This is the time of year when everyone in the logistics industry should be on the lookout for heightened cargo-theft activity. Historically speaking, holidays have been prime time for thieves to hone their skills and get away with as much plunder as possible. This year, because of COVID-19, cases of cargo theft are increasing.
Why have cargo thefts increased?
Part of the reason is sheer volume. Freight volumes for durable goods have hit an all-time high in 2020, with significant fluctuations in the marketplace. Volumes and capacity have unexpectedly surged from one quarter to the next, echoing the increases in COVID-19 cases. Consumer behaviors such as overstocking on paper goods and online shopping have resulted in a hectic logistics industry with tight capacity and high rates. For truck robbers, this unexpected freight boom has created opportunity by putting tons of goods on the road, and at risk.
Food and beverage products are traditionally the most popular stolen freight commodities, but since COVID-19 the surge in pandemic-related items such as hand sanitizer, masks and household cleaning supplies have become favored targets.
“We saw a shift this year from trailer-load thefts to pilferages,” said Keith Lewis, vice president of operations at CargoNet. “Pilferages are when a burglar breaks into the back of a trailer and steals just a few packages or even a few pallets instead of the whole trailer. We had a five-week period early in the pandemic when items like N95 masks, hand sanitizers, toilet paper and cleaning supplies were in short supply. That was when we saw the real switch happen from full truckload thefts to pilferages. It has introduced a whole new kind of criminal in the market.”
Lewis continued, “Most of this stolen freight winds up back in the marketplace through thrift stores, bargain basement shops and flea markets, putting it once again in the legitimate supply chain.” This happens through diverters, who after several stages of fencing (during which time labels and bar codes are removed) the product gets repackaged and is sold back to the consumer.
As Lewis points out, hand sanitizer is like gold now and N95 masks have become more valuable than laptops, partially because of supply and demand but also because there is a lack of traceability with them: no serial numbers, and they are used and disposed of after several uses.
In an article published by Today’s Trucking, COVID-19 Affecting Cargo Theft Trends, author James Menzies talks about the increased cases of violence and risk-taking that employees have demonstrated due to the stress of the pandemic. The article goes on to say that there has been an uptick in employees stealing from within their own companies due to cutbacks, shorter hours and even closures, creating a higher incidence for risk.
And the facts are in the numbers. In April, when the pandemic first gripped the country and panic-buying began, cargo theft increased 107 percent year over year. In 2020’s third quarter alone CargoNet notes that 223 freight thefts were reported. In Texas, thefts increased almost 210 percent during the same period as compared with 2019. Eight out of the top ten states that reported the highest cargo-theft events saw increases over last year.
CargoNet data also shows that most cargo theft is perpetrated by trailer thieves, but the second most popular way these criminals commit grand larceny (which means anything valued over $1200) is through fictitious pickups. CargoNet estimates in Q3 that there was a total of $33.77 million in stolen freight in the United States and Canada. That averages out to $151,452 per incident.
“We helped get back a lot of these items,” said Lewis. “Florida is one of the hot spots for cargo theft, and we work closely with the Florida Highway Patrol and Miami-Dade law enforcement. We have been able to get the lion’s share of these products back, but we still wind up recovering a lot of empty trailers in southern Florida.”
Where is most freight stolen?
Lewis says that freight is most likely to be stolen from truck stops and parking lots. “Truck stops are where truckers go to fuel, shower, eat and shop.” As a result, drivers become primary targets for cargo theft because they are in relaxation mode, taking a break from the rigors of the road while leaving their freight temporarily unattended. “Everything related to the pandemic affects freight sitting,” said Lewis. “Reduced hours at the shipping dock, restaurants closing, rest stops that have no place to park—so, trucks sit.”
The second highest-risk location to experience freight loss in 2020 are parking lots, mainly due to a lack of security. Truckers have been dealing with parking issues for years and the problem has only gotten worse. Drivers find themselves using shopping centers and big-box store parking lots to overnight their rigs when other options are scarce. This creates opportunity for bandits to strike. If it is a weekend, the likelihood of being victimized is even greater.
How are thefts reported?
How do all these thefts get reported? Reporting comes from a variety of sources including law enforcement, freight brokers, manufacturers, retailers, insurance companies and owner-operators. CargoNet validates every report, but Lewis explained that because there is no kind of mandatory reporting requirement for cargo theft, the true number of incidents is unknown.
Will the COVID-19 vaccine be high-risk for theft?
Soon the transportation industry worldwide will be challenged with the enormous and unprecedented task of distributing literally billions of doses of vaccines, including hundreds of millions just in this country. The initiative is part of the government’s Operation Warp Speed, which Wikipedia defines as: a public–private partnership, initiated by the U.S. government, to facilitate and accelerate the development, manufacturing, and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics. Truck drivers, along with health care workers and the elderly, may be some of the first people to receive the vaccine.
Both Pfizer and Moderna have applied for emergency FDA approval of their vaccines. It is estimated that Pfizer’s distribution plans include the manufacture of 50 million doses by the end of the year with up to 1.3 billion in 2021. This will involve 12 trucks and 20 planes per day leaving Pfizer’s manufacturing facility, according to SupplyChain Dive. DHL, FedEx and UPS will be the pharmaceutical giant’s primary distribution providers in the United States.
One of the biggest challenges that distribution channels will face with the Pfizer vaccine is the need for it to be stored at 70 degrees Celsius, a temperature that requires dry ice. Health care providers will need to store it either in dry ice for shorter stints or in specialized freezers. The pharmaceutical industry reports that 5% - 20% of all vaccines requiring refrigeration are subject to spoilage due to inadequate temperature-control conditions. This creates an even more specialized shipping protocol that adds to the product’s heightened perceived value and appeal to criminals.
WATCH THE VIDEO: Operation Warp Speed Getting America Vaccinated (3 min.)
Security protocols are already in the works as the potential for theft is extremely high. Initially, the vaccine will be in short supply and in high demand, two key factors that will make it a prime target. When Lewis was asked if there were security risks and concerns relating to the vaccine, he said, “Yes, they are already working on the protocols, but that is all I can say.”
Related story: How many vaccine doses will these states receive in the first round of distribution?
How shippers can reduce their risk of theft
So, how can shippers protect themselves from thieves during an era of unrest, uncertainty and vulnerability? Whether you are a shipper, broker, owner-operator or driver, there are several common-sense ways to deter cargo theft.
Ramping up your employee training criteria, thorough carrier-vetting and using GPS tracking on trucks, trailers or inside the load all can have positive impacts on discouraging theft. Using a trusted 3PL that offers transparency and real-time information about your freight’s location and condition (ORBIT TI®) also can help keep you one step ahead of the problem. According to Lewis, the best way to increase your chances of recovering stolen freight is to report foul play or suspicious activity as soon as you discover it and be sure to provide accurate details about the shipment.