‘Sting Trailers’ Offer Glimpse Into World of Cargo Thieves

Trucks roll from a truck stop at dusk in Willington, Conn., last month. (AP Photo/Dave Collins)
Trucks roll from a truck stop at dusk in Willington, Conn., last month. (AP Photo/Dave Collins)

Somewhere in America, a tractor-trailer loaded with hidden surveillance equipment is parked at a truck stop or warehouse while authorities wait for thieves to steal it.

No one is sure when, or even if, crooks will take it. But such “sting trailers” have been successful in busting up crime rings and recovering pilfered merchandise.

“It’s like fishing,” said D.Z. Patterson, an investigator for Travelers insurance. “You’ve got your worm in the water, but there are hundreds of other worms out there. They have to pick yours.”

Cargo theft has become a huge problem that the FBI says causes $15 billion to $30 billion in losses each year in the United States. Law enforcement and the insurance industry are fighting back by tempting thieves with “sting trailers” laden with cameras and GPS tracking devices, hidden within both the trailers and the inventory.

The prevention efforts aren’t new, but the reason for them is particularly acute during the December shopping season, according to FreightWatch, a security company based in Austin, Texas. Over time, the sting trailers have given authorities a glimpse into how this breed of thief operates.

Thieves prefer nondescript trailers that would be hard to identify after being stolen, so it’s best if a brand name or distinctive markings are emblazoned on the sides. Hidden cameras have recorded which locks are problematic for crooks, leading anti-fraud specialists to recommend truck owners install the highest-tech locks.

New York-based Travelers Cos. believes it is the only insurance company using a sting trailer, though a handful of others are used by law enforcement agencies and retail and trucking companies. Its trailer was developed in 2008 in a lab and is equipped with $100,000 worth of surveillance gear. Law enforcement agencies nationwide have used it hundreds of times, resulting in dozens of arrests.

“The primary purpose is to assist law enforcement in targeting organized cargo rings,” said Scott Cornell, a theft investigator for Travelers. “Every time the sting trailer breaks up a ring … every trucking company or anyone in supply chain that moves cargo in that area benefits. It has clearly reduced thefts in areas where there have been arrests.”

But the effect is never permanent.

“If you take out a ring, you may see reduced thefts for six, eight, 10 months, but another group is going to move in,” Cornell said.

Criminals have countered efforts with technology that can jam a tracking device’s signal, said Steve Covey, a commercial fraud investigator with the National Insurance Crime Bureau.

“They figure out what they have to defeat, so they do their homework and try something new, and maybe that will work for a while,” Covey said. “And maybe the companies will come up with something to fix that problem. It keeps mushrooming.”

There were 152 cargo thefts nationwide in July, August and September, a 24 percent drop from the same months last year, FreightWatch reported this month. But the average value per cargo theft, nearly $200,000, increased 7 percent from April, May and June.

New Mexico state police in January used Travelers’ trailer to catch thieves looting trucks along I-40. The trailer, loaded with Bose speakers equipped with tracking devices, sat there for days before thieves came calling.

They took some of the cargo and put it in their own truck just east of Albuquerque. Authorities later learned the suspects start in California with an empty truck and load it up with goods stolen from trucks all along I-40.

Police tracked the stolen speakers to a rental storage center in Michigan, where a state trooper found two suspects, a tractor-trailer and two rental units filled with stolen electronics and other goods.