Cargo theft, which occurs across Canada and targets various types of products, has been affected by the pandemic in many different ways – from what is being stolen to where and how the product is being sold.

So, what’s fueling cargo theft in Canada, and how have things changed? Since the publication of our last cargo theft update in 2018, new trends have emerged. In the years leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, criminals targeted consumer goods they could get rid of very quickly, often selling them through local discount or variety stores.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a shift of what is being stolen and how. Border closures and lockdowns put in place to curb the spread of the virus have helped slow criminal activity but have not eliminated it completely. Cargo criminals are now taking a more calculated approach, focusing on which goods are popular in the market and what they can sell quickly at a high rate. 

To help you better understand how your risks have changed, we sat down with Garry Robertson, Claims Director of our Special Investigations Unit, to learn more about what is driving current national cargo theft trends.

Before COVID-19

“The trends we saw in 2017, 2018, and 2019 were pretty consistent across the country,” says Garry Robertson, Claims Director of the Special Investigation Unit at Northbridge Insurance.” Cargo theft was common, with criminals going after products they could get rid of very quickly.  

Targeting urban centres

The Greater Toronto Area (GTA) was and continues to be a hotspot for cargo theft. Cities including Mississauga, Milton, Brampton, and Toronto are prominent trucking hubs in North America, connected by major highways traveling east, west, north, and south. This unique framework allows cargo to move to neighbouring cities quickly, where loads can be dismantled and sold off.

Mixed load cargo

Mixed load cargo was frequently at the top of the list of stolen products because these loads can be broken down and separated, and thieves can more quickly and easily sell off the items to local stores. On the West Coast, trucks carrying beef and lumber were popular targets. In Eastern Ontario and Western Quebec, metal was targeted, including nickel, copper, and steel. In the Atlantic, loads of crab were often stolen.

“There were a variety of products being stolen – cooking oil, chicken and beef, RVs, you name it. Before COVID, there was a free-flowing market, so it was easy to move and sell product very fast,” says Robertson.

Beginning in late 2019 and moving into the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, there was a slight decline in national cargo theft.

Understanding the impact of COVID-19

The decline in cargo theft at the beginning of the pandemic was a result of tighter border restrictions implemented in the US and Canada to help curb the spread of the virus. A lack of container ships also meant thieves had nowhere to load their stolen goods. “Many theft distribution networks were shut down in the early days of COVID-19, so criminals had no way of selling stolen products,”says Robertson.

On the other hand, certain products suddenly became easier to steal during lockdown, like heavy equipment from construction sites. “These were often sitting out in the open and potentially not as secure because projects were forced to stop abruptly during lockdown,” says Robertson.

Just-in-time delivery

In response to the increased demand of certain products, many carriers began to use just in time delivery for shipment. This prevented loads from sitting for extended periods between deliveries. “Shelves were emptying faster than stores could keep up with, putting the pressure on carriers to ship products faster,” says Robertson.

Usually loads are sitting in transit at some point between their starting point and destination, and criminals take advantage of this. But during the pandemic, that has happened less often.

“Just in time delivery has been around since the 80s,” says Scott Creighton, Director of Risk Services at Northbridge Insurance. “But during the pandemic, people have been buying products as fast as they are hitting the shelves, which has been good for carriers, because they don’t have to worry about it sitting in their yard or in transit overnight.”

Keeping a pulse on the market

As the demand for consumer goods like toilet paper, personal hygiene and PPE products grew at the beginning of the pandemic, many criminals began to target these loads. “What this tells us is that thieves are watching the market to determine what the most popular goods are, what they can get rid of quickly, and what they can sell at a high rate,” says Robertson. “They understand the importance of supply and demand.” In recent months, lumber has also been targeted, in response to a lack of supply and a surge in price.

Closure of brick and mortar stores

Many stores and flea markets across Canada were closed during lockdown, which also caused a decline in criminal activity. “Because of this, thieves had to think about whether they wanted to store the product for what could be months at a time, before they could sell it,” says Robertson. “There are situations when we recovered a load of stolen product at the beginning of COVID. The thieves couldn’t get rid of it, so they ended up abandoning it.” Left without the option of moving product across the border, stolen cargo was often sold locally at the beginning of the pandemic.

Post-pandemic trends

The reopening of borders and economies will likely result in a steady increase in cargo theft activity and a return to many of the trends we saw before COVID-19. Certain loads that do not use just in time transport, like the pre-delivery of snow tires in the late summer, are attractive targets. These loads will most likely be sitting in yards until they can be sold in the winter.

Any sort of consumer and recreational products that are in high demand, such as bicycles, scrap metal and hot tubs will likely continue to draw the attention of thieves. Mixed loads are among the most common form of cargo theft we’re seeing post-pandemic. “Ultimately, trends are based on supply and demand, and they can change quite often. For example, if the price of scrap metal were to increase, that would be targeted,” says Robertson.

Here is a list of the most popular types of products found in stolen cargo:

Protecting your business with advice from the experts

As cargo theft trends in Canada continue to evolve, it’s important to stay up to date to help your business stay one step ahead of this threat. Make sure you implement the right loss prevention measures to help protect your business. Our Risk Services team can help guide your planning and make recommendations based on industry best practices. Learn more by visiting our Risk Management page today!

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