Theft on Wheels
Cargo theft accounts for as much as $30 billion in annual losses
- By John Chigos
- Oct 01, 2019
Oddly enough, in a world where virtually any
item is only a mouse click and 24-hour delivery
window away, we tend not to think much about
how our merchandise gets from some warehouse
to our front door. Unfortunately, there
are thieves who do.
While inconsistencies in reporting make it difficult to assign
specific numbers to cargo theft, Loss Prevention magazine recently
reported that cargo theft accounts for between $15 billion and
$30 billion in losses annually.1 As for some recent statistics, transportation
trade magazine Transport Topics cited a report from
the SensiGuard Supply Chain Intelligence Center that found U.S.
cargo thefts increased by 25 percent in Q1 2019, with the average
loss being nearly $117,000.2
When it comes to cargo theft, thieves certainly have ample opportunity.
According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics
(BTS), the trucking industry accounted for 11.5 billion tons of
freight valued at nearly $12.5 trillion in 2017.3
Regardless of how thieves choose to take the cargo—by pilfering
trucks and trailers left in parking lots or executing violent
hijackings that also risk the lives of drivers—both the trucks/
trailers and the escape vehicles have one thing in common: license
plates. As such, automatic license plate recognition (LPR) technology
can be employed to mitigate theft, recover lost cargo and,
most importantly, bring the perpetrators to justice.
Preventing Cargo Theft with
Improved Perimeter Security
In a report on cargo theft in 2017, the FBI found that nearly 40
percent of all cargo thefts that year occurred in parking lots or
garages.4 That means thieves were able to commit their crimes
more or less at their leisure, either by stealing trucks/trailers or
stealing cargo from them. Even if there was surveillance technology,
the perpetrators could have obscured their faces with hooded
sweatshirts, hats or masks, making them difficult to identify—
much less apprehend. In short, they committed a crime that experts
could argue was relatively low-risk.
LPR could increase that risk significantly while making it
possible to catch the thieves in the act. That’s because cargo
thieves can’t transport any meaningful amount of cargo on foot.
They either need to steal a truck/trailer or need a vehicle of their
own on the premises in order to efficiently transfer the stolen goods before making their escape.
An LPR solution using surveillance cameras that cover the entire
parking lot or garage as well as the entrances and exits can
capture the license plate of any parked truck or trailer on the lot
when it passes a surveillance camera. If the truck or trailer is on a
permission list, meaning it is supposed to be exiting the property,
the LPR system will simply log it. If it’s not, the system can be
configured to send an alert via text, email or telephone to security
personnel, facility managers—even the police, if the customer
chooses. This lets the right people know that at a minimum, a
truck/trailer is exiting the property when it is not supposed to. Onsite
security can intervene, facility personnel can come to the site
to investigate, and police can be dispatched quickly to the scene.
As for unauthorized vehicles entering the premises, the LPR
system can identify them and send similar alerts when the vehicle
passes a camera, either at an entrance or elsewhere within the
parking lot. In some cases, it can capture the plate’s state jurisdiction
as well as the vehicle make. It will often include an actual
image of the plate and the vehicle, time-stamped for authenticity.
LPR can even be deployed to address the most brazen heists.
Some thieves will impersonate drivers and enter cargo facilities in
an attempt to haul away a trailer full of goods before anyone notices.
However, LPR can thwart this scenario. Because legitimate
drivers still make honest mistakes, like hooking up to the wrong
trailer, many cargo companies use LPR to identify the truck
plate, trailer plate and trailer ID number to ensure that the right
driver leaves with the right cargo. By extension, this approach
can be used to keep an opportunistic cargo thief from appearing
legitimate and leaving the facility with a trailer.
Recovering Stolen Cargo
via Actionable Data
In its 2017 cargo theft report, the FBI said that of all the cargo
stolen, only about 26 percent was recovered. For thieves to quickly
fence stolen merchandise makes sense, as it makes it harder to
track or associate with the thieves, and it quickly gives the thieves
the payday they were looking for. As such, finding the stolen
truck/trailer as quickly as possible can give authorities an edge in
recovering stolen goods.
LPR can help this cause in a number of ways. First, using
the aforementioned example of truck or trailer theft, local law
enforcement that has deployed LPR citywide can monitor for
the stolen vehicle after they are notified of the theft. Authorities
themselves would add the stolen vehicle’s license plate to a “hotlist”
of vehicles that law enforcement should be on the lookout
for. When the license plate passes a surveillance camera and the
LPR system identifies it, the system automatically pushes alerts
to patrol officers with the location data. Armed with that information,
officers can follow the movements of the stolen vehicle
and work to intercept it—before the cargo is fenced.
As an investigative tool, LPR can also be used to identify the
cargo that has been stolen. Remember that many cargo companies
use LPR to tie the truck, trailer and cargo together. Using
the information about the trailer, such as its ID number, the cargo
company can tell police what kind of goods were stolen. This information
tells authorities where and how merchandise might be
fenced so that they can be monitoring those distribution channels,
recover the goods and make arrests.
Naturally, law enforcement officers who use LPR to intercept
a stolen truck or trailer will also be able to apprehend the
Bringing Cargo Thieves to Justice
While arresting the thieves and recovering cargo can feel like a
victory—and to be clear, it definitely is—the case does not end
there. Instead, prosecutors have to begin their work building
cases against the suspects. This is no small part of the process,
as cargo theft is often the work of organized crime, or at least
organized rings of thieves. In 2018, for example, law enforcement
charged 14 individuals in Florida as participating in a cargo theft
ring spanning Florida and Georgia.5
At this point, LPR can provide crucial evidence to prosecutors
as they build their cases. Because LPR data is time-stamped, it
can provide a complete timeline of events, from the theft itself to
the fencing of the goods. Furthermore, because the cameras used
in citywide LPR surveillance have known locations, prosecutors
can build a map showing where and when the vehicle traveled. Finally,
because LPR can capture actual plate images, there can be
no mistake about the identity of the vehicle. This is important, as
authorities could be challenged on the basis of “all trailers look
alike.” The case is made even stronger by the correlation the system
can make between the trailer ID and its license plate.
Cargo theft is no small criminal matter. The losses number in
the tens of billions of dollars annually while the thefts are enacted
by organized networks of criminals. Fortunately, license plate
recognition can be a tool for preventing the crimes from occurring,
recovering the lost cargo and prosecuting the perpetrators.
This article originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of Security Today.