Categories News

Rise of the techie cargo thieves: How digitally savvy theft has invaded trucking

One day last spring, Peel police Det. Mark Haywood executed a search warrant on a property west of Toronto and found a semi-trailer loaded with snowmobiles.

“Seeing an entire container full of brand new Ski-Doos valued at, like, $24,000 (each) — that’s a pretty good recovery for our unit,” said Haywood, who heads the force’s cargo theft team.

Part of a sweeping joint investigation called Project Big Rig, the operation resulted in the arrest of 15 suspects and recovery of 28 trailers stocked with $7 million worth of items ranging from chicken to televisions to Sleeman beer.

“Cargo theft definitely is on the rise,” Haywood said in an interview.

The spike in freight crime comes in lockstep with a ramp-up of more sophisticated, digitally savvy tactics that revolve around identity theft and drain the economy of millions of dollars, as the higher cost of living drives demand for pilfered products.

The number of cargo thefts — when goods are stolen during transportation — rose 59 per cent in Canada and the United States last year, according to data analytics firm Verisk’s CargoNet. The 2,852 incidents followed a 15 per cent jump in 2022 and a 20 per cent increase in 2021.

Experts say more old-fashioned methods of theft such as cutting fences at freight yards and hot-wiring semis at truck stops remain popular. But even those acts are often informed by information gleaned from online load boards — sites that connect shippers and carriers — or phishing scams and other hacking methods.

“The way it used to be was that they would just randomly steal whatever they could get their hands on,” said Haywood.

“Now, if they have inside information on something, they’ll actually go into a yard and go through half a dozen trailers until they find the product that they were told is there, and then they’ll steal that particular one.”

Digital hacks and tracking devices such as Apple AirTags can also yield that inside info — shipment contents or location, for example. They’ve gained traction over the past year, in part because the methods are so cheap, said Danish Yusuf, CEO of Toronto-based Zensurance.

“The marginal cost of hacking the system is so low because it’s just somebody sitting in their basement somewhere just trying constantly,” he said.

Other newer approaches that rely on “strategic theft,” where criminals effectively trick shippers into handing over their goods, are catching on too.

The most common type is identity theft, where a crew uses false documentation to pose as an existing fleet, said Joe Palmer, who heads insurance firm Gallagher Canada’s transportation team.

“A thief online can find the identity of a legitimate carrier … get their credentials and basically hold themselves to be somebody that they’re not,” he said.

Malefactors might bid an irresistibly low price to transport a shipment.

“They basically are flooding people’s inboxes and phone lines to try to get their hands on a load. ‘Hey, we’re ABC Trucking, we have trucks available to haul your freight,’” Palmer said.

Once obtained, the costly cargo is rarely seen by legitimate eyes again — until it hits the retail shelf, shorn of its illicit tail.

Last April, a thief walked away with $23.8 million in gold and cash from an Air Canada warehouse after presenting phoney documents, according to an October court filing from security firm Brink’s. The incident marked the most notorious example in recent years of a so-called fictitious pickup — using false identification or documents to pose as a legitimate driver in person.

Fictitious pickups — also called fraudulent pickups — jumped 600 per cent in 2022 in Canada and the U.S., though they still account for a minority of the total, according to CargoNet.

Illegal wholesalers often present a “wish list” of items in hot demand, much the way auto theft works now, said Haywood.

Food and beverages, household products and metals now comprise Canada’s most sought-after stolen goods, in that order, according to CargoNet.

Food inflation over the past two years sparked a commensurate spike in demand for meat and other edible items.

“They might be able to pick up a $100,000 load for $30,000,” Haywood said of grocers on the grey market. “There’s no way of tracing products like that. It’s not like they have serial numbers on packs of chicken.”

Purloined poultry or pork can pose a health risk, however.

“Sometimes these things are stolen, they’re kept by the roadside for a day or two and possibly the refrigeration unit’s gone off for a day,” the police detective said.

Electronics also make for high-value targets.

“Generally, those loads will be sectioned off and sold in lots to different brokers. It’s difficult to pawn an entire 53-foot trailer full of 60-inch big-screen televisions.”

The eventual outlets for hot household goods include independent stores, flea markets and online platforms such as Facebook Marketplace and eBay, Haywood said.

To leave as few fingerprints as possible, crime rings often resort to “double brokering,” all arranged online.

“They’ll hire a legit trucking company to take it across the border or to the final destination so they don’t take the risk of the actual trucking. And then they pick it up on the other end,” said Yusuf.

The value of freight stolen across Canada and the U.S. last year totalled $449 million, a 47 per cent jump from 2022, according to CargoNet.

The firm found that Ontario accounted for an astounding 83 per cent of all cargo theft incidents in Canada, with the Toronto area as the reddest of hotspots, though police say offences are radiating westward as perpetrators try to evade a regional crackdown.

While the number of reported incidents in Canada actually fell by a handful in 2023, the figure still sat 42 per cent higher than 2021 levels.

Meanwhile, experts say the value loss likely increased.

“We see a lot of loads that are worth $500,000 and higher. We have some clients that carry cargo limits of $2 million,” said John Miklus, president of the American Institute of Marine Underwriters.

Many incidents go unreported, he added. Reputation and insurance rate hikes are the main reasons.

“If I’m running a cargo business, I don’t want people to know I was robbed because then it hurts my ability to get more business,” said Yusuf. “If I fell for a phishing scam for instance.

“These thieves are getting smarter. They see people using technology in all other spaces, and cargo theft is no different.”