On Second Thought
with John Tabor
April 15 marked an important date in the secure movement of freight around the U.S. Southeast, yet few if anyone in the industry knows what changed on this historic date. On that day, Gov. Nathan Deal of Georgia signed the Georgia Cargo Theft Act into law, which took effect July 1. The law specifies punishments based on the value of stolen freight. It also includes penalties for tampering with the trucks used to move that freight. What’s the big deal you may ask, realizing not everyone’s freight moves through Georgia?
To understand the relevancy here, we need to draw on some history.
When I got involved in transportation 15 years ago there were four primary areas where cargo theft was occurring: New York/New Jersey, Miami, Chicago and Los Angeles. It made sense these were the top areas for cargo theft as they have the major ports and an abundance of imported freight moves through them. Over time, importers started to recognize the efficiencies and cost savings of moving freight through other ports and diversifying their distribution models. As the freight transitioned, so did the thieves to cities like Dallas, Memphis, Atlanta and Savannah.
I could write an in-depth article on what caused the uptick in cargo thefts, but the answer is simple: this type of crime is easy to commit. There are hundreds of thousands of loads of merchandise in-transit at any given time throughout the country and the truth be told, not enough secure places to control them. Most cargo thefts occur at night, over weekends when trailers are left alone — an easy target compared to trying to break into a heavily secured warehouse or store location.
Six years ago I joined a loosely knit group comprised of truckers, the insurance industry and law enforcement, called the National Cargo Theft Task Force (NCTTF). The task force had two main goals:
- Ensure local cargo theft task forces were formed and funded so we had true skilled investigators with boots on the ground in areas where thefts were occurring.
- Launch a public awareness campaign to show the impact of this crime on the shipping community.
I can only speak for myself in saying that I thought the latter would be the easier of the two goals to achieve, but that was far from the case. Over the years we managed to campaign for numerous task forces nationwide. We also were able to rally to save some task forces from being dismantled. The public awareness piece, however, was extremely frustrating. We formed a lobbying group and made several trips to Washington to meet with our elected officials from around the country to enlighten them on the scope of the cargo theft problem here in the United Sates. While we were afforded meetings almost every time, we were forced to meet with congressional staffers who appeared to be going through the motions. In fact, the only member of Congress that I ever met after two trips was Sen. Patty Murray from the state of Washington. She, too, was having a cargo theft problem in her constituency and truly wanted to better understand the scope of the problem and find possible solutions. Unfortunately, our efforts fell upon deaf ears and no progress was made at the federal level.
The unanimous opinion in the industry on a solution to that problem was for stricter mandatory sentencing guidelines for those convicted of committing cargo theft. If someone were to go out today and rob a bank and take the average $2,000 that is netted in this type of crime, they would face at least 10 years in prison. The average value of a stolen trailer is over $200,000 and the punishment in most of these cases is probation for the offender. One example is a career cargo criminal from South Florida who operated out of New Jersey. This man was arrested nine times for full trailer-load thefts, but has done less than two years in prison, and that’s the total for all his offenses.
Let’s circle back to Georgia now, earlier I told you that many of that states’ metropolitan areas in recent years have seen a surge in cargo theft cases. John Cannon of the Georgia Bureau of Investigations and his team which is tasked with investigating these crimes had the opportunity to sit with State Rep. Geoff Duncan, who took the time to understand the size and scope of the problem. Soon thereafter they authored House Bill 749 and started the process of testifying in both the House and Senate about the problem in their state. This bill has some of the most stringent sentencing guidelines in the country to date as it pertains to cargo crime, including:
- Mandatory prison of one to 10 years for stolen property valued between $1,500 and $9,999.
- Mandatory prison of five to 20 years for stolen property valued between $10,000 and $1 million.
- Mandatory prison of 10 to 20 years for stolen property valued at more than $1 million.
There are also stricter penalties put in place for thefts of controlled substances, which obviously put into the wrong hands could be lethal.
I commend Georgia lawmakers for taking action on a problem that ultimately affects all the state’s residents. These changes in law will go a long way to reduce crime in Georgia, but the problem is these thieves will now move their operations to states that don’t penalize at the same high standards. This law is a great start. However, unless we have mandatory federal punishment minimums for cargo theft, we as a shipping community will fail to achieve a national reduction in these losses.
Tabor is a 25-year loss prevention expert and principal of All States Supply Chain, a supply chain security and logistics consulting firm. He can be reached by email at JTabor@allstatesupplychain.com.
This column was published in the September 2014 issue of American Shipper.