Cargo Theft Trends: A bomb to the bottom line

The US and Canada had a staggering 73% year-over-year surge in cargo theft totaling $19 million in Q1 2022. (source: CargoNet)

Last Updated:
March 6, 2023
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min Read
Sarah Paxton
Marketing Writer

Cargo theft is a game no business owner wants to play. 

The average loss per incident is estimated to be around $214,104. Through Q2 2022, there have been 214 cargo theft incidents in the US. (source: SeniTech Supply Chain Intelligence Center)

Large shipments of goods by land and sea draw admiring gazes from large criminal organizations worldwide. It is considered a multi-billion dollar “industry,” and why not? The profits are massive and require relatively simple schemes.

There is a healthy market for this illegal side hustle, but intelligent, legitimate business owners can eliminate players in the cargo theft game quickly and easily. Understanding cargo theft, tactics, and a few simple ways to prevent and outsmart these criminals become child’s play.

What is cargo theft?

Buckle up—let’s pretend we’re lawyers for a second. This legal definition of cargo theft is broad and full of mind-bending twists and turns.

“The criminal taking of any cargo including, but not limited to, goods, chattels, money, or baggage that constitutes, in whole or in part, a commercial shipment of freight moving in commerce, from any pipeline system, railroad car, motor truck, or other vehicle, or from any tank or storage facility, station house, platform, or depot, or from any vessel or wharf, or from any aircraft, air terminal, airport, aircraft terminal or air navigation facility, or from any intermodal container, intermodal chassis, trailer, container freight station, warehouse, freight distribution facility, or freight consolidation facility. For purposes of this definition, cargo shall be deemed as moving in commerce at all points between the point of origin and the final destination, regardless of any temporary stop while awaiting transshipment or otherwise.” (source: FBI)

Cargo theft is a type of modern-day highway robbery. It slashes profits of unassuming businesses that rely on moving goods worldwide. Honest customers unknowingly have to pay for the losses. As evidence of its magnitude, local and federal authorities devote massive resources to its prevention. The FBI has seven, yes, seven task forces for cargo theft. It’s that big of a deal. 

Cargo theft laws include goods, possessions, money, or luggage moved on a truck, plane, train, or pipeline. But the act in and of itself is not a crime. Charges include burglary, larceny, robbery, fraud, extortion, bribery, or embezzlement. Basically, this exhausting description can be boiled down to a simple rule: don’t touch a business’s stuff that you didn’t pay for. 

Sentences for those found guilty of cargo theft include a loss of driving privileges for up to one year, five to ten years in prison, and fines of up to $75,000.

Deep breath. Let’s find out how cargo theft happens.

Five cargo theft tactics

Here are five cargo theft trends commonly used by thieves:

#1 Straight Cargo Theft

Lock up your valuables. Straight cargo theft occurs when products are stolen from their storage site. Typical targets include truck stops, warehouses, train stops, loading and unloading docks—anywhere goods lie idle, especially during weekends.

Criminals frequently target refrigerated trucks transporting pharmaceuticals, candy, or high-value merchandise. These trucks have noticeable refrigeration units that quickly give away what they are hauling. 

#2 Strategic Cargo Theft

Like a scene out of Mission Impossible, strategic cargo theft disguises criminals as legitimate drivers, employees, or business representatives. Imposters deceive truck shippers, brokers, and carriers. Examples include identity theft, time constraint exploitation, double brokering scams, and a combination of these tactics.  

#3 Technology-based Theft

How’s your sense of smell? Cargo thieves use “sniffers” to cover their tracks in technology-based cargo theft. Sniffers detect hidden GPS trackers placed in or on the cargo. Once detected, they jam-tracking signals law enforcement uses to recover the stolen goods. Thieves also confuse GPS signals by strategically choosing busy times of the day. Multiple trucks, pedestrians, or other traffic make tracing stolen goods, and the vehicle responsible for the theft more difficult to locate on camera and by GPS because of the density of trucks, people and traffic. 

#4 Cyber-attacks

Cybercriminals like phishing. They use emails to install malicious programs like Trojan Horse malware. Installing viruses grants hackers access to valuable data from a company's system. The information is then used to forge invoices and delivery documentation, making it easy to pick up goods and steal them right in front of employees.

#5 Stealing

Stealing and taking cargo as it travels from place to place is now detected at higher rates than ever before. It occurs in parking lots, rest stops, stores, or pickup/drop-off sites. Despite improvements in inventory management, most thefts remain undetected until the shipment arrives at its destination. Drivers are often unaware it has taken place. Drivers are … drivers … not security officers. In these cases, police officers are hesitant to file reports because how and when the theft occurred is often unclear.

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