jetsam of a nation of consumers—are delivered round-the-clock. Loaded on pallets and packed on trucks, planes, and trains, they are but a sample of the commerce pulsing through the country’s arteries to nourish the world’s largest economy. Unfortunately, if you can package it, crate it, and ship it, there is likely a criminal enterprise that wants to steal it.
Cargo theft is estimated to cost the U.S. $15-30 billion a year, though the true measure may be even higher, since some businesses are reluctant to report thefts out of concern for their reputations or their insurance premiums. Thieves’ methods vary, but the outcome is generally the same—a load of merchandise leaves Point-A and never arrives at Point-B.
“Cargo theft is our number-one priority in Major Theft,” says Unit Chief Eric B. Ives, who heads the Major Theft Unit in the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division. “There’s never been a time when there’s not enough work.”
The issue is much broader than a criminal stealing a TV off a truck. In the past few years, investigations have revealed more and more sophisticated operations with well-organized hierarchies. The typical “criminal enterprise,” as Ives describes it, has a leader who runs a regional or national operation. Beneath him are cells of thieves and brokers, or fences, who unload the stolen goods on the black market. “Lumpers” physically move the goods, along with drivers. And there’s usually a specialist who is expert at foiling the anti-theft locks on truck trailers.
Cargo thieves heist whole truck loads of merchandise—the average freight on a trailer is valued between $12,000 and $3 million. The hotspots are where you might expect—truck yards, hubs for commercial freight carriers, and port cities.
To fight the problem, seven cargo theft task forces, made up of FBI agents and local law enforcement, operate in six cities: Memphis, Houston, Newark, New York, San Juan, and Miami, which has two. Investigations are aimed at toppling whole operations.
“While causing a disruption to the criminal operation is important, the ultimate goal of the FBI is to completely dismantle the criminal enterprise,” Ives says.
Some undercover investigations may last more than a year and involve setting up front warehouses to fence stolen merchandise. Private industry support is critical in long term investigations. “They know that if we can reduce cargo theft by taking out the criminal enterprise it benefits them,” Ives says.
In fact, private industry played a pivotal role in placing a long-sought provision in the USA Patriot Improvement and Reauthorization Act, signed into law in March. The provision requires the Department of Justice to add cargo theft to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) System by year’s end. Cargo-related crimes that were once filed in the UCR as burglary, larceny, and robbery will have their own category. Once established, the data will paint a clearer picture of the extent of cargo theft—and help law enforcement agencies allocate their resources. The measure also increased prison terms for cargo theft convictions: three years for cargo valued under $1,000 and 15 years for cargo valued over $1,000.
Resources: FBI Major Thefts/Violent Crime website