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By Stephen Stock, Liz Wagner and Felipe Escamilla, NBCBayArea.com
It is the costliest crime in America, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Organized crime drives it, money fuels it, and it has gone international. It happens nearly three times a day somewhere in America, and in California it happens twice as often as anywhere else in the nation.
We’re talking about cargo theft — the high-cost, big-time crime that you’ve likely never heard about.
“It really is huge,” said California Highway Patrol officer Xavier Spencer. “We estimate nationwide that it’s a $35 billion loss annually just in cargo theft and obviously that only involves the cargo theft that we’re made aware of. A lot of these thefts are not reported.”
Spencer is part of the CHP’s Cargo Theft Interdiction Program or CTIP, and is one of 10 people on the force assigned to fight cargo theft full time in the state. He and just three other men cover the entire region north of Los Angeles County up to the Oregon border.
For the past three months the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit went undercover with CTIP investigators to expose this major crime. Reporters and producers went behind the scenes to track down stolen shipping containers in Stanislaus County; rode along on stings to look for lifted cargo in Gilroy; watched recovery operations at the Port of Oakland and reviewed surveillance video the team used to track down suspects.
“A lot of times these guys will go park their trucks at the truck stop and go inside and clean up or get something to eat and they come out and their trailers and tractors are gone,” Spencer said. “Somebody just stole it within 30 seconds...