With the desperation that arose behind much of the criminal activity taking place during the coronavirus era, trucking industry experts say cargo thefts were not excluded.
“Our numbers started to jump [in the] second quarter of last year,” said CargoNet’s vice president of operations, Keith Lewis. Cargo Net is a cargo theft prevention and recovery service “We saw a spike in the numbers and it continued on throughout the year.”
In 2020, CargoNet suffered 1,502 circumstances of theft–events including both cargo thefts and vehicle thefts, which can often occur at the same time. These numbers are much higher than those of 2018 and 2019, which saw 1,181 thefts and 1,106 thefts, respectively. For cargo thefts, specifically, CargoNet experienced 797 in 2018, 758 in 2019, and 1,059 in 2020. In regards to solely vehicle thefts, the company had 810 in 2018, 676 in 2019, and 861 in 2020.
“My opinion–we’re still too early in the year, but almost halfway through–my prediction is we’re going to start to, and I hope–I really do hope for the industry–that we start to normalize [in 2021],” said Lewis.
For these numbers, any circumstances in which cargo was stolen, in addition to events when cargo thefts and vehicle thefts occurred simultaneously, comprise the numbers in the company’s cargo theft category. Vehicle theft numbers can also encompass situations involving dual thefts, but these numbers remain specific to the overall number of vehicles which were stolen in an event. Total theft events involve all thefts reported; however, only one event is recorded when a vehicle and cargo are stolen at the same time. Because of these overlapping events, the 1,502 cargo theft situations reported is lower than those of solely cargo thefts or solely vehicle thefts.
Data compiled by CargoNet comes from law enforcement, trucking companies, and other resources, and groups like the Travelers Cos. utilize CargoNet data to monitor thefts, along with their own investigative unit information.
“The majority of thefts involved both the cargo and the vehicles,” said Travelers Cos.’ vice president of transportation and crime, Scott Cornell. “We’ve definitely seen a big jump in 2020, and it started to come down through the fourth quarter into the first quarter of 2021, which was no surprise [and was] pretty much the pattern we expected.”
Luckily, these numbers have already continued to see improvement and companies are expecting their overall theft activity to return to numbers seen before the pandemic. For example, Cornell noted that 2021’s first quarter saw 289 thefts reported, as compared to 321 during quarter one of 2020.
Regardless, a chunk of theft activity was indeed unique to the events surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.
“In the U.S., full-truckload thefts increased in 2020 by 25 percent as criminals targeted shipments of medical supplies and household supplies,” explained Sensitech’s supply chain intelligence director, Scott Martino. “U.S. pilferages also increased by 35%, as [fewer] organized criminals targeted cargo at rest stops and in storage locations. This is a very clear example of how economics and market equilibrium are particularly relevant in the illicit market.”
In fact, organized crime is usually at the bottom of full tractor-trailer combination thefts in an effort to reach the cargo onboard.
“These organized groups are strategically located in the United States,” explained Lewis. “They’re stealing the tractor-trailer for what’s on the trailer. Typically, they’re going within about 30 miles or so, they’re going to drop the tractor off somewhere, and they’re going to use their own tractor to continue on with the trailer to whatever their cross-dock is or the fencing operation.”
However, these kinds of thefts are not new–big economic changes can easily trigger this kinds of criminal activity.
“If we go back to 2008, when we saw the economic downturn, we saw tremendous increases in cargo thefts,” said Cornell. “And, we also saw shifts in what was being stolen.”
Before 2008, a majority of cargo thieves looked for electronics and other expensive items, but placed their focus more upon food and beverages when the U.S. was deep in recession during 2010. In 2020, though, the most sought-after items were, unsurprisingly, household goods.
“The things that household goods gives us an advantage with, in regards to recovery, is that [they don’t] disappear,” unlike food items, which are quickly consumed, Cornell said. “But [they are] not as traceable as electronics trend to be. So, that was a big change.”