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Cargo Thefts Are On The Rise, Despite Drop in Vehicle Thefts

It’s a tough time to be a car thief – the number of vehicles stolen in the United States has plummeted by more than half in the last 20 years. So you’d think it’s a pretty good time to be someone who tracks down car thieves, but at the International Association of Auto Theft Investigators conference, there were other concerns.

One of those concerns is the spike in cargo thefts; that means tractor-trailers and their loads.


“This is not a local problem. It’s a national and international problem,” says Fort Worth police detective Wayne Browning.

He’s been in law enforcement for four decades. A single cargo theft, he says, can cost anywhere from $150,000 into the millions, depending on the load--- pharmaceuticals, appliances, televisions, cell-phones.

“Our Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex area is number three right now in the nation, on cargo thefts.”

Texas has more highways than any other state, railways crisscrossing major cities, plus deep water ports and a handful of huge airports. That’s a lot of cargo movement.    

“It’s big money, and when that happens, those thefts, insurance carriers are having losses, trucking industry are having losses, and those costs get past onto the public,” says Browning.

The Fort Worth police are hosting investigators from South Africa, Europe, Latin America, and Australia. There are sessions about staged accidents, odometer and title fraud, cloned vehicles.

“We’ve got organized fraud rings,” says Lisa Atkins, a fraud investigations manager at GM Financial in Arlington. “We’ve got sovereign citizens. We’ve got title washing fraud, body shop fraud more prevalent. And the goal is to get a vehicle to make money. It’s just to make money. It’s the new way to steal cars. Auto theft is down, financial theft is up.”

Atkins partnered with Kathryn Brown of to talk to police and about organized crime rings and auto thefts. Brown says there are fraud schemes called straw deals, when someone else buys a car for another person, then later claims to be a victim of identity theft.

“Likely billions, definitely high millions is lost each year in false identity theft claims that are associated to this type of activity,” she says.

Some investigators call this theft by pen, says Christopher McDonold with the Maryland Vehicle Theft Prevention Council.

“The problem with that is that by the time credit companies realize that this has happened, it’s usually 35 to 45 days into, since it occurred,” he says. “And a lot of times those cars are shipped overseas and are gone.”

Auto theft is a $5 billion-a-year business.

“Are we going to get every one of those cars back? Probably not,” says McDonold. “Would we like to, yes. And not only do we want to get the car back, we want to find out who stole it. And arrest that individual and prosecute them.”

Diane Mandeville is a crime scene investigator with the Virginia State Police, and one of the few women in the business of auto theft. She’s been at it for two decades. As more crimes cross borders, she says it’s even more important to network.

“It’s learning maybe that one or two technique that you don’t know that you can bring back, or learning from vendors, all the new equipment that we didn’t know about,” she says.

So far, Mandeville already learned about the latest technology being used to jam car alarms and something called micro-dotting, a way to tag cars and property using a special glue with unique serial numbers. The auto-theft conference ends Aug. 22.

Doualy Xaykaothao is a newscaster and reporter for NPR, based in Culver City. She returned to NPR for this role in 2018, and is responsible for writing, producing, and delivering national newscasts. She also reports on breaking news stories for NPR.