Cargo theft is one of the most lucrative criminal activities in Canada, but it rarely makes headlines. And yet it’s costing consumers and the economy an estimated $5 billion a year.

“A decade or so ago, it was probably a more opportunistic crime,” David Bradley of the Ontario Trucking Association told W5. “But what I think has occurred is that organized crime syndicates have seen that it’s relatively low risk, high reward, and there seems to be a market for just about anything somewhere in the world.”

Stolen cargo - the stuff loaded in trailers and hooked onto trucks - can range from high priced electronics, cars and booze to everyday products like cheese, candy, toilet paper and household detergents.

Once thieves get their hands on a load, selling it is easy. Organized crime groups know who is in the market for a particular product and often have buyers lined up, or the goods are sold off piecemeal to corner stores and flea markets. Some buyers have no idea they’re paying for a stolen product, while others don’t ask questions.

“There’s a lot of willful blindness,” said Detective Sergeant Paul LaSalle, the head of the Auto Cargo Theft Unit at York Regional Police, one of just two specialized teams in the country.

If selling the stolen goods is easy, stealing them in the first place is even easier.

“The transportation industry is growing really quickly,” said Mike Grabovica, the owner of Birdseye, a company that sells security systems. “So carriers are looking for additional yards to supplement their increased inflow of business and these additional yards tend to be highly unsecured.”

Those unsecured yards are tempting targets for thieves. Even facilities with security cameras are easy to penetrate. Grabovica took W5 to three truck storage yards in the Toronto area. We passed through open gates without challenge, hung around in plain view and checked to see if trailers were loaded.

Standing in the middle of one yard, Grabovica said, “We’re knocking on trucks. We’re trying to open doors. I mean, if this isn’t acting suspiciously, I don’t know what is.”

It would not have taken long to hot wire a truck and steal a load of cargo. But we were never challenged.

Small wonder the number of cargo thefts is growing. In 2014, The Insurance of Bureau of Canada handled around 200 reports. This year, the number has doubled to more than 400, primarily in Southern Ontario. That’s more than one a day.

Right now, Peel and York Regional Police are the only two forces in Canada with specialized cargo theft units. That’s partly because the Greater Toronto Area is a transportation hub and there are more trucks and cargo to steal. At one recent raid, York Regional Police recovered a truckload of stolen candy worth more than $200,000. Two suspects were arrested, but if they’re convicted, the chances of a stiff sentence are small.

“The people that are involved in various crimes get suspended sentences or they get off because they haven’t been caught before,” said David Bradley. “I think most people would feel that the penalties aren’t sufficient to really act as a deterrent.”

But it’s about to become more difficult for thieves. Working with trucking associations and law enforcement, the Insurance Bureau of Canada has developed the National Cargo Theft Reporting Program to keep track of cargo theft across the country. It’s just beginning to operate, but already it’s making a difference.

“We’re seeing the recovery numbers change drastically because we are getting hits on the database,” said Garry Robertson of the Insurance Bureau of Canada. “The police are finding the property now and we are able to get it back and get it to the insurer, trucking company or whoever is the owner.”

The data base will make it easier to track down thieves and bring them to justice, but despite improved detection techniques cargo theft isn’t about to disappear. Standing beside a board with a list of 25 current investigations, Detective Sergeant Paul LaSalle laughed when asked if there was any chance he’d ever go out of business. “No,” he answered. “It’s just too profitable for the thieves.”


This week W5 investigates a multi-billion dollar crime wave. Watch Tom Kennedy's report about cargo theft: everything...

Posted by W5 on Wednesday, November 25, 2015