Cargo theft trends and lessons learned

Experts from Walmart, NRS and the FBI discuss the latest trends and actions for retailers to protect themselves.
VP, Supply Chain & Customs Policy

While the issue of “smash and grab” thefts and organized retail crime have grabbed headlines across the country, retailers and their transportation partners have also seen a significant uptick in cargo theft and loss over the past couple of years. For the first quarter of 2024, CargoNet documented a 46% increase in cargo thefts compared with the first quarter of 2023 and a 10% rise from the fourth quarter of 2023.

At NRF PROTECT 2024, supply chain and loss prevention experts discussed the increase in cargo theft, including traditional and cybercrime-related methods, and how it is impacting organizations. The panel included Steve Hunter, director, global intelligence with Walmart, DOJ-FBI Intelligence Analyst Torrey Kingcade and John Tabor, senior vice president of supply chain with NRS.

Cargo theft has changed

The panelists agreed that cargo theft has changed, especially in a post-COVID world. From a retail, transportation and law enforcement perspective, cargo theft has become more strategic. The thieves continue to go “where the cargo is,” but that has expanded as import volumes grow. Thefts are not just happening during the peak holiday seasons or on the weekends — they happen all the time now.

Previously thieves would target high-value products such as electronics, health care and pharmaceuticals. Now they are targeting all products, including food and beverage. It doesn’t matter “as long as they can make a profit,” one panelist noted. The groups are highly organized and typically have buyers for the products back overseas before the theft even occurs.

Criminals know the penalties for ORC and cargo theft are minimal, but the crime has become very lucrative.

Fictitious pickups

One trend that has many in the industry concerned is fictitious pickups. Criminal organizations are obtaining legitimate bills of lading and then copying and manipulating the bill. They will alter the goods count in the trailer to steal the product, but then drop off the load to the retailer — which might not notice a shipment has gone missing, potentially for months.

To avoid these kinds of situations, panelists agreed that retailers should not rely on freight brokers for full-time loads and make sure to use dedicated asset-based carriers that have more control over their systems. In addition, there needs to be a movement away from paper bills of lading to electronic BOLs, which are more difficult to manipulate.

Also, retailers must ensure they have photographic documentation of all aspects when a load is picked up or dropped off: take pictures of the driver, truck, VIN number, license plate, etc. This information will help when filing a police report. Most importantly, make sure you report incidents with local law enforcement as soon as possible.

What to do when an incident occurs?

Report an incident to law enforcement immediately. Police reports are critical when trying to make a case; they contain key information for FBI task forces or other law enforcement to investigate crimes. Stolen freight moves quickly, so it is important to report right away. There could be some jurisdictional issues since stolen cargo might not arrive in the same jurisdiction where it was stolen. One thing to consider is offering a reward for information about the stolen cargo, which could potentially get information quickly to help recover the cargo.

Partnerships are key

Panelists all agreed that partnerships are critical in the ongoing fight against cargo theft and ORC, and those within retail companies among loss prevention and transportation groups are essential. That extends to a retailer’s transportation providers and law enforcement as well — communication among partners must be improved with all stakeholders.

Related content

Balancing the threats and opportunities of AI
Retail leaders speaking at NRF PROTECT.
How security leaders can effectively support the innovative use of artificial intelligence and protect against risks.
Read more
Lessons from a decade of cybersecurity collaboration
Retail leaders speaking at NRF PROTECT.
Senior technology executives and founding members share insights from NRF’s IT Security Council.
Read more
How to adopt a hacker’s mindset: A study in curiosity, creativity
Ted Harrington speaking at NRF PROTECT.
NRF PROTECT: Ethical hacker Ted Harrington on building more secure systems.
Read more