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  • Allen Czermak

Protecting Truckers From Hijacking in 2023

Cattle rustlers, gunslingers, pirates, highway robberies and hijackings are words taken out of history books, novels, and old newspapers or internet searches. Unfortunately, all these words are making comebacks in many unexpected and supposedly protected venues in our so-called civilized country of the United States of America.

The news video of the flagrant and shamefully brazen daylight robbery of the upscale store, Nordstrom in California recently has put a whole new dimension to the freedom criminals are receiving in this controversial year of 2023. A few months ago, an employee in another large store was fired from their position because of acting to curtail a blatant robbery right in front of innocent bystanders.

In the wild west, where guns were arrows of protection, these criminals would have been shot dead or if they were lucky the sheriff would handcuff them and put them in jail. With our new justice system on the side of the criminal’s, disguised vagrants are glaringly brave even in front of the latest video systems to steal big-ticket items from expensive department stores with little worry of being arrested and prosecuted according to the law of our land.

What, are you wondering, has this to do with the trucking and logistics industry of today?

I was driving in my car yesterday listening to an old mystery on SiriusXM (who wants to listen to all the latest depressing developments on those radio news shows?). The show was about a hijacking of an eighteen-wheeler truck and the murder of the driver. In those days, before computers there would be a list hanging each day in the dispatcher’s office of the trucks, who was driving them, where they were starting from, where they were headed and what type of merchandise was inside the cargo area.

The investigator in this story discovered that at the last minute the merchandise was not picked up from the assigned warehouse and it did not make sense to him why an empty truck would be hijacked. To be brief, it seemed that the guilty party was a member of the trucking company staff and was absent from work the day of the hijacking, so he had no clue that there was no merchandise in the truck’s carrier. The carrier that was robbed ended up being empty.

This story got me thinking and asking myself if there are still truck hijackings today with all the technology involved in the trucking and logistics industry. The office manager should be able to know exactly where and when the driver is always; when he loads and unloads and when he rests or sleeps. I would think that no criminal would be audacious enough to hijack a truck that is always connected to its source.

The same language of criminal activities such as piracy and hijacking are presently used just as they were used as long ago as hundreds of years before our time. Today, internet pirates are completely capable of shutting down the entire operations in a course of minutes even while living thousands of miles away from the trucks. Attackers have become so sophisticated that they can actually get into the truck itself if they have the right technology.

Cargo Theft

Most of us have heard about elderly relatives being robbed of thousands of dollars due to fraudulent threatening calls, but these truck drivers can lose more than money they can lose their lives just as our ancestors in the wild west. Still the most common criminal activity today is cargo theft which has spiked 15% in 2022 and surpasses a quarter of a billion dollars each year.

Cargo theft can occur at any phase of the logistics process, for example when loading, when a truck is parked along the route or for a nighttime snooze, or even in a warehouse. Interestingly, unlike our forefathers on horses the safest time for a truck driver is when he is speeding along the highway: any stop whether for a coffee, rest room or sleeping is an opportunity for a trained hijacker to put his experience to the test.

The first step in a drayage line of service is for a truck driver to present himself to remove the loads off the dock. By presenting false papers with false identification such as a counterfeit carrier name, the scammer will be able to steal the shipments and sell them on the open market for pure profit. This crime is known as a fictitious pickup.

The state with the most cargo thefts is California with 74% of this criminal activity taking place there. Fictional cargo theft depends mostly on the shipments being subcontracted to a legitimate transportation carrier and then the criminals redirecting the shipment to a bogus address. To prevent this from happening logistics companies and shippers must validate and confirm through the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration any bids on shipments with the specific transportation mode. Checking the name of the motor carrier and the driver and making sure they match the company that the shipment was assigned to is a prudent way to assure a safe arrival of the load. There are also other confirmations such as how the payment for services is rendered, for example, delivering the shipment to a different address than specified on the bill of lading.

Another way of theft is when the robbers choose to only steal a portion of the cargo and this type of theft can go undetected since the robbers can easily reseal the cartons, packages or steal an entire pallet that will not be readily noticed. A way to avoid this type of pilferage would be for the shipper to have tags on each box so that a warning would come up on the trucker’s cell phone but as we all know these experts are often smarter than we are and can find ways to invalidate these trackers. When the driver arrives at the destination and the goods are unloaded is possibly the first-time robbery is suspected and most often the trucker is already in another state hundreds of miles from the robbery site.

When it comes to foodstuff these items are often difficult to tag with serial numbers such as nuts or avocados. Some of these types of foods for some reason do not come with serial numbers and can be resold easily, maybe even those fruits you see that look so tempting on the road as you drive by those fruit stands.

New Age Highway Hazards

As we hear about the newest innovations for the safety of our nation's truck drivers and their rigs, we would surely expect a decrease in robberies, hijackings, and other carrier crimes. Yes, it’s true that the dispatchers can follow their truckers on GPS and other new software, sadly these very software are the reason that their cyber security is being compromised to the point where criminals can take away the control of the drivers in several different ways.

In the more modern models, trucks can have more than seven or eight different wireless connections to the hauler itself. About eight months ago information was released by the National Motor Freight Trucking Association revealing a true vulnerability that would let anyone with a fifty-dollar radio which includes software and an antenna to point the antenna at the truck and change instructions to the truck. A few examples are locking the brakes of the trailer from this antenna driven radio and gaining access to a locked truck during a pit stop. In simple terms, these software enhanced radios can control the carrier without the driver knowing about it. This hijacking system reeks devastation and sometimes has fatal effects to the truck and driver in a few moments when the driver loses control over his vehicle.

Most of these cyber-attacks are perpetuated by organized crime. These can be local, national, and even international conglomerates who have professional cyber security people working with them and being paid handsomely. These software systems are called ransomware and that is the point of these sophisticated hijackings, to extort ransom from the trucking companies. It’s a race against time as to who will succeed first, will the trucker be able to get in touch with the police before the assailant disables the victim’s phone service?

The latest members of these ransom teams are enemy nations whose sole purpose is to inflict economic damage on Western civilizations such as America, Canada, and the European Union. In a different scenario, Ukraine used ransomware to disrupt Russian tanks from performing correctly in the Ukraine - Russian war.

Final Words

Most of us don’t realize the seriousness of the existence of sophisticated piracy in the trucking industry today. With all kinds of hookups, GPS systems and alarms it would seem almost impossible to lose track of a trailer. Unfortunately, this is far from true. It is bad enough when a rig or carrier is stolen, or merchandise is missing but when lives are at stake, we are facing a new level of danger. Autonomous trucks running on software are in danger of being hijacked by organized crime and international enemies bent on jeopardizing our economic growth.

How many of us with newer cars take the time to update our software for the latest GPS and other options in higher end vehicles? Large trucks have more to lose in terms of merchandise and assailants have more to gain than just stealing a car on the highway.

At the beginning of this article we noted that the safest place for a carrier is on the road while moving but this fact is becoming outdated as cyberattacks are being orchestrated by simple fifty dollar radios with specially detailed software that can take control of a long hauler while it is moving causing it to lose control of its braking system crashing, and having the criminals free reign to steal the merchandise on the truck.

It is true that cyber software can be a double-edged sword. With no software for the criminal to infiltrate the truck driver does not have to worry about cyber-attacks but on the other hand he does not have the security knowing that there is someone at home watching and following his route in case he gets into the old-fashioned trouble of a robbery. These types of robberies such as pilferage (taking only select pieces of merchandise and resealing the boxes), fictitious pickup (scammers giving bogus paperwork at the docks) and the common grab and go method (when the driver leaves the truck for a break at a restaurant or rest stop) are still popular. The drivers feel secure knowing there is a dispatcher following his journey until he safely returns home. There are apps such as Relay for the trucker to book secure parking that is being monitored. Using the right drayage company is certainly a step in the right direction.

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