What is cargo theft

Cargo theft is the situation where perpetrators are stealing trucks and transport trailers full of merchandise, which can be worth thousands of dollars, they offload the cargo, parcel it and sell it for a quick profit. This often occurs before the crime is even reported.

The official definition by FBI sees cargo theft as “the criminal taking of any cargo including, but not limited to, goods, chattels, money, or baggage that constitutes, in whole or in part, a commercial shipment of freight moving in commerce.”


Forms and tactics

-Direct thefts: In these situations, thieves steal physically cargo from a location where it sits, and they sell it quickly. Think truck stops, parking lots, roadside parking, drop lots and other areas where cargo could be left unattended, especially in store parking lots or empty lots on weekends.

-Burglaries: This refers to when thieves break into a truck yard, a shipping or other facility and forcibly enter trailers and containers searching for commodities to steal.

-Fictitious thefts: Perpetrators present themselves as legitimate drivers and boldly enter container terminals or other relevant facilities with counterfeit papers, in order to gain access to and make off with goods.

-From the ‘inside’: Company employees with knowledge of a particular shipment that is loaded into a specific trailer or container may provide detailed cargo and transportation information to a cargo-theft operation in preparation for a theft.

-Hijacks and piracy: In trucks, most hijackings occur while a driver is away on a break and the vehicle is parked. A 2018 report on cargo theft by TT Club and BSI identified cargo truck hijackings as the primary type of cargo theft in the Middle East and Africa. In the maritime industry, piracy in the form of hijacking has been traditionally linked with cargo theft, especially for oil theft, and is most common in African waters. According to IMB figures, three vessels were hijacked in the first half of 2019, all in the Gulf of Guinea.

-Cyber fraud: Cargo theft is one of the frauds that can be achieved through typical cyber-attacks. Social engineering and fake identities are among the most common practices facilitating the theft, while thieves may also breach systems to track systems or amend documents. See here IMO’s Interim Guidelines on Maritime Cyber Risk Management.


Statistics & trends

  1. The lack of secure parking for cargo trucks in Europe: The cargo theft report 2018 by TT Club and BSI, as well as an EU Commission study published earlier in 2019, both emphasized the lack of sufficient numbers of such parking spaces across Europe.
  2. India and China accounted for most of the recorded cargo thefts in Asia in 2018, according to BSI and TT Club. Cargo thieves in these two countries are similar in profile and employ a wide range of tactics.
  3. Cargo truck hijackings were reported in almost every country in South America during 2018. Brazil specifically continues to suffer from the highest rate of cargo truck hijackings in the world, with annual incident numbers totaling in the tens of thousands.
  4. South Africa saw a 6% increase in the number of cargo truck hijackings in 2018, driven primarily by a 109% increase in incidents in Western Cape over the previous year.
  5. Thefts of unattended cargo trucks are mostly recorded in North America, such as the US and Canada, while violent hijackings are typical in Mexico and the majority of Central America.

Did you know?

  • Globally, the average number of cargo theft incidents per day was 15 in 2018.
  • Food and beverages industry accounts for the most commodities stolen, followed by alcohol and tobacco.
  • Only truck theft in Europe alone amounted to €11.3 billion in 2013.
  • Majority of incidents happen between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m and during holidays or weekends.
  • Most of the small-scale cargo theft crimes go unreported.

Current measures

A series of initiatives have already shed focus on mitigating this phenomenon.

The Transported Asset Protection Association (TAPA), a coalition fighting against cargo crime, has published security standards, such as Freight Security Requirements, Truck Security Requirements, and Parking Security Requirements, while TAPA Supply Chain Cyber Security Standard and TSR Modular standard are currently in the development phase.

In a bid to respond to the alarming trend of cargo theft, the German Insurance Association (GDV) has developed a manual for the construction and operation of high-security truck parks.

Meanwhile, in response to the lack of secure parking places in Europe, the EU Commission launched an expert group which elaborates on how to tackle this problem and increase the number of safe truck parking spaces.

The EU-funded initiative “Project Roadsec”, launched in early 2018, provides a security toolkit for truck drivers offering hands-on guidance in various languages.

Many other initiatives such as “Project CARGO” in Germany, France, Czech Republic, Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark and Austria, “Operation Grafton” in the UK, the “fight against transport crime in the Netherlands” and the 2012 initiative in Colombia have also proven successful.



There is no one size fits all solution to the threat of cargo theft. However, taking into consideration research from IUMI, TT Club and BSI, there are some general guidelines that law enforcement agencies and the logistics industry can follow to minimize cargo theft:

-To authorities:

  • Establish transnational cooperation between law enforcement agencies, which could allow agents to work with their peers in other states to enable solving of cross-jurisdictional cases.
  • Exchange best practices across borders on local initiatives.
  • Increase of police presence in truck parking areas and cargo storage facilities, especially at night, weekends and holidays. Notably, cargo theft increases by 40% on holiday weekends.

-To companies:

  • Create a network of high-security, accessible and affordable truck parks.
  • Identify security risks and countermeasures to lower such risks in the supply chain.
  • Provide training to staff with specific emphasis on cargo theft awareness and prevention.
  • Insurers should be working closely with shippers and transportation provider clients to develop viable loss prevention tactics.
  • Conduct comprehensive threat assessments to determine the threat landscape.
  • Give specific attention to cyber fraud.
  • Conduct vetting to third-party providers.