Cargo theft is a growing problem that’s costing businesses billions of dollars every year, especially in Georgia, which has the dubious distinction of ranking sixth in the nation for such losses.
Florida has been even harder-hit, currently ranking third in cargo theft, although those rankings can flip-flop, as the two states have a lot of crossover crime, said Scott Cornell, a transportation crime and theft specialist for Travelers Insurance.
“Many theft rings operate in both states, with cargo stolen in Florida taken to Georgia and vice versa,” he said.
The problem entered the spotlight last week when the Florida Attorney General’s office announced arrests in connection to a cargo theft ring operating in Florida and Georgia that stole semi-trucks and trailers carrying millions of dollars’ worth of beer, energy drinks, refrigerators and power tools.
That investigation is ongoing.
Cargo theft in the United States is estimated to cost shippers and trucking companies at least $30 billion a year, according to the FBI.
There are a number of reasons Georgia has been a favorite of cargo thieves, Cornell said, including its arterial highway system, vibrant economy, large airport in Atlanta and world-class port in Savannah. Within the state, Chatham County ranks fourth for cargo theft, after three Atlanta-area counties.
While electronics remain the top targets for cargo theft in many states, in Georgia they rank third, after food and beverages and home and garden.
“Energy drinks, beer, frozen meats and seafood are popular items to steal, primarily because they are easy to unload and difficult to track — the evidence is virtually gone in a matter of days,” Cornell said.
Home and garden items include home appliances, furniture and decorative items.
One of the problems with cargo theft is the fact that there are fewer than 100 law enforcement officers across the country solely dedicated to investigating the crime, according to Cornell.
That’s the bad news.
The good news, he said, is that the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s cargo theft unit is one of the best in the country.
And, that, said Georgia Motor Trucking Association’s Ed Crowell, is no accident.
“While cargo theft is a big problem, it was actually a much bigger problem in Georgia five or six years ago, before the industry pushed legislative changes in the state to support law enforcement of cargo theft,” said Crowell, president and CEO of GMTA, one of the most successful and broad-based trade groups in the trucking industry.
“We worked with both the legislature and the governor to stiffen the laws and give the GBI more teeth in enforcing them,” he said.
GMTA also helps to support law enforcement training and works with CargoNet, a national database of information-sharing technology that helps drivers know and avoid high-risk areas.
“For example, if cargo thieves have been targeting a particular truck stop, CargoNet will let us know to get the word out to drivers to use extra caution,” Crowell said.
“It doesn’t mean our problems are over – far from it. But we’re proactively working on it, and seeing results,” he said.
“The fact that we’re no longer in the top three states for cargo theft is a pretty big deal.”
CARGO THEFT: WHEN, WHERE, HOW?
According to trucking industry publication Overdrive, organized cargo theft rings are on the rise, with savvy thieves using the internet to determine where loads containing high-value or easy-to-sell merchandise are located and where they’re bound.
CargoNet, a firm that collects and analyzes cargo-theft data, says the average loss per incident was nearly $190,000 in 2015, with some 10 thefts worth more than a million dollars each, adding that many incidents go unreported for fear of increased insurance rates or damage to reputations.
In 2015, almost half the cargo thefts reported to CargoNet took place between Friday and Sunday, when more cargo is at rest and unattended. Holiday weekend incidents are as much as 40 percent higher and the time between Labor Day and Christmas is considered peak season for cargo theft.
Food and beverages led thieves’ getaway lists in 2015, with 24 percent of incidents involving this kind of cargo, according to Freightwatch. Electronics and home-and-garden goods, accounting for 15 percent and 12 percent of thefts, respectively, were second and third.
According to FBI statistics, the vast majority of cargo thefts take place in parking lots, followed by dock, wharf or freight terminals, with streets and highways coming in third.