May 2006 | How-To | Ten Tips

Selecting the Right Cargo Security Seals

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Between terrorist threats and criminals looking to swindle goods, cargo security seals have grown increasingly more important—and more sophisticated. Companies can now choose from a variety of mechanical and electronic seal options to protect their freight. To help narrow the choices, Erik Hoffer of CGM Applied Security Technologies Inc., a unit of New Jersey-based Digital Descriptor Systems, offers 10 tips for selecting the right cargo seals.

1. Understand what you are protecting. Companies need to evaluate the nature and level of threats to their cargo and/or vehicles. Are you worried about theft or tampering? Do you own the goods or are you simply liable for theft or potential damage? Perform historical research on your products' vulnerability to theft, your carriers' theft history, and your supply chain vulnerability as it relates to packaging and unit volume. Evaluate each seal category for its relative effectiveness in the environment and conditions in which it will be used.

2. Determine the value of your loads to thieves or terrorists. Some products are more likely than others to be stolen. High-priced computer equipment, drugs, electronics and machinery are attractive to thieves, while terrorists may target explosives, gases, or corrosives. Where products fall on that scale can help determine the type and strength of seal you need. Different security threats require different seals. Many hazmat items, for instance, travel in tankers. Hatch seals for vehicle tankers require cables, but tanker railcars have built-in locking mechanisms that can only be opened with specialized tools. In these cases, a less robust steel cable seal should suffice.

3. Educate yourself about seals. How can you know what type of seal you need if you don't understand their differences? Indicative, barrier, and electronic seals are most commonly used. Indicative seals change shape or visual composition when tampered with, while locking bars and cable seals cannot be re-secured if cut. In both cases, it is necessary to visually inspect the seal, compare its numeric identifier, and determine if it was manipulated during transit. Bolt seals, lock bars, and cable seals are barrier seals but physical properties are not the criteria to judge their ability to defend your load. The seal's placement on the door is the main criteria for effectiveness. Electronic seals are embedded with an RFID chip that provides tracking capability, but they rarely provide physical barrier security.

4. Analyze your shipping modes. Do you move products via trailer, container, pallet, or small parcel? Perhaps you use a combination of shipping containers? The transport mode you use to ship products determines what kind of seal you need. For shipping small packages, such as jewelry, computer chips, or cameras, packaging seals—either self-adhesive seals or pallet-locking steel topp clips—enhance security and allow the consignee to see if a package was violated. When shipping a full truckload or containerload that moves from origin to destination without breakbulk, a locking bar or wrap-around cable seal effectively bundles the entire shipment. Pallet seals for these conditions are redundant and do not effectively secure the load. On the other hand, an LTL shipment of products such as pharmaceuticals or fragrances, is best secured by pallet covers and topp clips.

5. Get a handle on customs regulations. If you send shipments to international destinations, you need to understand Customs and Border Patrol's (CBP) shipping rules, and consequently purchase the correct seals. This is easier said than done. The recent ISO/PAS 17712 mandate, for example, requires carriers and shippers to secure cargo, but does not delineate any specific requirements for container shipments, or shipments that come from or go through Canada or Mexico. This mandate gives shippers a set of physical standards to adhere to but, as stated by ISO, they are minimum standards for seal choice, not seal application.

6. Analyze how easy a seal is to install and remove. It is challenging for many shippers to apply even a bolt seal correctly, and many consignees fail to understand how to inspect seals upon delivery. Though you may select a seal for its ability to secure a load, it does not mean your consignee will accept it. Provide carriers and consignees with training and a reasonable template to help them validate the seal at all times, and ensure that consignees have the proper tools and knowledge to remove the seal once a shipment is delivered. Select seals in concert with your carriers and consignees to help effectively protect the load, regardless of who has care and control of it.

7. Examine the seals' ability to be inspected outside the normal chain of freight custody. Can non-skilled inspectors look at the seal and understand that it was breached? Can an anomaly be easily detected even if the inspector is unskilled? Cable seals with expanding wrapped wires, for instance, will easily show a cut, just as a self-voiding indicative seal will say "opened" on its surface if anyone has attempted to remove it. Any aspect of the seal that can be implicitly understood as a possible breach is a positive factor in seal choice. If a seal is cumbersome or requires forensics to determine penetration or bypass, then it has limited utility as a security device.

8. Look beyond price. Too often, price is the deciding factor in seal selection. To ensure the security of freight in transit, you will have to spend money—it is simply a cost of doing business. Select seals based on their quality and appropriateness for your cargo type, shipping mode, and physical environment first, then shop price. Look for vendors who help customers choose the correct seal, and use them as a free resource.

9. Understand the accountability of seals at origin. If a seal can be replicated or if sequential numbers are not used, it can become suspect. Without sufficient standards for the issuance and control of the seals, their effectiveness is diminished. When one or more sealing method or product is employed simultaneously, inspectors can validate containment throughout the logistics cycle. Each packaging and bundling component needs its own unique seal type. When an indicative seal is used in combination with a barrier seal, both threats are easily addressed and the load remains exponentially more secure.

10. Investigate quality and solicit quotes and data. Invite seal manufacturers to talk with your staff and demonstrate their products. Have vendors explain their lock and seal techniques, then do your own "black hat" comparison before making a choice. Examine their seals' compatibility with CBP requirements and suitability to your supply chain. In addition, explore remedy with your insurance carrier. Underwriters will help steer you in the right direction. Do not choose seals in a vacuum, as you may not be up to date on your cargo's "threat de jour."

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