Cargo theft remains an unfortunate reality in the supply chain, as thieves use any number of methods to hijack cargo loads or deceive shippers into sending cargo to them. In fact, full truckload cargo theft rose by 37 percent in the first quarter of 2022 compared to the last part of 2021.

Cargo theft is a $35-billion industry and has been growing since the start of the pandemic. Obviously, this is costly to companies and can severely disrupt supply chains nationwide. Thanks to evolving technology and higher consumer demand, cargo is now more vulnerable than ever before.

Thankfully, modern technology can help combat the growing threat of cargo theft. Companies along the supply chain need to ensure they are enacting the right security measures and utilizing the right technologies to keep cargo protected. But first, it helps to have an understanding of the methods used to steal cargo.

Common methods of cargo theft

Cargo thieves often start by launching cyberattacks to steal data that contains information regarding the location to where cargo is moving, as well as when it’s moving. But bad actors can also use a cyberattack to steal the credentials of a shipping company. The most common method of cargo theft involves using fraudulent credentials in order to pose as a made-up carrier. This method, known as strategic theft, means that the shipper essentially hands over the cargo to the thief without even knowing it.

Another popular method is smash-and-grab cargo theft, in which thieves follow the truck from a port or warehouse to the driver's first stop, often within the first 50 to 100 miles. The driver will inevitably have to leave the truck unattended, whether to use the restroom or to pick up a meal. This is when the thieves strike, either by busting open the cargo door and grabbing as much merchandise as they can or by disconnecting the trailer and taking the entire load.

The good news is that cargo thieves can be predictable if you pay attention to the trends and methods these thieves use. For instance, cargo theft is most likely to occur on Friday afternoons when companies are trying to get cargo on the road before the weekend. This is particularly true for holiday weekends.

Electronics are the most sought after goods for cargo thieves, making up about a quarter of all cargo thefts. Most electronics enter through the port of Los Angeles, the largest port in the Western Hemisphere, making California the top state for cargo theft. In fact, the most common area in the country for cargo theft is the 100 miles surrounding the port of Los Angeles.

Building trustworthy security

Thanks to modern innovation, there are a number of technologies that companies can employ to ensure their cargo reaches its destination, in particular, single-use trackers and RFID technology.

Single-use trackers work the same way an Apple Airtag does. These small devices use GPS to track up-to-date location history. By hiding a single-use tracker in the shipment — not just in the truck but physically in the cargo — you can track the whereabouts of the cargo, even if it is stolen.

RFID technology consists of a small radio transponder and a scanner. The transponder is placed in the cargo load and transmits information about that specific load. The scanner recognizes the transponder and communicates the data back to a computer system. If you provide an RFID scanner to your shipper, drivers can scan their loads at certain checkpoints throughout their route. Amazon uses RFID technology, which is why customers can easily track their shipment down to the last known location of an item.

Again, trucks will need to be left unattended at some point. Installing security cameras, alarms and lights on the back of the truck will ensure that there are adequate security measures in place when the truck is left unattended. Investing in reputable locks to put on shipping containers and trucks will also prevent quick grab-and-run thefts.

In addition, having a rigorous vetting process for carriers is crucial for preventing the number one type of cargo theft — strategic theft. Though it can be difficult to spot fraudulent credentials, there are other methods of identity verification available to ensure the load is being given to the correct carrier. Some shipping companies create an official seal that must be located on their shipment. This seal can be updated weekly, or even daily, so that thieves can’t keep up with what the correct seal looks like.

If all this seems a bit overwhelming, it might be time to consult with a third-party security company to help with updating security measures throughout the supply chain.

Cargo has been stolen. Now what?

If merchandise has been stolen, there are some key steps to take. First, gather as much detail about the event as possible. From where was the load stolen? How much cargo was taken? Did the driver see anything? Were the truck at a rest stop that has security cameras? Have the shipper take photos of whatever they can to help document the event.

The most crucial step is to file a police report as quickly as possible so that authorities can be on the lookout for the stolen cargo. Companies are typically slow to enact this step, which is why only about 20 percent of stolen cargo is ever recovered. Try to file a police report within 12 to 24 hours after the event.

Finally, it’s important to contact your insurance company. Most freight insurers cover cargo theft as long as the vehicle was not left unattended. However, since it’s inevitable that the driver will have to leave the truck unattended at some point, it’s crucial for companies to adopt security measures for when trucks must be left unattended.

Final thoughts

Belonging to an industry that requires the movement of goods means that cargo thieves pose an ever-present threat to the success of the business. Thieves will continue to revolutionize how they go about stealing inventory, so it’s crucial to stay on top of new technology and trends that will help prevent cargo theft.