CARGO THEFT DOWN IN FLORIDA; INDUSTRY STILL SEEKING SECURITY
Byline: CAROL EMERT
WASHINGTON — After a long period of notoriety, thefts of fragrance shipments from crime-ridden south Florida have declined markedly over the past year.
Still, the many executives in the beauty industry continue to seek funding for a law enforcement task force to help purge the area completely of cargo theft.
In November and December, historically the two biggest months for cargo crime in the Miami area, only one shipment of fragrances was stolen, a mix of brands worth about $30,000, according to a federal law enforcement official who requested anonymity.
The stolen shipment, the official said, was later recovered. That relatively minor heist compares with 1994’s average of about one major theft per week in November and December — with few or no recoveries, according to law enforcement officials.
In addition to the fragrances, a truckload of EstAe Lauder cosmetic gift packs worth $189,000 was apparently stolen from a truck stop in Tampa. The empty container was later found in Miami. Lauder executives declined to be interviewed for this story.
Until the downturn in late 1995, fragrance theft in the Port of Miami, Miami International Airport, Port Everglades and surrounding warehouse space was a burgeoning problem, particularly in the weeks before Christmas. In sometimes violent robberies, thieves stole products from the docks, warehouses and even from trucks parked at gas stations in the area.
Fragrances were the second most sought-after items, according to law officials, following computers and other electronic equipment.
According to those working on the cases, much of the stolen merchandise was routed to overseas markets, with much of the rest diverted to flea markets.
Cargo theft has been a growing phenomenon as organized criminal groups discovered that jail time is significantly lower for cargo crimes than for drug-related trade — but the profits to be gained from the burglaries are still quite high, said Richard Gregorie, senior litigator for the Florida U.S. Attorney’s office in Miami.
“If you transport, say, five kilograms of cocaine, which is worth maybe $70,000, you’ll get a 10-year mandatory sentence,” said Gregorie. “If you steal $1 million in cargo you may go to jail for two years. So even the drug traffickers are finding it makes more sense to steal cargo.”
While theft of computers continues to rise, security measures adopted by beauty companies and law enforcement agencies are apparently working to bump fragrances off of the list of highly targeted products. Calvin Klein Cosmetics, for example, did not suffer a single theft from Florida in 1995, after losing a total of $1 million worth of merchandise in 1993 and 1994 combined.
Al Checkett, senior director of corporate security for Calvin Klein Cosmetics, has been a leading industry voice in the fight against cargo theft in south Florida.
He attributed his company’s success both to greater efforts by the company in working with cargo handlers and to heightened attention to the problem of cargo theft by law enforcement agencies in south Florida.
Federal, state and local authorities have made a big push over the last year to stem cargo theft, according to Gregorie. One of the biggest steps was adding cargo theft to the list of crimes monitored by the South Florida Investigative Support Center, which formerly was used only to fight crimes such as money laundering and drug trafficking.
The support center coordinates investigations and tracks crime reports among state, federal and local agencies from across the state. About 40 officers and public prosecutors gather in the organization’s headquarters about once a month to discuss ongoing investigations.
The U.S. Customs Service, the FBI, the Metro-Dade police and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement have all dedicated at least one full-time officer to the task. Gregorie has also assigned several public prosecutors to the theft-prevention effort.
The adaptation of new security measures has also been recommended to cargo handlers in the port area of Miami.
They have been advised to add surveillance equipment, keep fragrance containers together in a well-lighted area and arrange the containers end-to-end to prevent entry through their doorways.
Formerly, fragrance containers, which are often identifiable due to their “flammable” warning signs, were generally tossed together with other types of shipments and were not given the benefit of heightened security.
As a result of such new measures, “There have been more arrests in the last three months than in last three years,” according to a federal agent.
Despite recent successes, the law enforcement agencies and industry representatives such as Checkett are trying to secure federal and state funding to set up an independent task force to combat cargo theft.
Florida’s members of Congress, fearing that crime will drive international trade to other ports, sent a letter earlier in February to U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, a south Florida native, asking for Justice Department funding for the organization.
The letter was prepared by the office of Sen. Connie Mack (R.) and co-signed by Sen. Bob Graham (R.), Rep. Carrie Meek (D.) and Rep. E. Clay Shaw (R.)
A Mack staffer said industry representatives have estimated that the task force’s budget should be between $500,000 and $1 million per year, but the federal agent interviewed said that up to $2 million would be needed to cover salaries and overtime for dozens of agents, payments to informants, undercover warehouses and other surveillance costs.
The tight federal budget — not to mention the still-stalled budget talks — will probably make the push for federal funds more difficult, the Mack aide admitted. “We’re putting that into the hands of the Attorney General to see if there are discretionary resources available or where she could get the money,” the staffer said. “We’re in limbo right now.”
Once funding is secured, the industry’s next concern will be toughening federal sentencing guidelines for crimes involving cargo theft, said Checkett. This could also take some doing, as it would require an act of Congress.