The Problem With Cargo Theft and How to Prevent it

by Pride Transport | Mar 10, 2020


It’s certainly not a new problem. Names like William Kidd, Blackbeard, Anne Bonny bring us back to a time of theft on the high seas.

The name Dick Turpin causes folks in England to share old stories of the famed highwayman of Hounslow Heath. 

And in modern times, the escapades of Ronnie Biggs, Bruce Reynolds, Ronald Edwards, Charles Wilson, Ray James and their lot spawned books, TV shows, and features films, about the Great Train Robbery that took place on August 8, 1963.

Since the beginning of recorded time, people have been bonking each other on the head, pointing arrows at their hearts or yanking folks out of driver’s seats to steal their stuff. Theft of cargo didn’t suddenly show up with the advent of the truck. But, since then, it has gotten more sophisticated and more costly.


The Most Common Thefts

The holidays are the biggest shopping season which means it’s also the biggest shipping season. During this time there’s always an increase in cargo thefts.

According to the FBI, cargo theft is a $15 to $30 billion dollar a year problem and they say those numbers could be low due to the fact that cargo theft is still vastly under-reported.

In the first quarter of 2019, cargo theft rose 25% to 144 reported incidents, with an average loss of each occurrence rising 1% to $116,717. But, as the FBI states, those figures are not quite real because so many incidents of cargo theft go unreported.

For the past 5 years, the most common thefts have been of food and beverage items. In fact, food and beverage items were the most stolen commodities in the second quarter of 2019.

In 2015, criminals in California created legitimate-looking shipping documents and started stealing truckloads of processed tree nuts, some of the loads being worth upwards of a million dollars.

It makes sense when you understand that nuts are growing in popularity due to their health properties. On top of that, we still haven’t fully recovered from the Californian drought of 2016 when nuts were scarce, so their value is still very high.


Why Food and Beverage

Steve Cornell, transportation business leader and crime/theft specialist for Travelers Insurance has been watching cargo theft for a long time and he lays it out like this:

“There are no serial numbers on items like, say, almonds. There is no RFID tag attached or hidden inside.”

An RFID tag is a radio-frequency identification that sends radio waves from a tag to a reader that transmits the information to an RFID computer program. These tags are frequently used for merchandise but you can also use them on pets and to track truck locations.

Cornell contends that there is no tracing food items like almonds over the internet and there’s not a high enough “trigger point” in terms of value to meet some companies’ requirements for heightened security.

Also, in the case of food and beverage, the evidence gets consumed fairly quickly. TVs and computers are usually around for a while but with food and beverage, there is a much shorter window for recovery.


Becoming Regonalized

There are now regions of the country that are hot spots for cargo theft. Areas with ports are especially ripe for theft.

California, particularly the southern portion, had the highest number of thefts in the first quarter of 2019 accounting for 25% of all incidents nationwide. Florida and Texas each had 12%.

As far as cities go, Dallas, Houston, Chicago, Atlanta, Memphis, Orlando, and Philadelphia had the highest incidents of cargo theft.

What’s learned from these stats is that thieves are recognizing regional development can create ideal targets and perfect conditions for stealing freight.



Law enforcement, supply chain experts and insurance companies agree cargo theft is a very low risk, high reward type of crime. The FBI reports that less than 20% of stolen cargo ever gets recovered. With the latest wave of targeting food and beverage loads, that number is bound to get lower. Also, the crime carries minor criminal penalties. And prosecuting cargo theft can become a bit of a Byzantine situation with multiple ways to avoid jail time, like the so-called walk free law.

Cargo thieves have also switched targets over time. Instead of going after full truckloads, the new wave of effort is toward less secure categories of cargo, such as less-than-truckload (LTL) shipments.

LTL shipments are less closely guarded and trucks with this type of cargo usually make several stops leaving them more vulnerable to thieves.

Most of these smaller cargo thefts don’t drive owners to file a police report or insurance claims. And when they do make reports, the thefts are often categorized as pilfered and not cargo theft. The level of pilfered cargo has seen a 107% increase since 2013.


Pilferage vs. Theft

The main difference between pilferage and theft is that pilferage is the theft of part of the contents of a package and theft is taking another’s property without permission or consent.

With pilferage, small packages can be pilfered from a larger package such as a shipping container. It may also include the theft of contents but leaving the package, perhaps resealed, with bogus content. 

Theft is a word that is also used as an informal shorthand term for some crimes against property such as burglary, embezzlement, larceny, looting, robbery, shoplifting, library theft, and fraud. In some jurisdiction, theft is considered synonymous with larceny. In others, theft has replaced larceny.

Someone who carries out an act of or makes a career of theft is known as a thief.

A thief who steals without using violence. sneak thief, snitcher, stealer, - a criminal who takes parts of property belonging to someone else with the intention of keeping it or selling it, is known as a pilferer.



According to SensiGaurd supply chain intelligence center cargo theft statistics can be problematic because it’s not mandatory for states and police departments to categorize an event as a cargo theft in accordance with the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report Category. So many cargo thefts are reported as a pilfering report. Most insurance providers do not cover pilfering.

So, why aren’t cargo thefts more readily reported? The answer is really two-fold. First, many firms don’t want to report cargo theft because they don’t want to bring attention to themselves. If word gets around that they are targeted by cargo thieves or have problems with cargo theft, their business could fall off or even fail.

Second, most thefts go unreported because some carriers fear that by filing a claim their premium will increase. The cost of the theft is not worth incurring the cost of higher premiums.


Thieves are Getting More Sophisticated

Trucking companies are working hard to improve the security of drivers and cargo. However, thieves have become more sophisticated in their cargo thievery methods. Despite improving safety measures, thieves are keeping up and cargo theft is increasing.

New tactics that cargo thieves are using include social engineering, spoofing technologies, identity theft and fictitious pickups where they impersonate legitimate drivers.

There are companies of cargo thieves that are using bogus documents and covert, organized intelligence gathering to plan and execute a heist.

Thieves are also using cyber tactics like Trojan viruses to gain access to load information and documents from shipping companies. They create legitimate-looking documents for pickups with illegitimate carriers and steal loads.

Steve Cornell, from Travelers, notes that some cargo theft gangs have actually established legitimate trucking companies to offer, often true, freight services and use that cover to deploy what are known as “ghost trucks”. These are vehicles made out to look like their trucks or those of another carrier but with different DOT numbering to steal loads.


What Can be Done

There are ways to avoid cargo theft. Statistics show that 78% of large scale cargo theft took place in unsecured parking locations. This includes abandoned service stations. Whereas just 9% of all thefts happened in parking areas that were deemed to be secure. So where you park your truck will play an important part in deterring cargo thieves.

But there is more that can be done to avoid cargo theft in trucks and warehouses. Here are a few tips:

  • All aspects of a warehouse facility should be in good working order, including lighting, backup generators, alarm systems, surveillance equipment, and perimeter fencing.

  • Strict key control of all equipment including trucks, motorized pallet jacks and forklifts is a must.

  • All alarm signals must be taken seriously and responded to. Thieves will often trip alarms multiple times to give the impression of false alarms or malfunctioning systems.

  • All suspicious activity, no matter how minor, should be documented and reported to management and loss prevention/security.

  • Take extra precautions on weekends and holidays where facilities may be unoccupied. Request extra police drive-bys.

  • Make sure all tractors, trailers, containers, and container chassis have accurate license plates, VINs, and descriptive information—and that this information is readily accessible to management, security, and drivers.

  • Be sure all tractors are secured with high-quality locking devices and steering column locks.

  • Secure all trailers (loaded and unloaded) with high-security-compliant barrier seals in addition to hardened padlocks. Use kingpin locks for unattached trailers.

  • Avoid having loaded trailers sit unattended.

Since the beginning of recorded time, someone has had something that someone else wanted and getting that something has often resulted in the employment of nefarious means. 


Cargo theft is not a new phenomenon but it is getting more costly and, as we’ve seen, more sophisticated. The days of a couple of guys on horseback in powdered wigs with flintlock pistols are gone. In their place are a new breed of tech-savvy criminals looking for a high-gain, low-risk score who are upping their game all the time.

Share this article