Flight of the Bumble Bee
Organised Criminals Are Targeting High-Value Goods in Transit
According to the laws of physics, the bumble bee (or any bee for that matter) should not be able to get off the ground because its non-aerodynamic shape and wing movement are at odds with the aviation science of lift, weight, drag, and thrust. Yet not only does the humble bumble bee fly in the face of these anthropomorphic scientific certainties, but also its frenetic and hard-working air-borne activity (musically captured by Rimsky Korsakov’s famous “Flight of the Bumble Bee”) fulfils one of nature’s most critical functions—maintaining the planet’s delicate ecosystem for plant pollination, without which life as we know it would simply collapse. Its gravity-defying skill is part of a natural symbiosis that paradoxically provides the strongest and weakest links in the food chain in that it is both vital and vulnerable in equal measure.
Such, it can be argued, is the case with our own complex global supply chains, which are both robust and overexposed, a situation highlighted when 200,000-tonne behemoth cargo carrier The Ever Given, carrying 20,000 containers, became wedged in the Suez Canal for a week during March 2021. The grounded vessel cost, according to experts, between $9 and $15 billion each day in supply chain delays for it and the 300 other cargo ships also waiting to pass through this narrow strip of water. The canal, one of the busiest trade routes in the world, had to be significantly dredged on both sides to free the hull and keel of the ship, which was carry-ing millions of everyday items at one of the supply chain’s busiest times of the year. As a result of the blockage, other ships destined for Europe were forced to divert around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, adding two weeks onto their journeys and untold lost sales of out-of-stock season-al items such as barbecues and garden furniture.
The Scale of the Problem
In the spring 2021 edition of Loss Prevention Magazine Europe, we explored supply chain vulnerability to crime in the article “Has the Supply Chain Become the Weakest Link?” which explored some startling vulnerabilities. While retail LP teams have been largely focused upon store theft and internal dishonesty, very little attention has been paid to organised criminals targeting high-value goods in transit.
Crime in the supply chain has always been a moving target, literally, but the accelerating growth in online retail due to the coronavirus pandemic has made goods in transit especially attractive to opportunist and organised criminals who all too easily recognise the rich pickings to be had from the first point of order to final mile delivery. According to 2020 reports from the Transported Asset Protection Association’s (TAPA) Incident Information Service (IIS), more than €85 million worth of products were stolen from air, road, sea, and rail freight supply chains in forty-six countries in the Europe, Middle East, and Africa (EMEA) region in the first half of 2020, even with national COVID-related lockdowns restricting people and vehicle movements.
Overall, for the first 182 days of 2020, the IIS database recorded 3,278 cargo theft incidents with over €52 million of the €85 million being attributed to ninety-six major incidents classified as crimes with individual losses of goods worth €100,000 or more. The average value of products stolen in these cases was €542,761.
TAPA’s intelligence indicates the strong presence of organised crime groups (OCGs) across the EMEA region and suggests many were “stealing to order,” given the number of losses of personal protective equipment (PPE) and other in-demand goods such as food and drink, cosmetics, and hygiene products.
Recording cargo crime is one challenge, particularly in the UK where, extraordinarily, Britain’s law enforcement community is alone in the world in not recognising it as a specific offence. In fact, there is no Home Office classification for cargo theft with local forces having to record it as “theft from vehicle” so that the same definition and seriousness is applied to it whether it’s a laptop stolen from the back of a Ford Mondeo or a multi-million-pound heist of stolen tobacco, alcohol, or high-value technology from a forty-four-tonne rigid trailer or curtain-sider.
As a result of this indeterminate catch-all classification, there is a general perception that it is not a serious issue, and sentencing is typically focused upon single-incident opportunistic thieves rather than cross-border organised gang activity. This has presented scaling issues for law enforcement in determining exactly how big the problem is for industry, which is why businesses stepped forward to try and map the extent of freight crime across the UK.
“There’s an old English phrase for suspicious items being sold through unconventional channels. We refer to it as falling off the back of a lorry,” said PC Michael Dawber, a Cheshire Police officer seconded to the freight team within the National Vehicle Crime Intelligence Service (NaVCIS).
Returning to the image of the humble bumble bee, NaVCIS is a unique operation that should not be able to take flight because (unlike the UK’s forty-three police forces) it receives no pub-lic money from the Home Office. NaVCIS is a national policing unit that operates independently under the direction of the National Police Chiefs’ Councils’ vehicle crime lead, Assistant Chief Constable (ACC) Jenny Sims. It is entirely funded by industry for specific activity under the Po-lice Act 1996. It has a commercial mandate from the freight industry to try and identify the scale of the cargo crime crisis and devise strategies not only to manage it but also to bring intelligence to bear to reduce what the Home Office has now recognised as having a “national problem profile.”
Private policing has long been a moot point resisted by respective Governments of all political shades but explored and welcomed by many in the commercial sector. Business crime, including offences against the retail sector, continues to soar as forces faced with the legacy of austerity were given little alternative but to make cuts of up to 20 per cent to front line law enforcement and reprioritise their approach to investigations.
This approach saw the birth of concepts such as Action Fraud, the online and telephone report-ing service where victims, including everyone from ordinary citizens to large corporations, were expected to report scams of multitudinous complexity with little or no guarantee of the offence ever being investigated irrespective of the sums involved.
Under attack from all sides, this was arguably policing’s lowest point and a time when new and creative ways of restoring confidence were required, particularly from the business community. The inception of the National Business Crime Centre (NBCC), a national touchpoint for business to collaborate with the law enforcement community, has narrowed that gap and helped to rebuild the fractured relationships.
Like the bumble bee inexplicably taking flight, NaVCIS—with one hand (or wing) tied behind its back in the form of no formal classification for cargo theft and no public funding—has defied the gravitational forces that would have seen it grounded. It has not only managed to take off but also is now soaring and creating a real buzz in working with industry and the UK’s Police forces as a repository of intelligence that is informing national strategy around freight crime.
Part of NaVCIS’s remit is the UK lorry crime database, which records all theft from vehicles over 7.5 tonnes. Although this excludes thefts from smaller courier vehicles, the growth in serious freight theft has led to the Home Office’s change of direction and recognition of the problem.
In 2017, there were 1,530 notifications of cargo theft in the database, a figure that almost doubled over the next twelve months to 2,967. A year later, there were 4,364 notifications with an at-cost value of more than £115 million, a figure that is nearer to £724 million at retail price, according to the figures fed into the NaVCIS database by the Police, the freight industry, insurers, and cargo surveyors. In 2020, there were 4,481 notifications.
Year on year, the intelligence becomes richer as more forces feed into the database. In 2017, 40 per cent of forces provided freight and cargo theft data, a figure that rose to 65 per cent in 2018 and 88 per cent a year later as part of NaVCIS’s objectives to work in partnership and assist Police and industry in applying the air brakes to this pernicious crime.
In addition to the 4,481 notifications in 2020, there were 259 arrests where NaVCIS provided support through 113 intelligence reports disseminated to forces nationally and fifty Police operations directly supported by the unit based at Ryton-on-Dunsmore in Warwickshire. In addition to cargo crime, NaVCIS is also active in supporting Police operations concerning plant and agricultural theft and caravans and motor homes through its agriculture and plant team and leisure team.
As far as PC Dawber (also a former Rugby League referee) is concerned, his unit wants to blow the whistle on all larger mobile crime. He said, “Because there is no specific criminal classification for such offences, there are no sentencing guidelines, which means that cargo crime is seen as attractive to criminals. They understand that it is a high-value, low-risk crime. For ex-ample, in one sneak-up offence at a motorway service area (MSA) in Warwickshire, thieves climbed aboard a vehicle and stole £1.7 million worth of cosmetics at cost price but with a re-tail value of more than £10 million. During these sneak-up or jump-up offences, as they are commonly known in the industry, violence is rarely used, and so the offences are categorised as ‘theft from motor vehicle’ and investigated accordingly.
“Cargo crime happens for a number of reasons, but mainly because the UK lacks secure parking areas, and organised criminal gangs that travel around the country are involved in serious jump-up crimes that include curtain slashing in nine out of ten cases. During an operation in 2018, a truck under Police surveillance at an MSA on the M1 was shielded by the deliberate tight parking of another vehicle alongside by the organised criminal gang. With surveillance crews on the blind side of the vehicle, the thieves brazenly removed £480,000 worth of push-chairs into the parked vehicle on the other side where the curtain had been slashed. The thieves were practiced and discreet, therefore avoiding immediate detection by the surveil-lance team.
“With challenges such as COVID-19 and Brexit this year, the freight industry has been put under increasing pressure. Freight and cargo [are] crucial to national infrastructure to ensure that goods get into stores and out to consumers. Crime is constantly evolving, and this means that theft-attractive goods are being targeted by OCGs travelling all over the UK.”
Safe and Secure Parking
According to Road Haulage Association (RHA) figures, lorry drivers nationwide are facing in-creasing difficulties when it comes to finding a safe and secure place to park. While the number of vehicles parked overnight has risen by 36 per cent, the number of on-site spaces in lorry parks and MSAs only increased by 14 per cent. With 1,411 additional overnight spaces required immediately to meet demand across the country, 39 per cent of lorry drivers have had to resort to unsecured off-site parking areas such as lay-bys and industrial or retail parks, leaving drivers increasingly vulnerable to crime. Again, according to the RHA figures, 56 per cent of all cargo thefts within Europe occur in the UK, 92 per cent of which are from unsecured parking areas.
According to TAPA, which has its own accredited secure parking areas, there are staggeringly only two such parking areas in the whole of the UK, although many MSAs provide “safe” lorry parking provision. PC Dawber continued, “The organised criminals know this. They have mapped the UK and will travel to certain areas to steal particular commodities. They are invariably from a supply chain or heavy-goods-vehicle driving background; they understand supply chains and the routes of certain goods.” He said that the gangs use their intelligence to reconnoitre routes and sites for their prey and know exactly which hauliers carry high-value stock, where they stop, when, and for how long.
A significant distinction should be drawn between “safe” and “secure” parking. In addition to the TAPA accreditation, NaVCIS is working with the British Parking Association (BPA) to introduce a UK-wide freight equivalent of their successful Park Mark scheme with advice to drivers as to which car parks carry the trademark. NaVCIS also recommends a “driver buddy” app that they can download with hints, tips, and warnings of hot spots and points them in the direction of the NaVCIS freight and crime prevention leaflet, which has been translated into five Europe-an languages and is regularly handed out at MSAs and truck stops on driver engagement days.
Prior to lockdown, NaVCIS also engaged with hauliers and MSAs to propose a national Crimestoppers cargo crime campaign to help raise awareness of the problem and encourage all motorists to be vigilant and report suspicious activity through an anonymous hotline. This collaboration was put on hold due to the pandemic, but it is hoped it can be resurrected as restrictions ease.
Many highly organised gangs resort to the riskier strategies of stealing while vehicles are in transit. “OCGs will follow lorries, jump up, and steal the contents when the vehicles get held up in traffic. In April of this year, there were sixteen jump-up offences in Greater London alone recorded with an average loss of £12,000 each time. These involve lorries being targeted that belong to national retailers where cigarettes were targeted, which are easy to sell on,” PC Dawber said. “We at least are lucky that we now get our intelligence from forty-one forces as well as insurers, loss adjustors, and the Road Haulage Association, which helps us build a better picture and offender profile.”
NaVCIS provides biweekly freight crime bulletins to NaVCIS members and law enforcement. These bulletins offer intelligence and updates on arrests, recoveries, and information around emerging crime hotspots as part of the strategy to prevent, detect, disrupt, deter, and dismantle organised criminal activity. The organisation also has numerous ongoing live operations with Police forces throughout the UK.
As part of its outreach work, NaVCIS also engages with local authority trading standards teams and Food Standards Agency inspectors, partnerships that have seen NaVCIS assist Police in raids on so-called “chop shops” on industrial units where stolen cars and trucks are dismantled for their parts to be sold on. “Usually, when we go in with a warrant, the activity is all around the stolen cars or trucks, but invariably in the corner of that chop shop, we will discover a couple of pallets of stolen goods that our database will link back to other crimes. As a result, we are often able to repatriate the goods to the business that has lost them,” PC Dawber said.
Other cargo crimes in the NaVCIS cross hairs are vehicle or trailer thefts, robberies and hijack-ing (although this is less frequent), load frauds, and diesel thefts. One of the more audacious and dangerous crimes is the “Romanian rollover,” so named because it was introduced by an organised Romanian gang. Here, a vehicle tails a truck carrying high-value goods, and while the driver holds the vehicle in tight convoy at close proximity to the target, the passenger climbs out of the sunroof and breaks into the moving vehicle before throwing goods back into the pursuit car.
“This is all possible because the lorries are restricted to a maximum of fifty-six miles per hour, but these offences are extremely dangerous and have the possibility of serious injury or worse,” said PC Dawber..
Last year, there were a staggering thirty incidents of Romanian rollover heists, all of which involved high-value electronics, but the levels have dropped in 2021 with only five cases in the first six months of the year. The decrease is believed to be a result of improved security and targeted Police action.
With little in the way of criminal classification and sentencing guidelines, since 2017 NaVCIS has worked with industry to increase the pressure by way of providing commercial impact statements for UK Police, magistrates, and judges to take into consideration when they are looking at levels of punishment for cargo crime offences. For example, NaVCIS used its 2019 database intelligence to advise prosecutors that cargo crime was far from victimless as the 4,357 notifications had cost the industry £115.8 million at cost price.
Rather like the humble bee gathering pollen, the notifications are collected and used for the greater good, providing collateral nectar for prosecutors. However, despite the successes in supporting the UK’s Police forces and the Home Office’s recognition of cargo crime as having a national problem profile, NaVCIS’s continued flight depends upon a commercial rather than a publicly funded ecosystem. Thus, the organisation is actively encouraging new members to be-come trusted partners to maintain its flight path.