Nathan Bomey, USA TODAY
Published 12:01 a.m. ET Dec. 25, 2020
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The pandemic has even shifted the habits of thieves.
Cargo thefts of hard-to-find paper goods, personal protective equipment and food soared in 2020 as the black market for such items flourished during COVID-19.
Thieves have swiped everything from ventilators to toilet paper, according to data provided to USA TODAY by CargoNet, which tracks cargo loss incidents and advises authorities on how to avoid them. In some cases, organized criminals have targeted semi-trucks, while in other cases ordinary people have engaged in crimes of opportunity.
Recorded incidents of cargo thefts – ranging from major to minor incidents – increased 35% to 1,176 during the first 10 months of 2020, compared with the same period in 2019, according to CargoNet.
The biggest spikes occurred in April, May and June, when thefts increased 62% compared with the same period in 2019.
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Cargo containers are stacked on a ship at the Port of Los Angeles in Los Angeles on June 19, 2019. (Photo: Marcio Jose Sanchez, AP)
But thefts have increased every month, compared with a year earlier, including a 48% increase in September and 18% in October.
Keith Lewis, vice president of operations at Verisk Analytics-owned CargoNet, said the company has tracked a significant increase in “pilferages” – a crime that typically involves taking items from the back of a truck instead of stealing the entire rig.
The nation’s pandemic shortage of household paper goods led to a 130% increase in thefts of those items during the first 10 months of the year.
“Paper supplies, toilet paper, those types of things were just flying off the back of trailers at rest stops, truck stops and other parking lots,” Lewis said.
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In 10 cases, thieves made off with entire truckloads of paper goods, including three such incidents in the Dallas-Fort Worth area from late March through early June, according to CargoNet. The average truckload of paper goods is worth $15,000 to $40,000, the firm says.
With many stores facing shortages in the early months of the pandemic, cargo thefts of food and beverage products also jumped. There were 166 incidents of cargo theft of such items during the first 10 months of 2020, up 29% from the same period a year earlier. That made food and beverage items the most targeted category for thieves.
Thieves often aim for a truck stop where they can “take a few items off of each trailer” and then sell them to a buyer, such as a retailer that “can comingle it in their store and it doesn’t look like an anomaly,” Lewis said.
Organized crews of thieves
In many cases, thieves “are going to be organized crews” that target specific stops along roadways like the I-294 tollway in Illinois or the I-75 corridor in Florida, Lewis said.
With two or more people, it qualifies as organized crime, but that doesn’t mean they’re particularly sophisticated, he said.
It may be “two guys whose IQs don’t come up to room temperature together,” Lewis said.
Cargo thefts of pharmaceuticals and medical supplies – a crime that is usually rare due to tighter security protocols, Lewis said, doubled to 34. In many cases, thieves have stolen items like N95 masks that are valuable on the open market.
$1M worth of medical gloves
CargoNet tracked what it called 17 “large-scale thefts of medical supplies like personal protective equipment” in the first 10 months of 2020, averaging nearly $315,000 per incident. Many of those incidents occurred in California and Florida.
For example, on Oct. 25, thieves swiped millions of medical gloves from a container in Coral Springs, Florida. The haul, worth about $1 million, was later recovered after a tip called into the Medley Police Department led authorities to two warehouses where the stolen gloves were being housed. Two men were arrested in connection with the crime.
On Aug. 9, two Miami men are accused of having stolen 192 ventilators in Palm Beach County that were being sent to El Salvador to treat critically ill COVID-19 patients. Most of them were later recovered and the men were indicted after an FBI probe in coordination with local authorities, according to CargoNet.