Cargo theft ramped up during the pandemic, as the supply-chain snarls that upended so many businesses also provided thieves more opportunity to commit their crimes.
Moreover, there was a shift in the types of cargo being stolen the most, mirroring the blend of scarcity and desirability wrought by the supply-chain problems that still leave businesses and consumers with fewer choices today.
According to Verisk Analytics Inc.’s VRSK, +1.99% CargoNet, a cargo-theft prevention and recovery network, the total loss value of stolen goods reported to the network reached $19 million in the first quarter of this year.
That’s a 73% increase from $11 million in the first quarter of 2021 and a 90% increase from $10 million in the first quarter of 2020.
Here are the comparisons for the past three years:
What’s being stolen shifts according to what’s in higher demand, said Keith Lewis, vice president of operations at CargoNet. “The trends of what are going to be stolen are based on what the consumers are buying,” Lewis said.
For the first quarter, loss values averaged $232,000, up from $138,000 in the year-ago period and $106,000 from first-quarter 2020. And these are self-reported numbers, which means they are likely under-reported, and actual numbers may be higher.
Auto parts, electronics among the most stolen cargo
When public-health orders put in place to curb the spread of COVID-19 kept millions of people in the U.S. mostly at home in spring 2020, home goods became the most stolen type of cargo, veteran cargo-theft prevention expert Scott Cornell said.
Cornell is a transportation executive at Travelers Cos. Inc. TRV, +0.32% and has worked in the field for nearly three decades.
“That was the first time that home goods took the No. 1 spot for as long as I can remember,” Cornell said.
By mid-2021, with stimulus checks arriving at many households, the No. 1 stolen cargo was electronics, such as tablets, TVs and game consoles.
At the moment, auto parts and electronics are among the most stolen cargos, largely due to ongoing chip and other shortages plaguing industries and making the items even more desirable amid scarcity.
Home goods round up the top three, with building materials seeing an uptick as well, Cornell said.
Before the pandemic, food and beverage cargos held the top spot. They will likely resume being the most stolen cargo, which they had been for a decade before the pandemic, by the end of the year, Cornell said.
Food and drinks are easy to fence — especially amid rising prices — rapidly disappear, and evidence that they might be stolen goods is hard to come by.
In comparison, thieves may hit a bigger jackpot with big-ticket items such as electronics and auto parts, but serial numbers and other attributes make the higher-priced items not as easy to fence or to disappear without a trace.
Backlogs and snags in the supply chain also made cargo theft a little harder to curb.
“Freight at rest is freight at risk,” Zak Bowyer, an executive with privately held freight brokerage and logistics company Total Quality Logistics Inc., said, quoting an old adage among cargo-theft experts and investigators.
In the past couple of years, the sheer number of goods being shipped and clogging ports and warehouses created more opportunities for thieves, with cargo sitting everywhere, Bowyer said.
The U.S. supply chain sagged last year due to the unprecedented demand coming from American consumers for goods. Labor shortages, trailer and chassis shortages, and clogged ports created more opportunities for unattended cargos, offering more opportunities for straight theft, which in the industry parlance also includes pilfering, or a quick snatching of a few items or pallets.
Locks, sensors getting smarter
One of the ways that the industry tries to fight back is through technology, Bowyer said.
In the past five years or so, locks have become smarter, and different sensors and GPS trackers are becoming smaller, less conspicuous and cheaper, and therefore more common.
Light sensors can report to a central dispatch subtle changes in ambient light, maybe signaling that truck doors were opened. Temperature sensors can point to temperature drops indicating that the cargo has left a refrigerated trailer. Dispatchers could then alert truck drivers or other workers of the discrepancies.
Which cargo gets the extra protection depends on consumer trends and other variables, Bowyer said.
And if there’s tendency to treat cargo theft as a victimless crime, nothing could be further from the truth, CargoNet’s Lewis said. At the end of the day, even if insurance gets involved, theft increases the cost of doing business, and “we all pay for it,” he said.
Travelers won’t discuss data around insurance payouts, Travelers’ Cornell said.
Cargo theft is not so much a crime of opportunity, but is mostly carried out by organized rings, Cornell said. “While we see some ‘opportunistic’ cargo theft, the majority is organized crime.”
These organized rings are usually concentrated in certain areas, and are small and close-knit organizations “very familiar with how the supply chain works.”
Thefts based on identity fraud are less common, but are on the rise. Instead of physically stealing cargo wherever it sits, these are more elaborate heists.
The industry calls it strategic cargo theft, and it involves tricks similar to identity theft and confidence scams.
Thieves impersonate employees, gleaning company phone numbers and other details from the internet to create phony pickups. Or they trick sellers, freight brokers or warehouse personnel to get the cargo directly.
Amid the rise in thefts, truck drivers are a strength of the industry, Cornell said.
“The men and women in the trucking industry feel a great sense of responsibility for things,” he said. “Every truck driver that has been a victim of a cargo theft has been as upset or more upset” than bosses, investigators and others.
As hot items such as baby formula return to the shelves and might attract more attention, Cornell recalls that back when vaccines, PPE and other crucial pandemic-related items shipped across the country, very little of importance was lost.
“You will see the same care and concern with baby formula,” he said. “Truck drivers are very hard-working, conscientious people.”