Thieves have been taking off with truckloads of tree nuts valued as much as a half million dollars, and catching the crooks has been next to impossible.
“It’s called fictitious pickup,” Western Agricultural Processors Association President and CEO Roger Isom says, adding that this isn’t your run-of-the-mill thief at work. “This is a very sophisticated crime ring or maybe multiple crime rings operating out of the Los Angeles area.”
The thieves have hacked into the Department of Transportation’s shipping database, they’re getting information from shipping and trucking companies’ Facebook pages so they can identify drivers, and they’re forging documents. All this legwork makes them come across as quite legitimate when they come to pick up a load of almonds, pistachios, or walnuts.
Often, the forged documents will include “burner” cell phone numbers. When a processor or shipper calls the number, they’re talking to one of the thieves posing as a legitimate driver, but by the time they realize the load has been stolen, that phone and number have been discarded without a trace.
Another sneaky method the thieves have cooked up is to pretend to be the nut processor and call the drivers who legitimately picked up loads. They tell the driver they discovered a problem with the load and ask him to drop it off at another facility for inspection. The driver does as he’s told, and three days later the company finds out the load never made it to its final destination.
“Unlike your TVs or your stereos or computers, there are no serial numbers on this stuff,” Isom notes.
In the rare instances where product has been found, it’s been in locations all across the country, and even in Eastern Europe. “By that time, it’s so far gone down the road, there’s no way to capture them.”
Isom says the tree nut thefts have picked up within the last six months. Nuts have become very expensive, which makes them a prime target. But a big part of the problem is that there’s little punishment for those responsible for committing crimes of this nature. In 2014, California passed Proposition 47, which classifies “non-serious, nonviolent crimes” as misdemeanors instead of felonies, as long as the defendant doesn’t have prior serious convictions.
In addition, when an empty trailer is found in Los Angeles, the crime is considered to have taken place there. In Los Angeles, something like nut theft falls pretty low on the list of priorities when it comes to prosecuting criminals.
If the criminals are caught – “and that’s a big if,” Isom says, “the most time these guys are doing is two to three weeks in the county jail. They’re not going to state prison, they’re not going to the federal penitentiary, they’re not doing any time like that, so there’s really no deterrent.”
To make matter worse, insurance isn’t covering these thefts. Because the criminals are picking up the loads illegitimately but without any violence, it’s considered the processor’s negligence. “You have to buy a specific policy for this type of theft,” Isom says.
Although all California-grown tree nuts have been targeted, pistachios have taken the biggest hit. One truckload can be worth as much as $500,000, Isom says. Even cashews imported to California and processed in the state have been stolen.
Communication issues have also made matters worse. Trucking companies often don’t want the news to spread that they’ve been ripped off, and neither do many of the processing facilities. And, when thefts were reported to local authorities, the news of those thefts didn’t make it to neighboring law enforcement departments, so there has been little collaboration to try and thwart the thieves.
In December, a summit was held with industry stakeholders, law enforcement officials, and others to come up with a game plan. Ultimately, it comes down to due diligence at the processor level, Isom says.
“You have to know exactly who’s coming to pick up that load, and verify that was the guy that was there to pick up the load,” he notes. “Then you’ve got to do additional due diligence to make sure that load gets to the point it’s supposed to within the allotted timeframe, whether that’s using tracking devices, or whether you’re in constant communication with that driver and delivery point. And, if at any point any of that breaks down, then you need to be on the phone immediately.”
Here are some additional tips for avoiding cargo theft.