Clogged U.S. supply chains lead to cargo theft

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As U.S. merchants grapple with clogged ports as well a shortage of truck drivers, warehouse workers and front-line employees, the supply-chain snarls are leading to another concern as the pandemic drags on: cargo theft.

“The more that the supply chain in general is backed up, the more cargo you're going to have sitting. And that creates a bigger opportunity for thefts,” Scott Cornell, a crime and theft specialist at insurance giant Travelers, told CBS MoneyWatch.

This year, the prime targets of thieves are electronics amid the chip shortage and refrigerated food, according to figures from CargoNet, a division of Verisk Analytics, which tracks thefts along the supply chain for companies, agencies and others.

Through September, California topped the list of states with the most reported cargo thefts, followed by Texas and Florida. On the West Coast, a computer chip shortage means the value of some electronic goods that are available, like game consoles, is rising, experts said. On the East Coast, refrigerated trucks used to transport food have been a favorite target of thieves this year.

Roughly $45 million in cargo thefts were reported through September, according to CargoNet. That compares with almost $68 million for all of 2020 when thieves targeted toilet paper and personal protective equipment. In 2019, before the pandemic, some $49 million in cargo theft was reported, according to figures provided by CargoNet. The accelerated pace of theft is expected to continue through 2022.

No end in sight

“What we're going to see next year is probably going to be similar to what we're going to see this year, as far as electronics and the same type of commodities,” said Keith Lewis, who oversees CargoNet's operations. “I don't see us coming out of that for a few years.”

Still, thieves aren't doing the most damage in ports or rail yards, Lewis said. Instead, more merchandise disappears from trucks by way of pilferage — when thieves steal only part of a supply load from parked vehicles, whether it be a few palates or part of a palate, as truckers stop on their way to a distribution center or warehouse.

Pilferage is particularly difficult to track because often drivers don't notice the missing cargo until a stop long after theft occurs – so they don't know which law enforcement entity to report the theft, experts said.

Take goods moving from California to Texas. Drivers tend to make four to five stops along the route. Thieves typically take only part of the load. Often, drivers won't notice missing goods until the end of the route when they unload, Cornell said. Because they don't know where goods were stolen, reporting where thefts take place can be difficult, experts said.

So the driver won't “have any idea where that happened,” Cornell said. “So now the questions become, ‘who do we report this to?' Well, if you can't tell somebody where it happened, you don't really have anybody to report it to.”

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