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No Surprises in These Boxes

In early 2003, a warehouse crew was getting ready to unload a cargo container left at the dock the previous night. The foreman used his pocket­knife to cut through the metal-band seal, then he casually removed the seal and tossed it into the nearby trash bin. He bent down and pulled back the four door rods. The forklift driver started his engine and adjusted the overhead spotlight to illuminate the container’s interior. The employees approached to begin the task of stacking the contents onto pallets for removal with the forklift. Everything seemed normal except for the stench emanating from the container’s interior. The foreman stepped inside to investigate and immediately retreated to yell: “Call security, we’ve had an intruder in the box.”

Security arrived at the scene and confirmed that one or more people had been hiding in the container. The people were gone, but water bottles, clothing, and human waste provided ample evidence that they had occupied the container for several days. Luckily, apart from a few crushed boxes, none of the merchandise in the container was disturbed or stolen. On-site security personnel took photos and documented the incident. However, they failed to note that while the seal had been intact, it was not the original seal on the container.

The warehouse owners reported the incident to the transportation company that carried the cargo, Horizon Lines. Corporate security at Horizon Lines conducted its own investigation. Tracing the load back to its origin in California along the intermodal route, Horizon investigators were told by rail employees that when the container had been unloaded from the train, they had noticed that the container had no seal. But without checking the container further or reporting the missing seal, the employees simply put a new seal on the container door. The breach in security had likely occurred, investigators concluded, while the container was on the train.

To corporate security, the break-in signaled grave weaknesses in the security of the company’s cargo during transit. And the issue was all the more important to address in a post-9-11 world. Before 9-11, Horizon security’s primary concern was to keep merchandise in the containers and uncover hidden contraband. Now, an additional challenge is to prevent people from hiding inside, because if stowaways could get into the cargo containers, so could terrorists.

The company. Horizon Lines, based in Dallas, Texas, is a domestic transportation solutions company that provides service between the U.S. mainland and the offshore states of Alaska and Hawaii as well as the islands of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Northern Marianas. To help protect merchandise on its journey, Horizon had implemented standard industry security practices over the past several years. However, due to the newer threats of terrorism and other concerns about criminal activity, the company has recently been updating and expanding its security program. To ensure adequate security, management has studied various types of crimes and developed countermeasures for each. It has also evaluated, and continues to assess, company processes and equipment to determine whether any security enhancements are needed.

Crimes and countermeasures. Part of protecting cargo is identifying potential wrongdoers, their likely level of sophistication, and the consequences of their actions. Security personnel assessed the types of intruders that would be most likely to target the company and its type of cargo. Following is a look at the intruder categories and the countermeasures developed to address them.

Casual intruder or thief. Casual intruders can be like the hobo of the 1930s, only looking for a ride, or illegal immigrants trying to escape. The casual thief is likewise often working without a plan or tools, responding only to the opportunity for theft.

To help deter these types of threats, the company switched from a standard door seal that could be opened with a knife to a high-strength-bolt door seal that cannot be severed with simple tools. The tougher seal is intended to deter intrusions of opportunity in which the thieves have no information as to what is inside the container and no advance knowledge about the countermeasures they will encounter.

The company uses the bolt door seals only on containers that will be transported in certain high-risk trade lanes or that carry high-risk loads—such as pharmaceuticals or electronics. The seals are typically applied at the manufacturer’s loading dock. 

The bolt door seals are not only hard to remove; they are also difficult to copy. However, they are not foolproof. For example, some companies have been robbed by thieves who drilled out the door-hasp bolts that keep the seal assembly on the door attached and intact. The thieves then opened the doors, stole the cargo, and placed high-quality fake door-hasp bolts in place of the originals to delay discovery of the crime.

To prevent such attacks, the door locking mechanism and seal can be further protected with a steel casing placed around the door hasp and seal so that they cannot be accessed. The company is also considering modifying the container door-locking rods and moving the seal location to eliminate the easily manipulated door hasp on today’s boxes.

After the bolt door seals are in place, a motor carrier typically drives the load directly to the port of loading where the receiving ocean carrier conducts a seal check. (A longer inland move may entail a combination rail and truck move). Whether contracting to pick up or deliver a load, Horizon makes sure that the carrier will meet specified security standards.

In addition, to ensure that the seals are applied correctly to cargo containers leaving its care, Horizon has started a training course for employees. Security has also started a port-review program in which corporate security personnel ensure that employees are following security procedures.

Sophisticated criminals. The sophisticated cargo thief depends on three ingredients: insider information, access, and time. The first ingredient is obtained if the criminal can get an insider to collude. That partner is able to identify the load that holds high-value product, the route it will travel, and when it will be moved.

To counter the threat posed by this type of criminal, Horizon’s first line of defense is an internal security program designed to discourage insider theft and make it more difficult for any outsider to collude with a company employee. Traditional criminal background checks are performed on all employees.

Also, as part of a plan to thwart insider theft, the company requires that all employees sign a code of ethics as a condition of employment. Plans are to go even further. For example, for warehouse workers, the future code will contain regulations about how and when employees can be near open containers. For office personnel, the code will note company policy on protecting intellectual property from competitors and keeping company secrets away from those outside the company who may want to use the information to plan a heist. By signing the code, all employees agree to abide by its provisions.

The code also informs employees of the consequences of their actions. Breaking the code’s rules or stealing from the company will lead to disciplinary action up to and including termination and, if warranted, criminal prosecution.

The company has recently launched another program designed to identify would-be thieves before they do damage to the company. Security has long known that commonsense observations about lifestyle in relation to an individual’s known sources of income are valuable clues. Additionally, if an employee has suddenly developed poor work habits and is coming to work disheveled, those changes may be indicators of personal problems, such as a chemical dependency. These employees are ripe targets for criminals hoping to get insiders to sell information for cash.

In the past, Horizon trained only human resources personnel to spot such behavior changes, which did not help the company monitor employees at remote warehouses or shipping stations. To fill the gap, corporate security designed a training program for their newly appointed local security officers at each Horizon facility. (All Horizon managers already receive such training.) The program is delivered in both classroom and scenario styles.

Security has also sought ways to keep criminals from obtaining the other ingredients they would need to plan and pull off a heist: access to cargo and time to carry out their plan. Since an intruder can gain access to containers only when the cargo is not in transit, one obvious solution is to minimize the time a shipment spends exposed at rest stops.

To address this vulnerability, Horizon drivers are instructed and frequently reminded never to leave loads parked unattended outside a secured yard. If a prolonged outside stop is unavoidable because of mechanical trouble or an emergency, the truck must stay attached to the container and the cab must be locked with an engine kill switch engaged. (By blocking electrical transmissions to the engine, these switches prevent a thief from hotwiring a truck.)

When parking the truck, the driver is instructed to park the rear of the container against a solid vertical object such as a wall, which is intended to prevent the doors from being opened. (Absent such a solid object, truck drivers often back their trailers up against each other or against utility poles. But there are situations where no suitable object is available.) When no truck is hooked to a trailer, a chassis kingpin protector—a device that prevents a truck from latching to a tractor—can be used to prevent an unauthorized truck from pulling the load away.

A nonstop truck route to the destination is the preferred delivery method for high-risk cargo, but many inland locations require layovers or demand rail transportation to keep transportation costs affordable. At the shipper’s option and for an additional price, truck team drivers are available to ensure a direct delivery over extended distances with brief stops only for fuel and food.

Terrorists. Terrorist organizations pose a special challenge because they are not interested in stealing the cargo (unless it is something they may be able to weaponize). Instead, they may want to use the container to smuggle in a weapon or sneak agents into the country. This means that terrorists are not deterred by traditional methods. However, by tightening security procedures to prevent theft, the company hopes to also thwart terrorists. The company has looked into more high-tech methods such as chemical sniffers that detect radiation or human occupation. But at more than $100 per unit, the technology has been judged too expensive at present to justify what is still a speculative threat.

Additional strategies. Horizon has developed many additional strategies to reduce exposure to theft. For example, freight-bill product descriptions have been rewritten so that they are more generic, shipper names have been modified to reveal only a neutral entity, and door seals no longer bear the company name.

All of the measures discussed are effective for now, but Horizon security recognizes that would-be thieves will inevitably find ways to defeat any set of cargo security measures. The company, therefore, continually reassesses its exposures to ensure that its combination of security measures keeps cargo moving safely, while stopping thieves in their tracks.

Gunther Hoock is director of safety, security, and hazmat for Horizon Lines in Dallas.