Cargo theft takes toll on truckers Crime: Drivers are taking extra measures to protect themselves and their wares as hijackings and robberies increase.

July 28, 1998|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF Sun news researcher Jean L. Packard contributed to this article.

Truck driver Larry Davis says he no longer slumbers peacefully in his gray Kenworth cab during breaks on cross-country runs. He worries so much about prowlers and hijackers that he carries a handgun.

"If I stick my head out of that window, if I hear noises, my hand isn't empty," said Davis, 50, of Yakima, Wash., who had just delivered a load of cherries and was resting at the Truck Stops of America in Jessup on a recent afternoon.

In that lot alone, thieves have stolen more than $1 million in goods from trucks during the past eight months. They've pirated computer monitors and building supplies, Cheerios and frozen chicken from the truck stop's sea of semis, flatbeds and tankers.

"They take anything and everything," said Howard County police Cpl. Ellsworth Jones.

Police say those thefts could be the leading edge of a cargo crime wave, one that has swept through Florida, California and New York, sending goods to a global black market. The local bureau of the FBI is considering shifting agents from bank robberies, which have declined, so they can closely investigate cargo thefts.

Trucking industry officials say they lose about $10 billion a year from such thefts; the FBI puts the figure at about $6 billion. But those experts concede the estimates are probably low because many thefts are not reported.

"It seems anytime freight stops, there's someone there just waiting for it," said Gail Toth, executive director of the Transportation Loss Prevention and Security Council, an arm of the American Trucking Association. "It's happening everywhere. It's a national problem."

Bandits steal from trailers parked at truck stops and rest areas, and increasingly swipe entire rigs or hijack shipments at gunpoint. Though they target staples, they are also stealing computers and other high-tech equipment.

In one California case, thieves shocked a driver with a stun gun, beat him and fled with a load of Toshiba laptop computers worth $750,000, according to the California Highway Patrol.

"The commodities being targeted have higher values," said Supervisory Special Agent Brett Millar of the FBI's interstate theft unit. "They can put a gun at someone's head for a load worth two or three million bucks. The risks are lower than dealing drugs or robbing a 7-Eleven."

Maryland has been spared the intensity of the nationwide crime wave. But some warn that the Baltimore area's port, airport and interstates -- vital links in attracting businesses -- could lure more thieves.

Said Baltimore Detective Mike Steyer, supervisor of the major crime unit of the property crimes section: "We have a large concentration of trucking companies in Baltimore. As this problem increases we're going to get a proportional rise in thefts from trucks and of trucks."

In Jessup, Howard County detectives are investigating at least 11 thefts since December, as well as several others from trucks along the busy U.S. 1 corridor.

In several cases, thieves stole the parked trailer; in others, they took the truck, too.

Other parts of the state have been hit. State police reported a few thefts in the Hagerstown area in the past year or so, and Baltimore police charged two men with stealing a $20,000 truckload of sugar in May.

While truckers here have been spared violence, they have not been so lucky elsewhere -- in Southern California, about 25 percent of heists are hijackings. Some thieves are brandishing handguns, even Uzi submachine guns, before beating, gagging and leaving drivers roadside.

Police in other states say women have lured unsuspecting truckers into rest areas while accomplices steal cargo; thieves have stolen thousands of dollars in goods by cutting the locks of trailers stopped at red lights.

After a theft, the goods quickly enter a national and worldwide pipeline. Howard County detectives traced stolen computers from a January theft in Jessup to 20 states.

"Once the original thief sells them off, legitimate people buy them," said Jones of the Howard County police. "They transfer hands like they're on a wholesale market."

Police not only have trouble tracking the stolen goods but also have difficulty recording cargo thefts. Experts say there are 21 different ways the crime can be reported, from larceny to burglary to strong-arm robbery.

To track the crime better, the California Highway Patrol and the Transportation Loss Prevention Security Council have set up databases. New Jersey state police, worried about losses that jumped from $15 million in 1993 to $27 million in 1997, established a cargo theft task force.

Still, police and experts say only about 20 percent of thefts are reported. Some trucking businesses fear insurance rates will skyrocket if too many thefts are reported, or if executives know an employee committed the crime.

To deter thieves, trucking companies tell drivers to take more precautions; some even have installed tracking devices on their equipment.

At the Jessup truck stop, truckers say they're aware of dangers.

Gary Miller, 50, of East Palestine, Ohio, says he's seeing more messages on his computer alerting him to watch for his company's stolen trailers.

Maurice Wilkins, 37, of Miami, takes common-sense measures, such as locking his trailer, parking in safe places and not telling strangers what he's hauling.

Wilkins, clad in bright purple jeans, cowboy boots and sleek sunglasses, said, "You just don't go around waving a pocketful of money. Even an honest thief will knock you on your head. If somebody wants your freight, they'll take it."

Pub Date: 7/28/98

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