Preventing stolen trucks the hi-tech way


Westlake Village (CA) - Mark Eppley has been around the PC business almost since day one, when he invented a special cable to enable two computers to transfer data between them. Laplink went on to be one of the longest-selling brands in PC history, eventually selling more than 30 million copies, and Eppley became a fixture at industry conferences and events. Now the venerable pitchman is running a new business called SC-Integrity that has nothing to do with laptops, cables, or computers - directly. Call it LoJack for finding lost tractor trailer freight loads.

The problem is that more than 100 truck loads a day on average are lost or more likely stolen from America's roads. These aren't just some random pickups, but full 50-foot trailers that can carry anywhere from $100,000 worth of clothing to multi-million dollar loads of pharmaceuticals. And recovering these stolen goods is all being done with hi-tech that until recently wasn't even possible.

The idea is fiendishly simple: Place a tracking device of about the size of a deck of cards deep down inside a pallet of goods that is carried by trucks around the country. The device sends out a signal every 30 seconds telling the central monitoring command center where it is located. If it goes someplace unexpected, call the cops.

"A pallet of Viagra is worth $1.2 million on the retail market, and there are 28 pallets in the average-sized trailer," said Eppley.

The problem is that all this missing merchandise is the result of some very determined and clever crooks, and Eppley's company is using tech to track them down and stop the losses. So far this year they have recovered more than $7 million in goods. "The problem is that trucks and their trailers are almost always recovered, but not before they have been emptied out of their freight," he says. The FBI says that all it takes is $5000 in cash offered to a driver, and he'll gladly leave his motor running at a truck stop when taking a break.

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SC-Integrity's tracking system allows to set a 'geographic fence.'An alarm is triggered as soon as the freight leaves this fence.

"You can have professionals unload a truck in about five minutes," says Eppley. "We get a fix every 30 seconds on our trucks. If there is a problem, we can immediately detect that within one minute and notify the proper authorities."

Why so many missing trucks? First off, drivers are infrequently prosecuted, and when they are state laws let them get off lightly. "The problem is that in many states, vehicle theft is not a felony and many people are just prosecuted for the value of the empty trailer and not the freight, which can be at most $25,000." Your average BMW costs more than that. Several states, including California, are passing harsher laws to make it more risky for stealing freight. But clearly, theft is on the rise, and the bad guys know how to game the system.

When Miami cracked down on freight theft earlier this year, the thieves moved north to Atlanta, who had more lenient laws. "Things do change and the crooks do move around, although a lot of the theft is centered around the port cities," said Eppley.

David Strom
Strom is the former editor-in-chief at Tom's Hardware and the founding editor-in-chief of Network Computing magazine. He has written thousands of articles for dozens of technical publications and websites, and written two books on computer networking.