To steal huge shipments of valuable cargo, thieves are turning to a deceptively simple tactic: They pose as truckers, load the freight onto their own semitrailers and drive away with it.
It's an increasingly common form of commercial identity theft that has allowed con men to make off each year with millions of dollars in merchandise, often food and beverages. And experts say the practice is growing so rapidly that it will soon become the most common way to steal freight.
Helping to drive the scams, experts say, is the Internet, which offers thieves easy access to vast amounts of information about the trucking industry. Online databases allow con artists to assume the identities of legitimate freight haulers and to trawl for specific commodities they want to steal.
Besides hurting the nation's trucking industry — which moves more than 68 percent of all domestic shipments — the thefts have real-world consequences for consumers, including raising prices and potentially allowing unsafe food and drugs to reach store shelves.
News reports from across the country recount just a few of the thefts: 80,000 pounds of walnuts worth $300,000 in California, $200,000 of Muenster cheese in Wisconsin, rib-eye steaks valued at $82,000 in Texas, $25,000 pounds of king crab worth $400,000 in California.
Last year, carriers reported nearly 1,200 cargo thefts of all kinds nationwide, about the same as the previous year, according to CargoNet, a division of Verisk Crime Analytics, which estimated losses that year at nearly $216 million. Since many thefts go unreported, the real figure is almost certainly far higher.
"In the end, the consumer winds up paying the toll on this," said Keith Lewis, vice president of CargoNe.
The scheme works like this: Thieves assume the identity of a trucking company, often by reactivating a dormant Department of Transportation carrier number from a government website for as little as $300. That lets them pretend to be a long-established firm with a seemingly good safety record. The fraud often includes paperwork such as insurance policies, fake driver's licenses and other documents.
Then the con artists offer low bids to freight brokers who handle shipping for numerous companies. When the bogus truckers show up at a company, everything seems legitimate. But once driven away, the goods are never seen again.
Although cargo thieves prey on companies across the nation, the hot spots are places with shipping ports or rail hubs. California leads the nation. Large numbers of thefts have also been reported in Florida, Texas, New Jersey, Michigan, Illinois, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Tennessee.