The truck company appeared legitimate, though the paperwork was a bit sloppy. But after a few calls, the broker told Horizon Nut Co. to load 45,000 pounds of shelled pistachios and send it to the East Coast.
Hours later, the trailer was empty in the Los Angeles-Long Beach port area, and about $450,000 worth of nuts had vanished into the shady market for stolen cargo.
The heist in mid-November was one of 31 reported last year in California's sprawling Central Valley, a $9 million rural crime wave that has caught California's lucrative nut industry and its cargo shippers off guard.
“We basically handed the load over to the driver,” said Kirk Squire, grower relations manager for the Tulare company. “It wasn't a robbery. It was a legitimate pickup by a fictitious trucking company. It's fraud. There was no violence; there was nothing.”
On Thursday, about 150 farmers, processors and shippers crowded into a convention center in Modesto vowing to stop the thieves this year.
It was the second emergency meeting in just five months. The first one, in Visalia in December, apparently wasn't sufficient to prevent at least three more heists from companies whose representatives attended it.
“Six months ago, cargo theft wasn't even on our radar screen,” said Roger Isom, president of the Western Agricultural Processors Assn., a trade group that sponsored the meetings. “No one is immune — we've had almonds stolen, we've had pistachios stolen and we've even had cashews stolen, which we don't grow here but are processed in the Central Valley.”
Authorities just found out Thursday morning about another 30,000-pound load of almonds from a Tulare processor that didn't show up at the right destination. Tulare County sheriff's detectives left the conference hastily, working their cellphones to track leads.
Nothing prepared the valley for the high-tech nut bandits, an organized network that has hacked databases, falsified documents and shifted tactics to adapt to security measures.
“We're a little bit behind,” Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux said. “The group we're investigating is very sophisticated and organized.”
The FBI's Sacramento office is investigating some of the organized nut thieves, who have shipped cargo across state lines and overseas. “I anticipate local and federal indictments,” said supervising special agent Daniel Bryant.
Law enforcement authorities say websites where truckers search for cargo assignments lag behind other industries in cybersecurity measures. Even a U.S. Transportation Department site commonly used by truckers has proved vulnerable to criminals.
The vast majority of the nut thefts were frauds, rather than break-ins of unattended trailers, said Scott Cornell, a specialist in the transportation division of Travelers, one of the top insurers of freight nationwide. A common ruse is to use a false company to hire a legitimate trucker, then tell the trucker to divert the load to another warehouse, where he is paid and sent on his way.
“They have no idea they're participating in a theft,” Cornell said. “They just think they've been hired to pick up the load.”
Scammers also have used “ghost trucks” that duplicate legitimate ones but are untraceable on trucking databases. Thieves have also tested security measures by sending scout trucks that abruptly leave processing plants without picking up loads.
After the economy tanked in 2008, thieves probably followed the market, eschewing electronic luxury goods in favor of food and beverages, Cornell said.
“Nuts don't have serial numbers; nuts don't have to be activated over the Internet; you can't ping a nut over the Internet,” Cornell said. “The product is easy to move, and the evidence is consumed.”
Agricultural crime is not new to the San Joaquin Valley, where the sheriff's departments of most of the major farm counties have officers dedicated to things pilfered from the nearly 7 million acres of nuts, fruit, grains and vegetables that generate about $17 billion in revenue. Over the years, thieves have stolen equipment, fuel, irrigation pipe, copper wire and even bees.
But for several years, food and beverage has surpassed electronics as the top category for cargo crimes, according to CargoNet, a division of crime analytics company Verisk.
About 28% of the 881 incidents of cargo theft nationwide last year involved food and beverages, more than double the number targeting electronics, according to CargoNet. California accounted for 158 of the nation's cargo thefts, with losses of about $18.7 million, according to CargoNet.
Most of the losses are absorbed by trucking companies and brokers who arrange shipment on behalf of buyers, Cornell said.
Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen (R-Riverbank) said she has introduced legislation that would allow counties in the Central Valley to create a task force that crosses jurisdictions.
“In the L.A. County area, there are massive operations with large warehouses of stolen nuts,” said Olsen, who first heard of the thefts from a local grower in her district. “The products are bound for other states and other nations.”
Richard Hudson, senior deputy for Kern County's rural crimes unit, said one suspect fled to Moscow after being linked to three thefts in a 36-hour period in 2014 — one of nuts in Kern County and two electronics thefts in Los Angeles.
“He's gone; I have no idea where he is. We have a felony warrant out on him,” Hudson said.
Since then, major Kern County processors such as Paramount Farms — now known as Wonderful Pistachios & Almonds — have tightened security, which has “drastically” cut the number of local heists down to one in the last six to eight months.
But Cornell said the criminals are monitoring every move, including Thursday's conference, looking for new weaknesses.
“They spend all day trying to figure out how to be better criminals,” Squire said. “We spend all day trying to figure out how to process nuts.”
Mohan reported from Modesto and Winton from Los Angeles.