TT Talk - Freight crime - an investigative experience focused on the United Kingdom

Signum Services Limited (Signum) serves to conduct investigations worldwide on behalf of TT Club and its Members. This article draws on the experience and observations of these former senior detectives, with particular focus on crime in the UK.

Signum has recorded that instances of theft of cargo from trailers have continued to grow during the last 12 months. Cargo theft in the UK is now a significant concern for everyone involved in both the transport and insurance sectors, as well as being significant challenge for the already resource-stretched enforcement agencies.

Threat landscape

Signum is regularly called upon to investigate allegations of cargo theft. The recurring theme in these cases is that they occur at insecure parking locations, such as layby's, secluded roads and public areas on industrial estates. These are supplemented by offences at parking areas within motorway service stations that at first glance would appear to offer a relatively secure location for drivers to stop and rest.

Night time offences continue to make up the majority of theft crimes. It is clear that those involved in cargo theft from trailers originate from well-organised criminal networks. Intelligence suggests that they operate much like a successful business. Their activities are planned, coordinated and collaborative.

The perpetrators have specialist functions, their structures are multi-layered, often internationally extended and highly adaptive. In this way stolen loads can be moved and disposed of with great efficiency and swiftly disbursed across the length and breadth of the UK and into Europe.


The organised criminal fraternity is attracted to cargo theft given the relatively low risk and the ease to establish contacts and distribution networks. Money from the sale of stolen cargo typically funds other illicit enterprises such as drug trafficking and further up the criminal food chain.

Organised criminal networks are highly sophisticated. They will often target specific cargoes using insider information. They will use individual gang members as 'hawks' situated in strategic locations to spot police patrols and to scout out potential target loads. They utilise modern scanning equipment to monitor police activity and GPS inhibitors or jamming technology devices to block the units' signals. 

Criminals will steal most commodities, although fast moving consumer goods are an obvious choice. Before the economic downturn of 2008 thieves tended to target consumer items. The market share is now more evenly split with food and drink, electronics, household goods and building supplies receiving similar attention. Food and beverages are inevitably popular as they are quickly consumed and thus rapidly disappear from the physical space and evidential chain.

Outlets for the sale of stolen goods include markets, boot sales and the traditional 'back of the lorry'.  Increasingly, items appear on online auction sites such as 'eBay' and more localised sites such as 'Facebook', 'Shpock', 'Gumtree' and 'Depop'.

In the UK it is unusual for criminals to resort to violence when committing cargo theft. Firearms are rarely seen in use.

False claims

Signum often encounters drivers in the UK who claim to have been gassed rendering them unconscious and thus unaware of the theft occurring a few feet behind them. In Signum's experience and opinion the use of such gas is a myth; such assertions are met with suspicion.

In 2014 the Royal College of Anaesthetists stated if there was a totally safe, odourless, potent, cheap anaesthetic agent available to thieves for this purpose it is likely the medical profession would know about it.

Anaesthetic gas is very dangerous to administer and must be done by a suitably trained medical professional to avoid risk of death. It is highly unlikely that an untrained member of the criminal fraternity could deliver the correct gas, in the correct dose without causing death. The potential of turning an act of theft into an act of murder would be very high and equally unattractive.


Signum recognises that a further reason why trailer cargo theft is an attractive proposition is the lack of police response. The well-publicised reduction in policing budgets and manpower over recent years has left forces vastly under resourced.

It is now very rare for any police force to send an officer to the scene of a reported cargo theft, regardless of the value of the property stolen. This can mean that the opportunity to further an investigation is lost. No statements are taken, no witnesses are sought, no CCTV is located and no forensic examination is carried out. In most cases the investigation is closed almost immediately as it is deemed no leads are available.

Signum works closely with the NaVCIS (National Vehicle Crime Intelligence Service), a national police body aimed at providing UK Police forces with intelligence about freight crime, with links to similar units on the continent. Their cooperation is very welcome in helping Signum step into the void left by the lack of police response and to pursue investigations.

Combatting the highly sophisticated criminal gangs involved in cargo theft is a mountainous task. It is unlikely that future policing budgets will see additional funding and Police operations are likely to remain focused on other perceived priority areas of crime.

The main exposure to risk comes from drivers parking in vulnerable locations and in particular areas that are void of street lighting, CCTV coverage and passing traffic. With this in mind, Signum and TT Club continue to explore and support all initiatives aimed at prevention.

We gratefully acknowledge the assistance in the preparation of this article of David Thompson of Signum Services (the specialised criminal investigative unit of the Thomas Miller Group)



We hope that you have found the above interesting. If you would like further information, or have any comments, please email us, or take this opportunity to forward to any colleagues who you may feel would be interested.
We look forward to hearing from you.

Peregrine Storrs-Fox
Risk Management Director, TT Club

Staff Author

Thomas Miller Group