ST. PETERSBURG — The best cargo thieves are expert planners. They are patient and precise and pull off million-dollar heists without pulling a gun.
They strike nearly anywhere cargo moves — rest stops, parking lots, warehouses.
Two weeks ago, bandits made off with 18 tons of Crisco from a tow lot in St. Petersburg. At first it was funny. Who needs $100,000 worth of shortening? But the FBI calls cargo theft a $30 billion a year problem, a sobering economic hit that can translate to higher retail prices.
"Cargo theft is a much bigger issue in America than anyone really believes," said Marion County sheriff's Detective Erik Dice, a member of a statewide theft task force.
The thieves particularly like Florida. The state accounted for nearly a quarter of the country's reported cargo thefts between March and May, according to the Florida Department of Transportation. Established rings of Cuban nationals move many of the stolen goods into the Miami area, a port region with ample warehouses and distributors for storing and selling the merchandise, experts said.
Keith Lewis, a vice president with the consultant CargoNet, laughed when told the truck with the missing Crisco ended up in Hialeah, less than 10 miles from Miami.
"I could have predicted that's where the truck was going to wind up," he said. "Empty in Hialeah or next to some fish farm in (nearby) Medley, Fla."
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Cargo thieves target anything they can sell quickly — paper towels, color printers, prescription drugs. They often have buyers lined up in advance.
They will sit outside warehouses or distribution centers watching for patterns, learning which trucks carry what products and where they are going. When the targeted truck leaves the yard, the thieves may slap a GPS tracker on the trailer or simply follow it.
Eventually, a trucker has to stop for coffee or to use the restroom at a rest area. The driver climbs down from the cab, locks up and walks away. Then the thieves move. They break open a door, hot-wire the engine and drive off.
Sometimes the truck drivers are in on the deal and leave their vehicles set up for taking, said Miami-Dade police Sgt. Carlos Rosario, a member of a South Florida cargo theft task force that includes the FBI, the Florida Highway Patrol and other local agencies.
In Florida, many cargo thieves are part of close-knit Cuban theft rings, experts said.
"Cargo theft is an ethnic-based crime, and different crews stay within their groups," Lewis said. That means Cubans in Miami, Armenians in California, and Bosnians, Lithuanians, Russians and Czechs in the Midwest, he said.
In 2011, a group of cargo thieves well-versed in trucking logistics set up a bogus company to target Florida tomato shippers and brokers. The thieves even registered the Miami company with the Motor Carrier Safety Administration, according to reports at the time. They picked up hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of tomatoes and then disappeared.
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Theirs was a new twist on cargo theft that Lewis said is increasingly common. Identity fraud is a natural companion to traditional grand theft, and more rings are trying similar fictitious pickups.
Another group pilfered $2.2 million of the cold and flu medicine Mucinex and $550,000 of Similac baby formula. A week after the Crisco caper, 44,000 pounds of Miller High Life was taken from a truck stop in Orange County. Authorities later found the stolen beer in South Florida.
Ed Petow, law enforcement liaison for the consultant FreightWatch International, described the organized rings currently working in Miami as relatively sophisticated. Even the Crisco theft was probably planned, Petow said.
"I don't know what you do with Crisco shortening . . . but obviously somebody's got a market for it," he said.
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Finding stolen cargo is a race against the clock. Reporting the theft is step one, but even that's not always simple. If a trucker was sleeping when a rig was stolen or the truck was parked at a lot overnight, it could take hours before police even know to look for a missing semitrailer.
On some occasions, owners at trucking companies won't report the crime, fearing insurance rates will rise. Instead, they'll work directly with manufacturers and distributors to "just write the check and make the problem go away," Lewis said.
Along the highway, stolen semitrailers look the same as thousands of other trucks. In some cases, thieves drive a couple of hours, unload all the merchandise into another truck or storage space, and ditch the stolen rig.
On store shelves, stolen goods look the same as any other product.
"You can literally hide the stuff in plain sight," Rosario said.
Theft rings usually peddle stolen merchandise below wholesale value, though Rosario said the discount is hard to estimate and depends on the commodity.
Food stolen in Florida will usually remain in the state. Electronics that can be traced or tracked end up in South and Central America, packaged on boats or trucks, said Willie Morales, a former detective who investigated cargo theft for the Miami-Dade Police Department
In the Crisco case, Hialeah police found the stolen truck a day after the theft. The thieves had broken the passenger door and taken the driver's GPS, his food and even a spare container of engine oil, said Nermin Salihovic, owner of NS Express LLC, which hired the driver.
The missing Crisco? The criminals likely sold it to food brokers or independent store owners who like the discounted price and don't ask a lot of questions. The shortening's long shelf-life makes it even more valuable.
"It's being sold right now at mom-and-pop grocery stores, bodegas" around Miami, Lewis said.
"You're not going to see it at Publix," Morales said.
Even if authorities track down the stolen Crisco — something that experts agreed is unlikely — every bit of it may have to be recalled.
"Once these food products are out of the chain, what we call the supply chain, a lot of it has to be destroyed because you really don't know where it's been or how it's been kept," Morales said.
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Cargo thieves do slip up, even in some of the highest-profile heists.
In 2012, a well-trained group descended through the roof into an Eli Lilly warehouse in Connecticut and stole about $80 million worth of drugs, which eventually were trucked to Florida. Investigators tracked down the thieves behind the record-breaking heist using a water bottle that one of the them had touched at the crime scene.
Four years ago, a cadre of thieves pulled off the largest cargo theft in the history of Hillsborough County. They cut a hole in the roof of a military contractor's warehouse and stole 3,000 laptop computers, then stashed the $7.4 million cache in an abandoned warehouse in Miami. Investigators identified the thieves after finding security footage that showed their getaway car at a nearby McDonald's.
The FDOT credits the formation of the Florida Commercial Vehicle & Cargo Theft Task Force in 2001 with helping cut losses over time. And from August 2013 to August of this year, the Miami-Dade Police Department recovered $5.2 million in merchandise, $138,000 in cash and other goods and about $600,000 worth of trucks and trailers, while also arresting 20 people, Rosario said.
Still, with so much cargo roaming the nation's roads and sitting in warehouses, it's hard to know when and where thieves will strike — just that they will, almost every day.
The crime leads to a rise in overhead costs for companies, which subsequently increases retail prices, putting the load squarely in the pockets of American consumers.
"It obviously affects the economy, whether it's the lack of product on the shelves or it's a rise in insurance rates" for truckers, said Petow of FreightWatch. "It's obviously got to trickle down somewhere."
Contact Zachary T. Sampson at email@example.com or (727) 893-8804. Follow @zacksampson.