The Federal Bureau of Investigation conservatively estimates that cargo theft costs about $18 billion a year, while the General Accounting Office pegs the number between $20 billion and $60 billion a year. This figure includes the cost of filing, investigating, and paying claims, but does not include all law enforcement and security.
According to the Department of Transportation, motor carriers experience the majority of cargo theft losses, about 85 percent of all reported thefts, which follows from the fact that nearly three-quarters of all cargo is transported by truck.
While cargo loss can be attributed to individual modes of transportation, the majority of cargo theft actually occurs in cargo terminals, transfer facilities, and cargo consolidation areas, according to DOT.
The theft problem may actually have been exacerbated by relatively new efficiencies in transporting goods. One of the DOT’s research divisions, the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center, in Cambridge, Mass., suggests that the industry’s move toward the use of cargo containers, while increasing efficiency of transport, “may have inadvertently encouraged increased organized criminal presence in freight transportation” in its report, Research Findings: Cargo Crime and Cargo Terminal Concerns.
Before the widespread use of containers began in the 1960s, high-value cargo was packaged in cases or pallets and loaded and unloaded piece-by-piece or pallet-by-pallet. The Volpe report notes that thieves had easy access to these pallets to pilfer electronics, appliances, cosmetics, cigarettes and other goods.
Initially, containers helped cut down on this sort of pilferage but, the Volpe report notes, the honeymoon did not last. The criminals made adjustments, and organized crime in particular seized upon containers as a big business opportunity. “Much larger ‘packages’ containing higher value cargoes could now be spirited away with comparative ease and the spoils made it worth using more elaborate methods of deception and daring. Whereas, previously 10 televisions might go missing because that was all thieves could carry, now 200 could be stolen at a go in a container,” the report adds.
Much of this theft involved insiders at cargo terminals. Estimates indicate that “well over 80 percent of all theft and pilferage of transportation cargoes” can be traced to employees with access to the cargo.
Organized crime has the resources to ship stolen goods out of the country, then bring them back into the country so they can be sold as “legitimate” goods. Or they sell them in foreign countries.