CHICAGO A CAPITAL FOR CARGO THIEVES
CHICAGO A CAPITAL FOR CARGO THIEVES
2005-12-02 at 11:12:00 am #13217
Chicago a capital for cargo thieves
In this international transport hub, criminals steal by the truckload
The first of 15 stolen trailers arrived in February, loaded with $300,000 in Goodyear tires. The next month brought a $20,000 load of prescription drugs.
Still more stolen goods rolled into a bogus warehouse opened by cops as a sting: Crooks brought them liquor, canned tuna, Canon copiers and hot tubs. Furniture and computer printers, cookies and car parts, all lifted by the truckload.
After $60,000 in stolen sweatshirts pulled up Aug. 16, the Will County-based task force shuttered the warehouse and arrested the thieves who had filled it.
Their take: $2.2 million in recovered merchandise over six months.
It was a huge victory in a fight against cargo theft, a growing criminal enterprise thought to involve billions of dollars in stolen goods nationwide, millions in Chicago. But then the undercover cops in the Tri-County Auto Theft Unit went back to chasing stolen cars. Cargo theft returned to the back burner.
“The reality is, there’s no concerted effort to target this. We deal with it, but it’s not our primary objective,” said Will County sheriff’s police Sgt. William Mort.
Increasingly, law enforcement has realized nobody is.
Nationwide, the cargo industry and FBI estimate $10 billion to $15 billion in goods slip away from cargo docks, warehouses and truck lots in the U.S. each year, joining a river of stolen commerce that continues to swell.
Compared to the revenues of Fortune 500 companies, cargo theft ranks just behind Anheuser-Busch in annual business, alongside U.S. Steel and Samsung.
Ultimately consumers pay for that. Commercial security experts and law enforcement officials estimate this dry-land piracy could add as much as 20 percent to the cost of a computer, 5 percent to a designer shirt.
Most cargo these days is shipped in standard-sized steel containers, which can be loaded onto trucks, trains or ships. The equivalent of about 12 million of those cargo containers pass through the Chicago area each year, according to the Chicago Area Transportation Study, making the region the third-busiest freight-transfer point in the world, behind Hong Kong and Singapore.
Along the way, goods are lost, stolen or diverted to the black market. The contents of entire containers make their way into shady stores in city neighborhoods far from where they’re stolen, or they are sold online. Police say many of us buy into this black market when we find an impossibly good deal.
As with cargo, the Chicago region is a hub for cargo theft. But since 2001, when federal assets were diverted to anti-terrorism efforts, investigators say they have fewer resources to chase after cargo thieves.
“I think we were doing a really good job prior to Sept. 11, but since then our priorities have changed,” said Special Agent Pamelia Stratton of the FBI’s Philadelphia office, an cargo crime expert. “The problem with that is … police departments have other crimes that are more important–murder, rape–that may affect their citizens more than cargo theft would.”
The Illinois State Police say annual trailer thefts in Illinois, which include cargo heists, increased by 53 percent between 1995 and 2004, to more than a thousand last year. Investigators say cargo thefts have also grown more complex, and the loads more valuable.
Illinois’ biggest single cargo heist, an Aurora warehouse burglary in 2002, took days to complete. Thieves started their assault well in advance by rigging hinges to come apart in seconds. On the night of the burglary, they cut alarm wires and intentionally tripped motion detectors until security guards were convinced the alarm system was malfunctioning.
With security systems thwarted, the thieves moved straight for several pallets of camcorders, and drove off with them into the night. All told, they took $7.2 million in goods.
A string of evidence led to a Web site where the goods were being sold and a warehouse in Miami where some of the camcorders were stored. Authorities recovered some merchandise, but never made any arrests.
The story of that heist comes from Alan Spear, a nightclub pianist, church organist and president of MRC Investigations, a firm that investigates cargo cases for insurers.