September 14, 2022

A Day in the Life of an Investigator: Équité Association’s Cargo Theft and Recovery Program

Cargo theft is not a new problem, but criminal networks are becoming more sophisticated, both in their organization and in approach to trucking crime, as well as their distribution methods. Due to these thefts being low risk, high reward, they continue to be a significant problem across the country and are habitually connected to organized crime activities including, drug trade, gun trade, and even terrorist fundraising.

Earlier this year, a tractor-trailer, shipping firearms from a manufacturer in Peterborough to the US, was stolen. The next day, local police found the truck in an industrial area in Brampton but its trailer, containing more than 2000 guns, was still missing. As cargo thieves often target trucks loaded with easy-to-sell consumer products, they may not have been aware of this particular truck’s contents. While it is possible that the thieves did not specifically target the firearms, the incident demonstrates the ability for criminals to gain access to dangerous goods and is just one reason why this type of crime puts Canadians at risk.

It is estimated that, each year, thefts of cargo alone cost the Canadian economy several billions of dollars. In fact, Équité Association recovered $16.8M worth of stolen cargo last year alone through its cargo program, the highest amount to date. “We're on track to break records in all categories for theft,” says Wayne Hummel, a cargo and auto theft investigator with Équité. More than half of Canada’s cargo thefts occur in Ontario – Mississauga and Brampton have some of the highest losses for North America.

With only two dedicated police cargo units in Canada, this type of theft is an enticing venture for criminals since it offers high profit margins and results in minimal sentencing, if caught. It is often a complex operation with various levels of responsibility in terms of execution. The boots-on-the-ground individuals tend to be at the bottom of the hierarchy. “The guys that are stealing the loads are not capable of running an operation of this magnitude, ”explains an Équité, in reference to cargo theft in general. “But what they do is steal it, drop it someplace for the person who has paid them, and leave it there.”

When looking for cargo to steal, thieves want products they can turnover quickly and go relatively unnoticed. They often target mixed loads, where the goods are easy to market immediately and blend seamlessly onto store shelves. Tires are always on the target list, especially prior to spring and winter seasonal changes. Criminals also often target unattended cargo because the risk is relatively low. Ties to organized crime provides thieves with a network to distribute stolen cargo easily, typically through illegal markets.

The cornerstone of Équité’s Cargo Theft and Recovery Program is the cargo database, which contains all reported thefts of trucks, trailers and cargo, or any combination thereof. As the only database in Canada of its kind, it is accessible to law enforcement around the clock, allowing investigators to identify stolen property as quickly as possible.

The sooner the cargo team can get the information into the database the better, particularly when police are working with a confidential informant. For example, if a police officer receives a tip from a citizen who believes someone is trying to sell her stolen tires, Équité may be able to match the description to stolen tires recorded in the database. If investigators can confirm the match in time, police are able to act on the tip. Once investigators recover stolen cargo, Équité takes control of it and works with its member insurers to repatriate the property to its rightful owners. Équité provides support to law enforcement by looking after, not only the removal of the recovered property, but the storage of it as well.

While Équité collects the majority of its loss information from law enforcement, it also receives reports from insurance companies, the trucking industry, manufacturers and retailers. In 2021 alone, Équité’s cargo recovery team issued 1,582 theft alerts. Équité’s records have also helped insurers to recover property they believed was lost forever. “We've recovered property in warehouses that was stolen four years ago, ”says Mr. Hummel. “It was obviously stuff [thieves] could not offload at the time and maybe just got buried under new stuff coming in.”

Long haul truck driving is grueling work, and drivers tend to take breaks at rest stations along Ontario’s main highway. Thieves take advantage of the situation and often steal loads at places such as parking lots and rest stops. “Because there are so many trucks and trailers parked there, they can have their choice.” Mr. Hummel notes.

Trucking companies often ask Équité cargo investigators what they can do to protect their property.  “The first thing I tell them is that a load at rest is a load at risk,” explains Mr. Hummel. “If you leave a load unattended, it is going to get stolen. It really is just that simple.” Criminals also target online brokers who hire unknown drivers to deliver cargo on behalf of their clients. Criminals will bid on jobs and use forged identification and insurance documents to secure the deal. Équité investigators have seen 42 cargo loads lost to phony drivers over the last two and a half years and estimate there may be many more that have gone unreported.

Despite the record number of theft alerts issued last year, Équité still managed to recover almost half of the cargo, trucks, trailers and heavy equipment reported stolen, making the Cargo Theft and Recovery program a valuable service to members and law enforcement partners alike. Equally valuable though, is the role the program plays in protecting Canadians from the effects of insurance fraud and crime, and in making Canada a more equitable place for all, one recovered cargo load at a time.