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NBC 5 Investigates: DFW Leads Nation in Cargo Thefts

Rare photos and video show the scale of these crimes and how costly they can be

(Published Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016)

An NBC 5 Investigation found Dallas-Fort Worth is now one of the worst spots in the country for cargo theft.

New video lifts the veil on the shadowy world of thieves who target big trucks. Some of the stuff they’re stealing could wind up on the dinner table or medicine cabinet, raising big safety concerns.

Just one stolen trailer full of cargo can net the crooks millions of dollars – depending on what’s inside.

Investigators agreed to give NBC 5 Investigates access to photos and videos showing the scale of these crimes, how they costly they can be and why police in Texas are struggling to keep up.

“They’re running a business and their business is to steal this stuff,” said Spence Gates, a police detective with Grand Prairie Police Department.

Police in Grand Prairie discovered a virtual shipping center run by a suspected cargo theft ring.

"We are a major hub," said Gates.

Police video obtained by NBC 5 Investigates shows pallets of soft drinks and other popular products apparently stolen by an organized group that drove off with entire trucks. Other cargo crooks simply break into trailers.

Videos provided by Travelers Insurance show how thieves use bolt cutters to crack open locks and then go "trailer shopping," tearing open boxes in search of specific items they can sell.

“These folks are smart. They know what they’re after,” said National Insurance Crime Bureau special agent, Phillip Harris.

Harris has seen it all including a truckload of stolen cowboy boots worth more than a million dollars, stolen diet supplements and giant arcade games.

But the most popular items for thieves are beverages and food.

One truckload of stolen beef was intercepted, bound for a black market sale to a Dallas restaurant.

“You know the people that steal this stuff and sell it, do you think they care about the date it expires? No.” said cargo theft expert, JJ Coughlin.

Coughlin said stolen food and drugs are often sold online or in mom-and-pop stores putting unsuspecting customers at risk.

The companies that lose the cargo often pass on the cost to consumers.

“If you buy a TV you’ll be paying $5 extra because of the loss. You buy food you’re paying so much more,” said Coughlin.

“Cargo theft is costing this country $25 billion every year,” said Harris.

When you map out the crimes, the Dallas and Fort Worth area is one of the nation’s worst hot spots according to CargoNet, an industry group that tracks cargo theft across the country. Statistics show Texas is one of the top three states in the country for cargo theft because so much high-dollar cargo travels Texas highways.

Despite big losses across the state, many local police departments don’t have investigators with special training to work cargo cases and Texas does not have a statewide cargo theft task force to target the bad guys. Florida is the only state that has such a statewide force.

“There’s really low risk that you’re going to get caught, for the most part, at least in some jurisdictions,” said Fred Lohmann with the National Insurance Crime Bureau.

Lohmann doesn’t believe there are enough police dedicated to dealing with the problem.

Shippers are turning to companies like LoJack Supply Chain Integrity. They track trucks from command center in the DFW area, using technology that sounds an alert if a truck veers from its scheduled route.

The insurance industry is fighting back as well. Travelers Insurance is providing police with bait trailers, wired with cameras to catch crooks in action.

"The best thing you can do is keep the cargo moving," said truck driver, Gary Babbit.

Truckers like Babbit are avoiding extra stops and watching their backs.

"I’m looking for suspicious vehicles that may have been following me for quite a while," said Babbit.

Truck yards are installing cameras to catch thieves, like the ones caught on camera at a truck yard in Grand Prairie managed by Angelo Chokas. Surveillance video caught thieves slamming into a fence as they stole a rig in broad daylight.

"I mean they’re in and out of that truck. It’s kind of like that movie ‘Gone in 60 Seconds.’ It’s actually less than 60," said Chokas.

Grand Prairie is one of a handful of local cities with officers dedicated to cargo cases and they’ve already made number of major arrests.

“We have to start somewhere. We’ve got to fix the problem,” said Gates.

Industry leaders said they need help across the state.

“Now we need more boots on the ground to get the job done,” said Lohmann.

Creating a statewide task force to battle cargo theft would require action from the Texas legislature. The state already collects a $2 fee on auto insurance policies to fund an auto theft task force which investigates some truck theft cases where entire rigs are stolen.

Last year the state collected about $44 million from those auto insurance policy fees.  Under state law about $22 million of that money could be appropriated to the auto theft task force.  But the legislature chose to appropriate only  $15 million to the auto theft task force.

Some in the insurance industry have suggested a portion of the remaining funds could be used to target cargo theft.

NBC5 Investigates asked the top two legislators in charge of the budget process if they would support such a move.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman, Senator Jane Nelson told us she would like to see more data first.  Nelson pointed to a Legislative Budget Board report that raised questions about the effectiveness of the state's auto theft task force.  In a statement Sen. Nelson said, "....we have to make sure every dollar we spend is achieving results. Questions have been raised about how these funds are actually being used, and we need better data moving forward."

House Appropriations Committee Chairman, Rep. John Otto, provided a statement saying, "In light of the national increase in cargo theft and Texas' undesirable status as a top cargo theft state, we will continue to review the Department of Motor Vehicles and its grantees to ensure that the state is appropriating sufficient resource to fight cargo theft."

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