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As a logistics and business hub, Milton Keynes in the UK has literally become a victim of its own success as a prominent target for cargo theft gangs. Most of the action takes place at unsecure parking places in business parks and motorway services along the M1 motorway. It can be hard to mitigate these cargo theft risks when operating in the area. However, using security data to support your operations can help you understand where these incidents are taking place and the security and inherent vulnerability of available parking areas in the region…

I was recently on a road trip vacation in Denmark with a mate. Due to the coronavirus, we decided to stay within the Danish borders. On the way, passing several lorries, I started to notice what I routinely put in my threat assessments: soft sided trailers fixed with duct tape. Some had small repairs, and a few had slash marks running from one end of the trailer to another. All evidence of the problem of cargo theft, the small holes being where perpetrators look and assess the value of the cargo, and the large slashes where they steal as much as they can carry. It is always interesting to see these things up close.

Most cargo theft in Europe is carried out by relatively low-level organised crime groups, meaning that while the groups themselves can be somewhat large, they are not linked to major crime syndicates or criminal networks, or have complex inner workings or hierarchical structures. So rather street gangs and small-time criminals.

One of my main tasks as an analyst is to gauge the threat of cargo theft - what is the capability, intent, and opportunity available to criminal groups? Capability and intent are easy. While incidents vary, overall, there’s not a lot of tradecraft when it comes to getting into lorry trailers. You just need a utility knife or other breaching tools, a car to stuff stolen goods into and a pair of shoes that don’t squeak. And you do it to make money.

Often, opportunity is the most interesting - where are the best hunting grounds, and where is a theft easiest to pull off? These are often shown to me and my colleagues and include the notorious “hardest hit” parking areas and hotspots across Europe.

One interesting case is the Milton Keynes and Northampton area in the UK. While the UK, and England especially, is very affected by cargo theft - according to the British Home Office, cargo theft in the UK comes at a cost of £250 million (€290m) a year – Milton Keynes and Northampton are among the parts of the UK where the problem is greatest, according to available data. The threat is, therefore, significantly higher here than in the rest of the country.

The threat actor is the classic: Stanley knives and getaway vehicles. Opportunity-wise, this is a gold mine. In the cases of theft from lorries, we have public access to unsecured parking areas with little surveillance and security. Drivers often park at unsecured parking areas due to restrictions on driving hours and need for rest – at times even having to park outside warehouses for just-in-time deliveries. This is also why this type of theft happens at night when drivers are sleeping - similarly to cargo crime conditions elsewhere in Europe.

There are also reports of thefts from warehouses, even though these are often secured by perimeter fencing and other types of security. So, a bit more risk taking is needed for the perpetrators to gain opportunities. But given the prospect of a high enough payday, they will take that risk. Some opportunities may be created by obtaining information on specific cargo from corrupt employees, but this is not always easy to establish on a case-by-case basis. This is also why “round-the-corner” incidents happen, as the perpetrators try to create some more legroom to manoeuvre.

Additionally, there are reports of perpetrators tricking drivers at warehouse locations, using social engineering methods. Drivers, for example, may be stopped outside a warehouse where a couple of people are telling them about a flood, fire or other problem, and instruct the driver to take the cargo to another warehouse or yard nearby and unload there. Then the cargo disappears. In security circles, this is commonly referred to as “round the corner theft”.

Specifically, there are several factors that make the Milton Keynes area a prime location for cargo theft:

  • Home to over 14.000 businesses covering an array of sectors including 400 head offices
  • 40 business parks are located in the greater Milton Keynes area
  • Major players have logistics hubs in the area (John Lewis, Coca Cola, River Island, AG Barr, Red Bull)
  • It is a major logistical hub with easy access to the Midlands and South East regions of the UK as well as Europe via the Eurotunnel and channel ports.
  • Milton Keynes and Northampton sit astride the M1 motorway, one of the main North/South arterial links in the UK

This combination of factors creates a target rich environment for cargo theft criminals.

The major roads in the areas are, of course, public highways, and while most thefts from lorries happen at night, there is still usually plenty of normal life patterns – meaning other vehicles, traffic, etc. - that perpetrators can disappear into after the theft.

Turning this analysis into action is difficult. But there is a way to do it in relation to cargo theft, and that is to assess which rest areas are least affected. At Risk Intelligence, we have gathered this information in the land-based security risk module of our digital LandRisk Logistics system. Using this system, we can quickly assess individual parking areas along designated routes, and instantly see which ones are currently being targeted the most and their level of security. This helps to decide what sites to go to, and which sites to avoid for driver rest breaks.

When looking at the security and potential for a cargo theft incident at a truck parking area we assess 3 factors.

  1. Local Threat

When assessing the threat, we look at the incident history at site and within a 50km radius within the last 6 months. We assess the capability and intent demonstrated by the criminals during all incidents. This includes the resources at their disposal, the knowledge, and skills they demonstrated when committing thefts and the level of organisation they required to be successful in their attacks.

We also gauge their level of intent by looking at the nature, scale and sometimes the audacity of incidents to give us an idea of their degree of motivation and confidence. Importantly we also assess the threat or use of violence against the driver.

  1. Vulnerability

We look at the vulnerability of the parking areas themselves based on the presence or absence of security measures at site, in essence a security survey. We look at access control for vehicles and pedestrians, fencing, gates, lighting, and CCTV coverage and if the sites have a security accreditation from TAPA, ESPORG, the EU or the old LABEL project.

  1. Site Attractiveness

It is obviously hard to predict where the next cargo theft incident will take place. So, we try to put ourselves in the shoes of the criminals and understand what makes a site attractive for cargo theft. Utilising an ‘outside-in’ approach, we look at the site from the criminal perspective.

We know that most criminals will conduct surveillance before acting so we look at the opportunities for this. We consider the degree of natural or ‘friendly’ surveillance at site. We look at how accessible the parking area is, and whether criminals can park near to trucks to make the theft of large loads easier.

Obviously, a larger site has more potential targets which may also be a factor when criminals are selecting targets. We look at the ability of the criminals to escape if detected, the security barriers they would have to overcome and the proximity of escape routes. Finally, we look at the likelihood that the criminals may be identified during their attacks, which may obviously deter them.

We then use a combination of these factors to produce a site risk level which is automatically updated to cater for fluctuating incident levels and changes in the local threat dynamics.

As I witnessed on my road trip across Denmark, evidence of the problem of cargo theft is everywhere. Fortunately, the industry is getting better at countering this – and data-driven analysis is key. It allows you to plan your route and prepare your vehicles to handle the complex and ever-changing security challenges for logistics.


Cargo losses reported to TAPA EMEA’s Incident Information Service (IIS) in Milton Keynes in the past 18 months include:

  • 675.054 – Computers/Laptops
  • 221.844 – Clothing & Footwear
  • 150.586 – Furniture/Household Appliances
  • 98.865 – Computers/Laptops

Other products reported stolen to TAPA’s IIS in Milton Keynes included Food & Drink, Cosmetics & Hygiene, Toys & Games, and thefts of trucks and or trailers with no loads.

About the Author
Kristian Bischoff is Europe and Russia analyst at Risk Intelligence, as well as having a focus on emerging technological threats like cyber and electronic warfare. Kristian has previously served in the Danish Army and worked with analysis and physical security in international NGOs and emergency response organisations. He has also participated in the Danish Atlantic Treaty Association, a Copenhagen- based think-tank researching issues on international security.

Risk Intelligence offers global risk intelligence and near real-time threat alerts 24/7 as well as lane threat assessments and route planning, and enables fast reaction time and alternative route assessment with incident alerts and on-the-road browser access.


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