A load of almonds is photographed with the shipping information before a truck is closed, sealed and leaves a California company to prevent theft. (Rich Pedroncelli / AP)
Wichita, Kan.— 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 tractor-trailers 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 men 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.
“In the end, the consumer winds up paying the toll on this,” said Keith Lewis, vice president of CargoNet, a theft-prevention network that provides information to the insurance industry.
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 truckers show up at a company, everything seems legitimate. But once driven away, the goods are never seen again. The thieves target mostly shipments of food and beverages, which are easy to sell on the black market and hard to trace.
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 Texas, Florida, New Jersey, Michigan, Illinois, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Tennessee.