Cargo theft’s private eyes

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To be a cargo theft investigator, you need to be both passionate and dogged. There’s a misconception out there that if you don’t recover stolen cargo in 48 to 72 hours, you’ll never see it again. We’ve actually made recoveries 30 days, 60 days, even a year later. That’s why you’ve got to be willing to not let go of a case.” –Scott Cornell, national manager, specialty investigations group, Travelers Investigative Services

They don’t carry badges, handcuffs, or firearms. They don’t drive supercharged squad cars or wear matching monochrome suits and sunglasses. Yet they are some of the most potent weapons facing off cargo thieves these days: the Special Investigations Group (SIG) within the Inland Marine division at Travelers Insurance.

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Organized five years ago, SIG’s mission is twofold – investigate cargo thefts while helping clients adopt policies and procedures to “harden” their operations against such criminal activity. Scott Cornell, today SIG’s national manager, got the group off the ground with himself and just one other agent. Now, however, he commands a force of nine agents scattered across the U.S. – agents that for the most part are former law enforcement personnel that specialized in working the cargo theft beat.

“We’ve got agents in New Jersey, Dallas, TX, Atlanta, GA, Los Angeles – all the ‘hot spots’ where most cargo thefts occur,” he explained to me recently. “You’d also be surprised how difficult cargo theft investigations are, how far stolen goods will travel, and by how much logistical knowledge our investigators need. Furthermore, we’re on call 24/7, which means a lot of nights and weekends are spent working these crimes.”

While they have neither the firepower nor the arrest capabilities the law enforcement units dedicated to combating cargo theft do – such as the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Dept.’s Cargo Criminal Apprehension Team, known as the Cargo CATs for short – Cornell’s team possesses one distinct advantage; national investigative scope.

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“We’re not limited by jurisdictions and state lines,” he told me. “We follow the trail wherever it might lead.”

To do that successfully, one of SIG’s agents is a full-time “desk jockey,” taking information called or emailed in from the group’s field agents, then working the Internet and other sources to try and connect the dots.

All of Cornell’s agents are well-schooled in the methods of cargo thieves, the places they like to hide and sell stolen goods, the ways they like to move them across the country. So the field agents and "desk jockey" are always working in concert to try and close the circle on the post-theft portion of these crimes.

“We’re also doing post-theft analysis of each crime our clients report,” Cornell explained. “We take the opportunity to review their security procedures, looking for the gaps that allowed the theft to occur.” He added that all of these investigative services are free to Traveler’s clients because – in the end – improved security and the recovery of stolen goods significantly reduces claims, thus saving Traveler’s a lot of money (and headache) in the bargain.

The tricky part is running the criminals and the stolen goods down. Any and all information gleaned by SIG’s agents gets turned over to the proper law enforcement authorities, but they really never wash their hands of such cases.

“To be a cargo theft investigator, you need to be both passionate and dogged,” Cornell (seen below) told me. “There’s a misconception out there that if you don’t recover stolen cargo in 48 to 72 hours, you’ll never see it again. We’ve actually made recoveries 30 days, 60 days, even a year later. That’s why you’ve got to be willing to not let go of a case.”

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Inevitably, too, cases will link up as cargo thieves use the same illicit transportation networks and hiding spots to move stolen cargo. “That’s why you’ve got to have patience and a willingness to keep ‘cold cases’ alive in the back of your head, so to speak” Cornell explained. “We’ve found on more than one occasion solving one crime gives us pieces of information to solve another.”

Yet clients hold some of the most important cards in cargo theft investigations, he stressed, so it’s important for them to realize that they need to remain active participants right from the moment a crime occurs.

“They need to notify us as soon as the cargo is stolen,” Cornell emphasized. “If it’s stolen Saturday, don’t wait to call us on Monday. As I said, we’re open 24/7 and we need to move immediately on it.”

Clients must also gather every possible piece of information they can about the cargo and equipment involved in the crime and make it available to SIG’s agents. “Trailer license numbers and tractor vehicle identification numbers (VINs) are critical, as are bills of lading and other cargo paperwork,” he said.

“I can’t stress the immediacy of transferring that information enough,” Cornell added. “Once we had a client’s load stolen in Texas pulled over in Florida for a traffic violation. If we’d had the trailer information, we could have helped law enforcement make an arrest right there. But we didn’t.”

That’s one reason behind the development of the CargoNet information sharing system that went live earlier this year.

A division of Verisk's ISO Crime Analytics unit, CargoNet helps prevent cargo theft and increases recovery rates through secure and controlled information sharing between theft victims, their business partners, and law enforcement.

Centered around a national database and information-sharing system managed by crime analysts and subject-matter experts, CargoNet applies an integrated, layered approach that exploits the weakness of cargo thieves at multiple points and includes: integrated databases, a theft alert system, task force and investigations support, a tractor/trailer theft deterrence program, the TruckStopWatch program, driver education and incentives, secondary-market monitoring and interdictions, crime trend analysis and loss control services, plus training and education.

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Its tools like this that will help law enforcement and private investigators alike close down cargo theft operations, Cornell noted.

Finally, Cornell stressed that Traveler’s clients must still file a police report on stolen goods, even if they’ve alerted his agents and passed on the details of the crime. “We can tell you who to call, cutting through the bureaucracy to make the process easier, but we can’t file such a report for clients,” he said.

On a brighter note, Cornell thinks the transportation industry as a whole – including shippers and carriers alike – has turned a corner of sorts in the battle against cargo thieves.

“We’re really starting to coordinate and concentrate our investigative and preventive efforts on a national basis now industry-wide,” he said. “The goal now is to make the public more aware of the problem and get them involved. That’s what will really help us stop cargo crime in the long run.”

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