In recent months, an increased number of thefts from moving trucks has put this sophisticated modus operandi – also known as the ‘Romanian method’ or ‘Surfing’ – in the spotlight of supply chain security in Europe again. After first emerging in Germany in 2008, robberies from trucks in motion have also been reported in other European countries in the following years, although the total number of such cases remained low. In December 2018, however, a new high-profile theft of laptops worth EUR 50,000 (USD 57,500) on a highway in eastern Romania as well as a police notification in the Netherlands warning of multiple such thefts near the logistics hub of Tilburg sparked concerns among security professionals and highlighted that this modus operandi still poses a threat to supply chains in the region.
According to 2017 data from the Transport Asset Protection Association (TAPA), more than 70 percent of cargo thefts occurred at rest areas or parking lots along highways, where truck drivers usually stay overnight. Thefts from moving vehicles are, by contrast, very rare due to the complexity of the operation. The method usually involves a larger group of individuals using at least three vehicles. One of the vehicles drives in front of the truck to slow down its speed, while the second vehicle approaches the rear of the truck to climb onto the loading area. A third one remains further back to block traffic from behind and ensure the crime scene is not in the field of vision of other drivers. In some instances, another car may be driven next to the targeted truck to prevent the truck driver from changing lanes. The goods are then transferred from the loading area to the vehicle driving behind the truck.
The main targets of such operations are usually high-value products such as electronic consumer goods, with gangs aiming to attack transport companies that deliver goods for electronics manufacturers. Since 2017, incidents using this method occurred on highways in multiple European countries, including the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Romania, Spain and Sweden. In one case, five Romanian men stole iPhones worth EUR 500,000 (USD 575,000) from a moving truck on the A73 highway near Horst in the Netherlands. The spread of the crime locations indicates that the threat is not limited to specific geographies and needs to be seen in a larger, Europe-wide context. Similar cases were also reported in Italy, Belgium and Germany between 2013 and 2016.
Executing such thefts requires a high degree of sophistication. Criminals often appear to know the nature of the goods transported by a specific truck in advance and are familiar with the surroundings of the crime scene, usually unlit parts of a highway. While police reportedly have limited knowledge as to how the gangs know which vehicles to aim for, it is speculated that gang members go around on truck stops and listen in on conversations between drivers to discover their cargo. Transferring the goods at speeds of up to 80 kph also exposes the individuals to much greater risks than other methods like curtain slashing. Following the iPhone heist in 2017, a Romanian gang, thought to have been responsible for 17 truck robberies since 2015, was arrested. Other gangs are likely to have adopted this method since.
Outlook and recommendations
Due to the level of sophistication and risks involved, the total number of thefts is, however, unlikely to reach levels similar to other modus operandi. In the Netherlands, incidents reported around Tilburg in December 2018 were the first such cases since the arrest of the Romanian gang in July 2017. Nonetheless, when they occur, the thefts usually cause severe financial damage due to the high value of the stolen goods. As thieves often take only a few minutes to steal the cargo, giving truck drivers limited opportunity to notice the theft while it is occurring, police recommend that truck drivers note down the license plate numbers of suspicious vehicles driving in front of them, in particular, if traffic seems to be unusually quiet on a highway. Supply chain security professionals should also be mindful of developing a specific code of conduct in their organization regarding such incidents, i.e. exercising discretion during breaks at truck stops when transporting high-value cargo and instructing carriers to report any suspicious behavior to local police to shorten the response time.