Growers of almonds, pistachios and walnuts are not the only people nuts about their financial returns.
Crooks have caught on and are now profiting by more nefarious means.
Late last year a hastily-called summit was organized by the Fresno-based Western Agricultural Processors Association (WAPA) to address a growing problem for California nut processors. Now local law enforcement and the FBI are trying to stop what appears to be an organized crime syndicate.
Last December, and again this spring, WAPA held meetings in Visalia and Modesto with tree nut processors, law enforcement, the insurance industry and experts in cargo theft. At both WAPA President Roger Isom said practical tips were presented to help tree nut processors thwart potential cargo thefts of processed nuts.
These aren’t the “smash-and-grab” type of thefts where the crime is immediately obvious. According to Isom discovering the theft can take days to realize.
Isom estimates that 32 separate cases of agricultural cargo theft have taken place within the past year.
Because a significant number of the thefts have occurred from Tulare County processing operations, Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux has been at the forefront of the issue, working with WAPA and others to gather information that could lead to arrests and convictions.
How it happens
Thieves can target high-value loads through legitimate sources used by the transportation industry, according to Matt Calkins, a detective with the Butte County Sheriff’s Department.
Thieves are able to easily access the information they need online for these crimes. Requests for trucks to ship loads, carrier information to include permit numbers and insurance information are available online for syndicates to use for nefarious purposes.
Fictitious documents are created to pick up the loads. Pre-paid “burner” phones are also used and their phone numbers incorporated into shipping documents to mask the crime. Once the theft takes place these phones are typically turned off and discarded.
While the paperwork may appear legitimate, Boudreaux says drivers involved can be diverted once the shipment is in transport.
According to Sam Wadhwani, chief executive officer of Transit Risk Management in Long Beach, Calif., the propensity of thieves is to take loads immediately before or after the weekend.
In some cases law enforcement has tracked stolen shipments through the Port of Los Angeles, but not before at least some of the product was already exported.
In other cases, Boudreaux says authorities learned that loads originally destined for locations in New Mexico and Washington were diverted to southern California. Some cases included thieves working with specific brokers and truck drivers, who were paid in cash to deliver a load of nuts to a given location.
Because tree nuts are a high-value commodity and difficult to trace, Calkins says they’re an easy target for thieves. Moreover, because of relatively light sentencing for those convicted of cargo theft, Calkins says deterrence is difficult.
Federal prosecution can happen if the cargo travels across state lines, but if it remains in California sentencing typically does not include state prison time.
Boudreaux says the nature of the crime takes time to become apparent.
It’s only after the load never arrives at the assigned destination that the shipper and the receiver become aware that the legitimate load was stolen.
Since news of the nut thefts spread among California nut processors last year Patrick Braddock, logistics manager of Setton Farms, a pistachio processor in Terra Bella, has done what he can to learn how the thefts take place and to implement protocols to prevent it from happening to them again.
Setton Farms is not the only victim of the fictitious pick-up thefts in the San Joaquin Valley. At least one other pistachio processor and several almond processors have been victimized, as was a company in Fresno that processes and finishes cashews before shipping them to customers.
Part of the focus of the two meetings Isom and California industry leaders held in the Central Valley has been to share tips and suggestions for companies to employ as a means to prevent future theft cases from happening.
Isom says companies using established protocols have seen a marked decrease in thefts.
Braddock says his company implemented a series of standard operating procedures in the wake of cargo thefts. So far the procedures appear to be working as no apparent thefts of pistachios have been discovered since employing the new practices.
“I believe we have protocols in place that would stop them even if they tried,” Braddock says. “We’ve not had any attempts recently.”
Setton Farms requires trucking companies to provide specific information at least 24 hours in advance of pick-up. Shipments will not be released to trucks that arrive with less or no previous notice.
Information required in advance includes:
- Name of driver and carrier;
- Tractor/Trailer numbers; and
- Insurance information from the carrier.
Setton Farms also photographs the truck, the driver, the bill of lading and requires a finger print from the driver prior to releasing the load.
Braddock says carriers have not complained to him about the new protocols, saying some indicate they completely understand the extra precautions taken to prevent the theft of a truckload of processed nuts, which can be valued at $250,000, according to Jeffrey Gibbons, grower relations manager with Setton Farms.
Other protocols include restrictions on the ability to “sub-out” a load to another carrier once a broker has agreed to move a load. Once a load has been subbed out from the primary carrier one time, Setton Farms will not release the load to a second subhauler.
Shipping trackers can also be placed within a load that can alert the shipper if the load goes “off-route” to its destination or stops at an unauthorized location.
Shippers have been told to call their local law enforcement immediately when one of several “red flags” appear when a truck arrives to pick up a load and to stall the driver while deputies arrive.
Braddock says he has already done that and has plenty of positive things to say about reaction by the Tulare County Sheriff’s Department.
The California Legislature is working on a bill to give sheriffs in 18 counties the ability to form a joint powers agreement and coordinate with each other by authorizing the California Agricultural Cargo Theft Crime Prevention Program and task force.
The hope is the new task force can implement protocols and a network of information sharing that can help law enforcement target and arrest those involved in the agricultural cargo thefts.
So far only tree nuts, because of their high value, have been targeted by thieves, according to Isom.
The bill is currently working its way through the legislative process with no opposition so far. As of late April the bill had passed out of the California Assembly on a unanimous vote after clearing two Assembly committees with no opposition.
As of May 1 the bill still needed State Senate approval before heading to the governor’s office for his approval.
Creating the vehicle for local sheriffs to work together is just part of the battle, Isom says. Funding the effort at the local level could be a more difficult hurdle as the cash-strapped county law enforcement agencies move forward with their efforts.
The current bill solely addresses agricultural thefts, Isom says. Efforts by the California Highway Patrol (CHP) already address other cargo theft issues through different programs.
Initially, Isom said the CHP opposed the idea of an agricultural task force but has since offered its support after being assured that the new legislation would not withdraw funding mechanisms already in place for the CHP’s cargo theft task force.
“We’re not after their funding of other programs,” Isom says.
Because the current legislation only addresses formation of the task force and JPA, Isom says further legislation will be needed to address the other aspects of agricultural cargo thefts, including jail time and funding to keep the programs going.
Discussions are currently under way to address both of those issues, Isom says, including the possibility of obtaining federal funds to help with the program.