Lock, Stock, and Barrel: How Secure is Your Cargo?

When it comes to protecting shipments from theft, businesses have an arsenal of tools at their disposal. From high-tech tracking and monitoring to basic intrusion prevention, these devices and technologies, combined with common-sense security practices, can help thwart cargo thieves.

It’s every shipper’s nightmare: A supposedly full container arrives at the loading dock empty. You’ve been a victim of cargo theft.

Cargo theft costs the United States $60 billion per year, according to The International Cargo Security Council. This estimate, however, does not capture the indirect costs—such as lost sales, production downtime, and missed deliveries—associated with theft.

Trends indicate cargo theft is on the rise and high-tech, high-value products, specifically consumer electronics, are at great risk. Other industries such as alcohol, tobacco, and pharmaceuticals face the possibility of their products being sold to minors or being counterfeited, in addition to financial losses.


Your company can take a number of actions to improve the security of your facilities and vehicles. Whether it’s making use of a wide range of available security devices and technologies, or leveraging some common-sense security practices, there are ways to help prevent and mitigate losses associated with cargo theft.

1. Create an electronic data trail. Advances in technology have improved the ability of businesses and law enforcement to prevent cargo theft and recover stolen merchandise. In fact, the demand from businesses and the general public for supply chain visibility has helped drive the availability

Many of these technologies rely on GPS tracking to determine a vehicle’s location. Telematics, or vehicle communications, also provide real-time delivery data. RFID and bar-code scanning can provide item-level detail. Finally, handheld devices can provide an electronic proof of delivery.

All these technologies, which are designed to provide supply chain visibility, offer added security benefits by creating an electronic data trail.

The use of GPS and onboard telematics has improved the vehicle recovery process and may deter less-sophisticated criminals. While onboard tracking systems claim their share of success stories, these technologies are frequently defeated as criminals adapt to a hardening of the transportation network. Covert installations and independent backup systems are often used to make these tools more difficult to defeat.

Geofencing is a concept used to draw a virtual barrier around a vehicle’s route. If the vehicle travels outside this barrier, the system sends a security alarm to warn of a possible theft. Geofencing can also be used to alert fleet owners when a vehicle enters high-risk areas or known delivery locations.

The technologies available to prevent and detect cargo theft are constantly evolving. Equipment manufacturers and after-market providers offer technologies that make it more difficult to steal a parked vehicle and detect its unauthorized movement. Vehicle immobilization technology, for example, can be used to remotely disable a stolen vehicle and aid in its recovery.

In addition, systems are currently available that can detect or even prevent a vehicle’s cargo door from being opened unless the vehicle is in an authorized location.

2. Use low-tech theft prevention tools. You don’t always need to invest in sophisticated, expensive technology to prevent cargo theft. Low-tech options abound. Determine what works best for your operation, risk level, and budget.

A variety of locks are available to secure the vehicle and its cargo. These include:

  • King pin locks that are installed on the king pin of a de-coupled trailer and prevent another tractor from coupling with the trailer.
  • Air brake valve locks that lock the air brake valves inside the cab and prevent the release of the air brakes.
  • Glad hand locks that lock the airline on a trailer.

Seals can also be used as a theft deterrent. The International Standards Organization defines three categories of seals:

  • Indicative seals are easily broken but can be used to indicate whether tampering has occurred.
  • Security seals provide limited resistance to intrusion and require lightweight tools to remove.
  • High-security seals are constructed of metal or a metal cable that requires heavy-duty tools such as bolt cutters to remove. High-security seals are designed to delay intrusion and are commonly used on international shipments.

It is not uncommon for thieves to remove doors and hinges to access cargo areas without breaking the seal. Therefore, seals must be coupled with a thorough conveyance inspection process to determine whether thieves have tampered with the doors or attempted to break in.

In addition, carefully tracking and confirming seal numbers at the beginning and end of each trip ensures that seals are not broken and replaced.

3. Implement cargo safety best practices. Regardless of what security devices or systems you decide to use, no single method can prevent cargo theft. An effective security program must be well-planned and combine technology with robust security procedures and fundamental security practices.

Here are some steps you can take to protect your investments:

Stay alert. Be aware of possible surveillance being conducted on your facility’s operation. Watch for signs such as vehicles parked outside or within view of the facility; individuals holding cameras or taking notes outside your facility; unauthorized personnel inside the facility or walking the perimeter; or vehicles (usually mini-vans or SUVs, especially those with two or more occupants) that appear to be following your drivers.

Respond. Because criminals can move stolen goods quickly, immediately report all suspicious activity and/or theft to management and law enforcement officials. Respond to every alarm. Frequent “false alarms”—including attempted facility entries or break-ins—may be a sign that suspicious individuals are testing the facility’s security system and law enforcement response times.

Manage information. Do not share information on cargo or procedures with anyone not involved in the operation. Limit load information to parties who need to know. Maintain inventory control. Unusual changes in inventory levels may help alert you that something is awry.

Know your supply chain. Know the carrier and driver scheduled to pick up your cargo and verify their identity before you release the load. Monitor delivery schedules and routes, and be suspicious of overdue shipments or out-of-route journeys. Review your supply chain partners’ security procedures and know where your cargo will stop along its route.

Execute basic safety practices. Keep trucks locked and park them in an organized manner on a well-lit facility lot. Ensure alarm systems are functioning properly, and are monitored by a central station that has updated contact information. Make sure your central station is capable of detecting telephone line interruptions. Communicate to driver teams that one person must remain with the vehicle at all times. Review security at your site regularly and quickly address maintenance and repair issues.

Screen and train employees. Cargo theft is often perpetrated with inside help. Rigorous pre-employment screening will help weed out those most likely to steal merchandise from a warehouse, loading dock, or truck.

After screening, communicate security awareness information and location-specific security rules to employees and carriers. In addition, regularly provide security training to employees, covering basic topics such as their role in the security system, how to report security incidents, and how to recognize internal conspiracies and suspicious activities.

In addition to preventing theft, making investments in security—from hard costs associated with technology and systems, to training and resources—will ultimately improve supply chain efficiency, customer satisfaction, and bottom-line results.

— Bill Anderson is group director, global security for Ryder System, Inc.

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