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Theft of truck cargo is a little known crime that costs the freight industry millions or even billions of dollars each year as organized criminal gangs roam transportation hubs in Southern Ontario and Quebec, security experts say.GLENN LOWSON/The Globe and Mail

On a cool weekend earlier this fall, someone sneaked into a gated truck yard west of Hamilton and drove off with a tractor trailer, stealing its load of 18 tonnes of frozen beef from Texas.

The theft generated some brief news items and social-media jokes about barbecue maniacs needing Flintstone-style servings of meat. But the reality is that there is no shortage of people willing to buy discounted meat from a dubious source. Or electronics. Or liquor and tobacco. Or even diapers.

Theft of truck cargo is a low-profile crime that nevertheless costs the freight industry millions or even billions of dollars a year, as organized criminal gangs roam transportation hubs and look for rigs left unattended at industrial yards, security experts say.

"For criminals, it's a low-risk, high-reward activity," said Greg St. Croix, national transportation risk focus leader at the insurance broker Marsh Canada Ltd. "Very little jail time is ever given to somebody convicted of cargo theft."

The thieves will haul away mobile phones and computer gear but also diapers, tires, pharmaceuticals and batteries. "Sometimes they steal stuff, they don't even know what it is," said consultant John Burdett, who heads Seamless Security in Cambridge, Ont.

Mr. Burdett, a former police officer who has experience handling security for a large trucking company, recalled one occasion when thieves grabbed a truckload of cheese that they eventually abandoned on a roadside.

"Just think," he said. "If you can steal a trailer that's got $1-million worth of electronics, even if you resell it for 30 cents on the dollar, you've picked yourself $300,000 on the weekend easily. It's very, very lucrative."

He said truck-cargo theft is a phenomenon that has emerged in the past 15 years. It is a major business headache in Southern Ontario, as well as in transportation hubs or shipping gateways such as Vancouver or Montreal.

The weak spot for the industry, Mr. Burdett said, is that sometimes in the course of shipping, drivers have to wait for appointed times before delivery, so their trailers sit in a yard waiting to be picked up. The thefts are often the work of small, experienced crews of five to eight people.

Mr. Burdett said one or a few spotters would head out in the early evening or weekend to identify trailers that have attractive cargo. The thieves come back after dark, with a stolen tractor to pull the trailer away. The freight is unloaded relatively nearby and the stolen vehicles left behind.

Some prefer to steal things that don't spoil.

"They'll sit on it in a warehouse for a while, even up to six months, and will wait until they feel nobody is investigating," Mr. Burdett said.

But stealing perishables does have its advantages, said former Peel Regional police investigator George Bearse, who is now national senior special investigator for Zurich Insurance. "Lots of the things that go have no serial numbers," he said. "They are hard to identify. That type of thing bolsters the underground … it's easy to move on the street."

So who would buy discount meat, handled in unsanitary ways, from a stranger? Court evidence shows that some food wholesalers won't turn away a good deal.

According to a case heard last year by the Ontario Court of Appeal, a Toronto-area wholesaler named Dominic Yau was approached in June, 2006, by "Paul," a trucker who was hawking a trailer of frozen chicken.

"Yau couldn't take the volume of chicken being offered so he referred the man to Mark Pang of Tai Wah Trade, who agreed to buy the deeply discounted chicken," the court judgment said.

Shortly after 8 a.m., "Paul" showed up with "a load of very cheap frozen chicken" at Mr. Pang's office and asked to be paid cash.

The problem was that the previous night, a trailer carrying 14 tonnes of chicken had been stolen from a trailer at the 10 Acre Truck Stop near Belleville, Ont. The rig's driver, Donald Woods, was found dead, shot in the head. A fellow trucker, Paul Leonard Cyr, was eventually convicted of theft and murder.

Other cases are less violent but still make headlines.

In 2009, a truck trailer hauling $80,000 worth of prepackaged chicken breasts was stolen in Paris, near Brantford, Ont. Police found the stolen food the next day in an industrial building in Toronto, near Kipling Avenue and Rexdale Boulevard. The meat had been opened and it was being repacked for sale in large plastic bags.

The recent theft of 18 tonnes of beef took place in Ancaster, Ont., and occurred sometime between 5:30 p.m. on Sept. 15 and 2: 15 p.m. the next day, said Hamilton police, who initially said the beef was worth $100,000.

Mr. St. Croix said the meat was actually valued at $280,000 and that the empty trailer was found near the scene of the theft. He doubted the beef would be recovered. "It's gone," he said.

Stolen cargo is often unloaded at flea markets, convenience stores or dollar stores, Mr. Burdett said. If the load is valuable enough and it takes place near a port, such as Montreal, it could even be shipped overseas, he added.

In some cases, stolen goods were shipped as far away as Ghana, according to a 2011 study commissioned by the Canadian Trucking Alliance. Trucks move 90 per cent of consumer goods and foodstuff in Canada, the alliance says, noting in its study that many carriers don't declare their losses.

Mr. St. Croix estimates that only a quarter of thefts are reported.

In addition to trying to avoid a hike in their insurance premiums, "no carriers want to admit that they've had a load stolen," he said. "They don't want to risk their relationships with their clients … they don't want to be identified as an easy target."

The area between the Greater Toronto Area and the Niagara region is a major transportation hub and therefore a theft target. "We call it the shopping hub," Mr. St. Croix said.

Mr. St. Croix is behind the often-cited industry estimates that $500,000 in trailer cargo is stolen each day in the GTA and that $5-billion worth of trucked goods goes missing each year in Canada.

He said the figures are extrapolations, based on the losses reported by his firm's clients, plus what he estimates are losses recorded by others in the insurance industry. He then multiplies that estimate by four because he said he believes only a quarter of thefts are reported.

"Five billion is on the low end of the scale," he said.

Some police forces, such as those of Peel and York regions near Toronto, have specialized cargo-theft units. But other forces don't see the usually non-violent incidents as a priority, leaving it up to carriers and insurers to devise ways to protect their shipments, either by using tracking devices or training drivers.

"It's a very big issue," said Clive Thomson, national transportation portfolio executive at Zurich Insurance. "The public doesn't realize how big it is for sure."