Technology Can Help Deter Cargo Theft, Experts Say

J.J. Coughlin
J.J. Coughlin by Noël Fletcher/Transport Topics

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DALLAS — Hidden GPS trackers installed with freight loads and mobile apps that transmit trip details to carriers are being deployed to deter a rise in fake businesses, stolen company identities and scam purchase orders that aim to help thieves steal cargo, experts said.

“It is important to understand how it can happen, and understand what you’re doing,” said J.J. Coughlin, a security consultant and founder and chairman of Southwest Transportation Security Council, a nonprofit organization that facilitates information sharing and networking between law enforcement and the transportation industry. “This stuff happens way more than people think.”

Coughlin, who has worked in transportation security since retiring from the Dallas Police Department in 1997, discussed ways to counter cargo theft during a presentation at the Accelerate! Conference and Expo hosted by Women In Trucking Association. His company, Texas Security Solutions, helps firms monitor and protect cargo.

“I can get on my computer right now and I can build a trucking company,” he said. “Then I go on load boards and start bidding on loads. I get a load, then I go pick it up. I just take what they give me and I just don’t deliver it.”

Coughlin added, “I can pick out from a load board a lot of times what the product is, and a lot of times I can get five or six loads before they get onto me,” and said fictitious or fraudulent cargo pickups and stolen identities of existing companies are “probably the hottest thing right now.”

Citing an example, he said, “I had one company I worked with in Southern California that lost 11 loads in about 10 days, with four different carriers that were really all the same carriers — the same crooks. A lot of this is going on now, so you have to be really, really careful.”

Other cargo crimes range from surveillance and theft of specific goods to crimes of opportunity by local thieves who target unsecured areas and trailers in low-security or unattended areas. Burglaries are also occurring at smaller less-than-truckload terminals on weekends. With fraudulent purchase orders, callers claiming to be from a legitimate carrier place an order at an independent warehouse. From there it is directed to a port, “never to be seen again,” Coughlin said.

“A lot of guys who understand freight — and how freight gets staged overnight — will target those smaller locations because they have less security, and because they’re basically an easy mark,” he said. “I try to get LTL companies not to stage freight in unsecured areas, or those with only a fence.”

Coughlin said fighting cargo theft requires companies to create processes, collect information and have data ready for law enforcement if the need arises.

“I’ve had a lot of companies call me and say, ‘Hey, we just had a tractor-trailer stolen.’ I say, ‘OK, send me the information like the license plate number, the tractor-trailer number, all this stuff.’ They say, ‘I have to get that from the carrier or so-and-so.’ Well, your stuff is going down the road at a high rate of speed and nobody knows what to look for.”

Shippers can play a key role in cargo security, Coughlin said. He suggested shippers document and photocopy all information on a commercial driver license (including the state) and cross-reference the name on the CDL with other identification.

“If someone starts to come in your yard to steal your stuff on a fictitious pickup, if you start taking his fingerprint and you start taking his picture, he’s not really going to want to be coming up,” he noted.

Other deterrence measures include:

  • Mobile apps and software for taking photos of cargo; uploading data in real time; scanning bar codes; tracking bills of lading.
  • Install electric or smart fencing around perimeters of terminal yards
  • Have smart analytic cameras that send alerts for movements and allow you to “talk down to the crook” from a remote location
  • Explore advanced locking technologies (remote, keyless and managed entry) for gate control.

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“Lots of apps can be used to check trucks in and out,” Coughlin said. “A bunch of them out here allow your workers to capture information and submit it to the cloud so it can be regurgitated quickly. If you have somebody steal your tractor-trailer, you can just pull [the data] right up and send it.”

He also recommended use of single-shipment or disposable GPS-managed devices to gain visibility on shipments. These can help combat full truckload thefts if placed covertly inside a load, Coughlin said.

“If thieves steal it, I can find them before they can find my GPS,” he noted. “And they can’t jam it unless they can get right on top of it.”