Cargo Theft Hits a New High

The inside of an empty trailer.

Cargo theft spiked last year, with thieves becoming more strategic and targeting high-value loads.

“The motives and the way the criminals are operating has changed, and cargo theft is increasing tremendously,” said Keith Lewis, vice president of operations at CargoNet, a Verisk company.

CargoNet’s yearly incident analysis found that cargo theft in 2023 was up 59% over the previous year. The average cargo value per theft was $189,000. The top five states for cargo theft include California, Texas, Illinois, Florida and Georgia. Lewis added that thefts jumped in Arizona, which is quickly moving into the top 10 areas where theft occurs.

“We know crews are operating in the L.A. Basin, and there are a lot of electronics coming out of facilities there. Drivers pick up their load and keep moving until they enter Arizona. Plus, diesel is $2 less a gallon in Arizona than in California, so they stop there, and the bad guys follow them,” Lewis said.

The commodities that they’re stealing have changed. “The consumer drives what is being stolen. The bad guys know anything in demand by the consumer will be an easy product to steal and sell,” Lewis said.

Food and beverage cargo thefts were the most common targets in 2023. “The thing that jumped up within the food and beverage category is energy drinks. Anything that is legal, addictive and affordable is attractive,” Lewis said.

Household goods were the second most common target, followed by electronics; vehicles and accessories; commercial and industrial goods; apparel and accessories; and building materials.

Fictitious pickups, fraudulent double-brokering and identity theft are among the top methods thieves are turning to now. “There are trailers still stolen out of the parking lot, but that’s few and far between,” Lewis said.

Most thefts occur at warehouses and distribution centers, followed by parking lots, truck stops, secured yards and the side of the road. “The location is driven by the method the criminals are using. It isn’t that the warehouse is unsafe, but that is the jurisdiction when the crime is committed through fraud,” Lewis explained.

Days of the week also tend to influence thefts. In 2023, the majority of thefts occurred on a Friday or Monday.

There are several steps shippers and carriers can take to reduce the risk of cargo theft. Lewis recommends tracking trends as a first line of defense. “You have to look at the data to know where to double down on security,” he said. “Criminals repeat themselves. If you’re not using data to plan your routes, you’re operating blind.”

Since fraud has become so prevalent, Lewis recommends that everyone slows down, reviews paperwork and looks for anomalies. “If someone is using a P.O. Box, run that P.O. Box number because you might find 10 to 12 carriers using it. If that is the case, they are either stealing identities or registering companies to commit a crime,” Lewis said, adding that companies shouldn’t hesitate to vet transportation providers or drivers. “We’ve gotten away from using the phone, but if something looks suspicious, pick up the phone and call.”

Drivers traveling on the highway should only stop if they have to and shouldn’t leave their vehicle unattended any longer than necessary. “Buddy up with someone at the truck stop when you stop to rest and back trailers up to each other so nobody can open the doors,” Lewis said.

Locks, a relatively simple solution, remain a top tool for deterring theft. “Put a lock on both trailer doors. Everyone seems to just put a seal and lock on the right door, but people know how to unlock the left door,” Lewis said. “Anything you can do to deter that thief by five minutes and send them somewhere else helps.”