Theft on Wheels

Theft on Wheels

Cargo theft accounts for as much as $30 billion in annual losses

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 perpetrators.

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.


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