Cargo theft is big business with drugs a major target

June 23, 2008

Cargo theft is a huge enterprise and pharmaceuticals are one of the top targets, an FBI supervisory agent told the annual meeting of the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy.

Cargo theft is a huge enterprise and pharmaceuticals are one of the top targets, an FBI supervisory agent told the annual meeting of the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy.

Cargo theft is a federal crime and it is the theft of goods in transit, whether it is by breaking into a container, or taking something while it is sitting at a distribution center, or taking an entire container or truck, according to Frank Scafidi of the National Insurance Crime Bureau.

The criminals, said Toole, like to target things that are untraceable: "They don't like things, too much, with a serial number on it."

"They generally know what is in the tractor trailer that they are going to steal and they steal the whole tractor trailer," said Toole, who noted the FBI estimates that the economic loss from cargo crime hovers at $30 billion a year. The agency said the real number may be higher, since some businesses don't report thefts out of concern for their reputations or their insurance premiums. "Cargo thieves do not get much time in jail," he added.

The crime rate varies tremendously by state with Florida, Georgia, Texas, and California far exceeding other states, said Toole. As examples, in 2005 there were reported thefts of $14 million worth of Lipitor (atorvastatin, Pfizer) and Viagra (sildenafil citrate, Pfizer), and $29 million worth of Novartis products. However, Toole said, there's a long list of types of drugs stolen, including those for acid reflux, cancer, depression, hypertension, stroke, and many other conditions.

And the professionals involved, he said, include manufacturers' employees, licensed pharmaceutical wholesalers, registered pharmacists, retail storeowners, registered nurses, college students, physicians, police officers, and truck drivers.

Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, the Major Theft subprogram, where cargo theft is located, has been reduced from 225 agents to 75 agents in 2008 and from 1,000 arrests to 485 arrests.

Factors that increase the likelihood the FBI's Major Theft Program will get involved include an interstate character of the criminal enterprise, national security implications, a large economic loss, public corruption, money laundering, and violence associated with the investigations, explained Toole.

The resource limits have created a new emphasis on cooperation and the FBI has set up special task forces with state and local law enforcement, he said. In addition, he noted, "We deal with private industry today in the Major Theft Unit more than we do with state and local police agencies. Constantly." Hardly a day goes by that he does not talk to major retail chains, including pharmacies, he told the audience.

The agency hopes to have a clearer idea of cargo theft soon, Toole pointed out, because in 2006 Congress mandated a separate code for it in police reports, which are reported to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports system. Previously, said Toole, an officer recovering an 18-wheeler with millions of dollars' worth of goods would report it simply as a recovered vehicle, the same as if it were an older car. The challenge now, he said, is to educate police officers in reporting on the new system.

Toole also cited RxPatrol, developed by Purdue Pharma to track pharmaceutical retail thefts, cargo thefts, burglaries and robberies, as a good information source.

Indeed, Toole said, a few years ago "the information sharing just was not there. Now it has gotten pretty sophisticated."

THE AUTHOR is a writer based in the Washington, D.C., area.