Several nut processing plants in the San Joaquin Valley have had truckloads of ready-for-market nuts stolen by thieves using their knowledge of the trucking industry and Internet savvy to create fake shipping documents.
Caro Nut Co. in Fresno had six truckloads of processed cashews stolen this year, said Todd Crosswell, general manager.
“The paperwork was legitimate,” Crosswell said.
In each case – two truckloads in April and four in September – truck drivers presented shipping documents and left Fresno with loads valued at $220,000 to $250,000 each. But once on the road to Mira Loma, the drivers got phone calls from someone posing as the trucking broker who ordered them to drive to Compton.
They dropped the loads at the new destination, and Caro Nut Co. found out later the cashews had been stolen when the buyer, Costco, said the loads never arrived.
The scenario has become such a problem that the Western Agricultural Processors Association and the American Pistachio Growers held a Tree Nut Theft Emergency Summit in Visalia on Thursday. About 150 people from the nut processing industry, insurance companies, trucking brokers and law enforcement attended.
This is not your two-bit thieves. It’s very sophisticated.
Roger Isom, Western Agricultural Processors Association
Organized crime in the Los Angeles area has been exploiting the Internet to create fake trucking documents, Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux said. A multicounty task force of agricultural crimes units will be created to attack the problem, he said, and he’s asking legislators to write new laws to deal with the problem.
“This is a very lucrative business with 100 percent profit,” he said. “To me, this is more lucrative than drug dealing.”
Nut processors and growers are a tempting target, because nuts are high value and difficult to trace, said Roger Isom, president and CEO of the Western Agricultural Processors Association.
“We’re talking millions of dollars,” he said. “This is not your two-bit thieves. It’s very sophisticated.”
$500,000Value of single stolen load of shelled pistachios
It’s believed that a crime ring has been hacking into a Department of Transportation database to obtain phone numbers of trucking officials, whom the criminals then call to redirect shipments to new destinations, he said.
Growers are at risk of losing their income because once a load is gone, neither the grower nor the nut processor gets paid – unless the insurance company honors a claim, which is not a sure thing, said Andrew Howe, general manager of Horizon Nut Co. in Tulare.
In November, Horizon had a shipment of shelled pistachios valued at $500,000 disappear.
“They had a legitimate truck driver and legitimate paperwork,” Howe said. “We had all our security measures in place.”
Someone pretending to be the trucking broker had the driver take the load to a different destination, he said. The driver dropped it off, got paid cash and another driver took away the load, but by the time the driver figured out something was amiss, it was too late, Howe said.
Stricter procedures at the loading dock are becoming the norm, with drivers being fingerprinted and their photographs taken, for instance, industry representatives said.
Some companies won’t allow a change of destination unless it’s arranged in advance, and some have begun quietly placing tracking devices in the loads.
Relatively few arrests have been made to date.
In Tulare County, a Los Angeles man was sentenced last year to three years and eight months in jail for stealing processed walnuts from Sun Tree Nut Co.
Another man was caught trying to steal more than $200,000 in nuts from Setton Pistachio Co. in Terra Bella, authorities said. If found guilty, he faces eight months to a year and a half in jail, plus two years because of the high value of the stolen property, the Tulare County District Attorney’s Office said.