Who is winning the game of ‘Take the Freight’?

Get a cup of coffee, this is a long article.

Truck-related cargo theft incidents are up. Not just a little up, but a lot up. Truck cargo thefts of all kinds were up in 2022, and the trend is continuing. Thieves may be lazy pieces of human trash, but that does not mean they are stupid. According to the nationwide results, thieves look smarter than non-thieves.

If you have ever watched high-level team sports such as professional and college level football, American style or otherwise, if you stuck around to listen to the interviews given by the winning team, you often heard the offensive players and coaches say, “We just took what the defense gave us”. What the players and coaches mean when they say this is, ‘as an offense, they take advantage of poor tactical planning and errors by the defense to score points.’ It makes sense since many teams in high-level sports have similar talents and skills; mistakes, and who makes them, often decide the outcomes of games.  

Continuing with the sports theme, in the competitive game of ‘Take the Freight,’ if the thieves are the offense on team ‘Bad Guys,’ and the transportation industry is the defense on team’ Good Guys,’ the thief’s objective is to take advantage of any mistakes the defense makes, and we make plenty. According to Transport Topics News, cargo thefts increased by an estimated 20% in 2022.

From the start, the defense is disadvantaged in the ‘Take the Freight’ game. The first disadvantage the defense is burdened with is having to play by the rules as dictated by the rule of law and morality. ‘Take the Freight’ offense is not burdened with trivial things like laws and morality. If they were, they wouldn’t be the offense on the Bad Guys team in the game of Take the Freight. The Bad Guys offensive rule book states, ‘take the freight, don’t get caught’. 

The second disadvantage is that the defense must defend from threats from everything and everyone. At the same time, the offense only must take what they target from who they target. There are several ways to steal cargo and variations of each. There are leakage operations (stealing a little bit from the same place over a long period of time), fictitious pickups, hijackings/truck burglaries in route, burglaries while stopped, and driver involvement. Will a trailer full of goods be stolen while parked, through fictitious pick up at the shipper, or through a physical hijacking on the road? Only the offense knows for sure. As the defense, we must protect against everything, from everyone, in the location everywhere.

How can the defense even remotely compete being at such a disadvantage? The simple answer is we can’t. 

We will never win the game. The defense can’t win games because, in the game of Take the Freight, the Good Guy team never gets their turn at being on offense. As the defense, we will only be able to keep the number of points we are beaten by to a minimum the best we can. Playing a game, we can never win against a team we don’t know the identity of; there is a thought that would make it hard for the average person to drag themselves out of bed on Monday morning.

While every shipment should be considered a theft risk, shippers should know which commodities are most apt to be targeted for theft. First, there are crimes of opportunity where thieves break the lock off a random trailer to see if what is inside is attractive to steal. Then there are thefts where thieves already know what is inside the trailer and target it for theft. Food and beverages have traditionally been at the top of the list to steal and for good reason. Food and beverages can be sold quickly, easily, and turned into cash just about anywhere by thieves. In addition, few markings on food and beverages would allow authorities to track stolen cargo after the fact easily. The same can be said for many types of commodities for the same reason such as handbags, apparel and accessories, household goods, tobacco products, alcoholic beverages, and small electronic consumer goods, but food and beverages are the kings of the hill for theft as it is always an easy sale.

If thieves steal a truckload of medical X-Ray machines, the theft dollar amount may be higher, but where does an average thief sell hot X-Ray machines, and to who? Moreover, when sales attempts are made by thieves, due to model numbers and serial numbers, the X-Ray Machines could be advertised as stolen goods by virtue of their identification marks. If a truckload of snack foods is stolen, it would be difficult for authorities to track them on the black market in flea markets and standalone corner discount stores that ‘got a deal’ on a case of Twinkies.  

For high-value shipments like computer equipment, mobile phones, high-end electronics, medical equipment, and similar, the thieves are often more sophisticated and have a buyer long before the theft. These thefts are almost always targeted and, due to the high values, almost always better planned. Whether food, beverage, consumer goods, or high value, risk mitigation is a must because they all have reasons for being attractive to steal.

The best defense against cargo thieves is not a spectacular risk mitigation plan of copious complexity. Most any fool can come up with a convoluted scheme that fills a three-ring binder full of procedures written in number 9 font. The best defense against cargo theft is much less glamorous, which is following primary risk mitigation procedures day in and day out for every shipment.

Any unattended warehouse not secured well or parked truck can be a target for thefts of opportunity, especially if it is in a hot zone. Hot zones are throughout the country, but you typically find them near gateway areas such as Los Angeles, New York / New Jersey, Chicago, Houston/Dallas, Atlanta, and South Florida; in short, heavy cargo traffic areas. Thieves capitalize on massive numbers of full trucks in those areas. In addition, since the gateways are typically near large cities, there are endless places to sell the goods. Along with really good, hardened trailer locks, the very best way to combat truck theft in these areas is to not stop in hot zones. Truckers cannot dictate where they must pick up freight, but to an extent, they can control where they stop afterward. The best weapon is working with shippers to maximize the driver’s ability to put space between them and the hot zones before shutting down.

In terms of target thefts, the first positive impact thing a shipper can do is know their carriers. Shippers, or their 3PLs, must have carrier selection protocols to ensure the trucker who picks up their cargo is a good choice. Shippers and 3PLs selecting carriers based on who is the lowest of three quotes are asking for cargo theft. Keeping closer relationships with fewer transportation providers and allowing collaboration on security programs is necessary. Too many shippers and 3PLs consider the whole electronic posting board as potential carriers for their cargo. This viewpoint is likely the first step toward cargo theft.

Electronic posting boards can be an asset to shippers and 3PLs. Still, they can also be the door to allowing theft by carrier impersonation. The process for a carrier impersonation theft, while taking an increment of bravery, is simple and often uses electronic posting boards. The thief assumes the identity of a reputable trucker. When a load is posted for something attractive, they bid on it using the reputable carrier’s identity. They will make the bid realistic but on the low side. When the shipper takes their bid, the fraudulent carrier supplies the stolen identity, books the load, and sets an appointment pick up. Here is where the bravery comes in. Now the thief sends a driver and truck to the shipper to pick up the load with a bill of lading, often asking for the shipment by number. Unless risk mitigation procedures are in place and followed, the non-descript red Volvo tractor and trailer with little markings gets loaded, and the driver pulls a truckload of stolen product sway from the dock door, never to be seen again.  

What could have stopped it? Very boring risk mitigation procedures and some due diligence work on the front end, starting with shippers and 3PLs having solid relationships with carriers. Suppose your core carriers are accustomed to receiving loads from you at fair rates. In that case, it would automatically increase their availability in your lanes. The increased availability will reduce the number of shipments you must go to the load boards with. On the other hand, if your business model is the lowest of three quotes gets loaded, you will be forced to the load boards and increase your risk. And for heaven’s sake, if you work with a broker or your trucker as a brokerage division, in no uncertain terms, contractually forbid double brokering all the time, every time.

Okay, your truck hunters pulled a truck in off the load boards; what now? First, the shipper should ensure the contact phone number the carrier called them from matches the phone number from the actual carrier records. Sure, there are a lot of agents out there, but calling the trucking company headquarters to confirm the agent, asset-based carrier, and the number they are calling or faxing from would be an excellent first step. Asking the trucker headquarters to confirm agent emails is also a must. While they legitimately exist, always double check Gmails, Yahoo emails, and similar as you would a phone number. Remember, with no due diligence, you will give your freight to a voice over the phone.

The truck also has an identity; verifying it is also part of the process. Truck cabs must have the carrier’s legal name, trade name, and the US DOT Number on the side of the truck. Be aware if the information on the side of the cab matches the carrier identity you booked the load with. You can get a good amount of information about a carrier on Saferweb, which is free. There is also no cost to request a carrier insurance certificate be emailed or faxed directly from the insurance provider, not from the carrier. Insurer-provided certificates will help indicate whether you are talking to a fraud. While nothing stops them from doing it, impersonators will be reluctant to contact insurance providers to request insurance certificates as it adds to their risk.

GPS tracking is also a good option if a whole unattended truck is stolen. It won’t prevent cargo, or a whole truck, from being stolen, but it can help find it after it is. I am not talking about GPS tractor tracking; thieves expect the power portion of a tractor-trailer to have GPS tracking, so it is disabled or the tractor discarded quickly. Thieves don’t always expect disposable GPS tracking micro tracker buried in the freight. Oh my goodness, the cost makes that out of reach. $200,000USD worth of cargo sold to your customer, moving 1200 miles, you are paying $3,800USD with FSC to move, isn’t worth an extra $60 bucks to track where the cargo is, yep, I get it. Even with GPS embedded in the freight, action must be quick. Sophisticated thieves sometimes use’ sniffers’ to detect GPS units inside a trailer. In some cases, they will use jammers to degrade the GPS signal.

The trucking company and driver are the best suited to prevent truck thefts en route, but shippers and 3PLs can be a partner in the effort. On-the-road freight thefts can take the form of the cargo, or a whole truck, being stolen while unattended, to a dangerous hijacking by getting the driver to pullover by faking an emergency, telling the driver something is wrong with their rig, such as smoking brakes, rear door open, or dangling light assembly. Once the driver pulls over to check their trailer, they are pounced upon, and their truck is hijacked.

Trucking companies and shippers can form a partnership to reduce the road theft and hijack threat. 

First, someone must alert the hijackers about what truck to target. Bold thefts like hijackings are not executed on a hunch. The best way for hijackers to receive information on shipment commodities is from shippers, the 3PL, and the carrier. When hired, shippers, 3PLs, and the trucking company should run background checks on all staff. Shippers working closely with their transportation partners make this realistic. If a shipper’s primary source for trucks is the posting boards, then joint background checks would not be practical. Will joint background checks catch a thief related to a particular shipment? Probably not. But background checks may stop thieves from showing up for a second interview.

Suppose there are thieves alerted to shipments of an attractive commodity to target. In that case, they may wait and shadow a truck until the driver stops to eat and fuel, get rest, or take care of personal needs. The driver stopping is a good time for thieves to steal the entire truck. How can a thief be prevented from stealing an unattended truck? Make sure not to leave the truck unattended, at least initially. With shippers and truckers working together, trucks can be scheduled in a way that the driver can pick up and drive two or, better yet, three hundred miles before stopping. Thieves shadowing a truck will only follow so far before they find themselves getting too far away from their secondary resources in place to deal with the stolen truck and cargo. Thieves will be forced to break away and await another opportunity. Granted, getting a truck to the dock door with a fed driver, an empty bladder, enough on-duty hours left, and all fueled up takes planning and cooperation. Although getting back to a recurring theme, carriers who are considered core, which are used often, and don’t have to survive a bloody quote-fest to get every load, can be very accommodating. Not getting robbed is in their best interest too.

While no company can afford, nor is it realistic, to build fifty-foot-high electric fences around their building and use team drivers with armed security to escort every truck, there are reasonable low-cost measures that can make a difference. The key is to craft the loss mitigation procedures in a manner they can be woven into everyday activities. Team members will attempt to avoid, or workaround convoluted labor-intensive, complex, and time-draining risk mitigation protocols. Adding the risk mitigation in layers more easily blended into the existing processes will help the loss mitigation measures get done. After all, the best procedure in the world is only the best if it is used.

Are there more best practice processes you can use to mitigate theft losses? Sure there are, but how long do you want this article to be?