Businesses all over the country are ramping up their security efforts in response to a dramatic rise in cargo theft. In the spring of 2021, we reported that from 2019 to 2020, cases increased by 23%. That made rates the highest they’d been in 5 years. The same report for 2021 showed a modest decline in incidents of theft, but the value of the stolen products increased. Then, with the post-pandemic rise in inflation, the numbers from across North America shot back up by 15%, leading to new record highs.
Another troubling trend has thieves targeting loads in a wider range of locations. “We’re seeing a pretty unusual spread into the interior of the United States like Memphis and Chicago,” says Scott Cornell, transportation lead and crime and theft specialist at Travelers insurance company. “We are also seeing an increase in strategic theft spreading out across Texas, Alabama, and Missouri.”
In previous years, household goods and electronics topped the list of most frequently targeted cargo, but the evidence for 2023 so far shows that food and beverage theft is now the most common. This is probably due to skyrocketing food prices. Thefts in the food and beverage category are up by 50%. Across all categories, the current average cost of cargo theft cases is $214,000. And the FBI estimates that these thefts cost trucking companies and retailers between $15 billion and $30 billion a year.
This means fleets serving customers all over the nation are going to be under increasing pressure from their customers to provide assurances that their goods will be secure. It also means fleets simply can’t afford the hit to their reputation from losing cargo to thieves.
The Scary New Method
An increasing number of thieves are relying on identity theft to gain possession of cargo. They hack into a freight company’s computers, steal information about pickups, and then they show up at the customer’s business with false documents. Unsuspecting workers then all too often hand the cargo over to the impersonators, who drive away with hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of products.
There are any number of ways to prevent hackers and identity thieves from getting their hands on a customer’s products. In fact, fleets should take the opportunity to inform their customers about the risk of false pickups to reassure them they’re up to speed with the latest threats and have protocols in place to address them.
The first step is to secure your company’s data. Contacting an IT security expert and having them audit your system is a good start. But fleets should also maintain open lines of communication with customers about when cargo will be picked up, which vehicles will be used, who the driver is, and what numbers can be called to confirm the identity of the driver who shows up at the dock. An additional measure is to send customers a picture of the drivers before they arrive, so they know who to look out for.
The Old Standard Approaches
Thieves often follow trucks from pickup locations to wherever the driver first stops and leaves the vehicle. Once the driver is away using the bathroom or ordering food, they break into the truck, offload the cargo, and flee the scene.
A less common approach is to hijack the vehicle with the driver present. Thieves sometimes brandish weapons, using force or the threat of violence to get the driver to comply with their demands. They could force the driver to unlock the doors so the cargo can be offloaded into another vehicle. Or they could drive away with the vehicle to empty it in another location.
These practices often rely on insiders who provide details about schedules and routes to the thieves. So countermeasures begin with a strong vetting process for the fleet’s own employees. But identifying routes that allow secure parking when the driver needs to leave the vehicle is still one of the most important precautions to take. Fleets would also do well to seek out routes that avoid tight or poorly lit stretches, along with back roads where thieves can be confident there will be few witnesses.
How Technology Can Help
The reality is that there are no perfectly safe routes, and no matter how careful a fleet manager is with hiring, the risk of an employee serving as an accomplice to thieves can never be reduced to zero. So, many fleets are turning to technological measures to prevent theft.
Some of the established methods are still the best. Lots should be equipped with visible cameras to both record any incidents and deter would-be thieves. What many fleet managers fail to realize, however, is that the same principles apply once the vehicle has left the lot. A truck decked out in cameras is a far less attractive target than one without a single recording device. Cameras can also be used to monitor both the cargo and the surrounding area in real-time. This allows the driver, and potentially the fleet manager as well, to keep a close eye on the load and respond quickly to any signs of trouble.
If a theft does occur, cameras can provide valuable evidence to law enforcement agencies. The footage captured by the cameras can be used to identify the perpetrators and build a case against them. Imaging technology has advanced to the point where a license plate number can be read by a single camera at a significant distance. These images can be indispensable in tracking down any products stolen from the vehicle.
Telematics systems, meanwhile, allow fleet managers to track the location of their vehicles over the entire stretch of their haul. RFID trackers can be attached to the cargo itself. And trigger-activated cameras can be installed to record any unauthorized opening of doors. All of these measures can be advertised on the outside of the vehicle too—letting criminals know they’re being watched, that the goods they’re eyeing are being tracked, and that the vehicle itself is in communication with a home office.
Whatever security protocols fleet managers decide to implement and whatever technologies they choose to invest in, the first step is to have a plan based on the biggest risks and the most effective measures for reducing them. One reason is that insurance providers will often offer discounted rates to fleets that meet some specified security standard. More importantly, as incidents of cargo theft continue to increase and news continues to spread, fleet managers will want to be able to point to their own top-tier security to help them to stand apart from their competitors.