Alphonso Rivera

It’s an easy crime to commit and a hard one to detect. Cyber criminals are stealing millions of dollars a year from valley farmers and processors.

The high-profile thefts of valuable truckloads of California tree nuts have grabbed recent headlines and highlighted the reach of the organized crime networks that are behind them.

Consider that a truckload of pistachios, for example, may have a value of $500,000. Multiply that number by the increasing incidents of thefts and you get a real appreciation for the scope of the problem.

According to CargoNet, an organization that tracks transportation security issues, more than 30 truckloads of almonds, pistachios, cashews, pecans and walnuts were stolen from nut growers and processors in central California in 2015. That was up from five truckloads in 2012. Thieves infiltrating the complicated supply chain linking farmers to retailers stole an estimated $10 million in product that year.

Cargo thefts are not new. But for a variety of reasons, agriculture is being increasingly targeted. And the use of cybercrimes to pull off these heists also is increasing. When you think of cargo being stolen, don’t just think of trucks being hijacked. Rather, think of clever cybercriminals hacking into vulnerable computer databases to obtain the “keys” they use to drive off with the goods.

There are a variety of scenarios in these thefts. Consider one of the most common: the “fictitious pickup.” In these cases, thieves may hack into a government agency’s shipping database. They will then lift information about drivers from the social media pages of shipping and trucking companies to create fraudulent documents. Posing with these documents, fake drivers will arrive at a processing plant and simply drive away with a valuable load.

Fake documents also often include “burner” cell phone numbers. When called, customers believe they are communicating with legitimate haulers. They learn otherwise when their cargo does not arrive at its destination.

Another scenario is for thieves to pose as a “customer” — a farmer or processor — and direct a “real” truck driver to deliver his cargo to an alternate, bogus location. By the time the theft is detected, the cargo has been scattered through a black market in the U.S. or overseas.

Nuts are particularly attractive targets for thieves because of their high value and the inability to track a stolen load. Nuts do not have serial numbers and are consumed, leaving little evidence to investigate.

And as hard as law enforcement agencies work to combat this crime, criminals are working harder to come up with more clever schemes.

The answers to foiling these crimes are found in the vigilance of farmers and producers.

• Retain the services of a forensic computer consultant to examine the security of your online databases and identify vulnerabilities. Follow the consultant’s recommendations for increasing cybersecurity.

Communicate with law enforcement agencies and others in your industry to understand the scams that are targeting farmers and producers.

Screen your employees. Conduct background checks on drivers, warehouse workers and others who have shipping information.

Know your haulers. Double-check the identity of drivers. While resolving questions may delay a shipment, consider the delay when a shipment is stolen.

Create communications strategies, such as passwords or other devices, to assure the identity of a driver and the validity of delivery instructions.

Use technology to track cargo. This might include installing sensors and other devices into the cargo to assure that it is being delivered to the proper location.

Quickly report problems to law enforcement agencies. These crimes are hard to solve. They are impossible if the “trail” gets cold.

Develop a “risk management” plan that includes regular forensic audits of your company’s online systems.

— Alphonso Rivera is the founder and CEO of Advanced Micro Resource, a Bakersfield-based digital forensic company that specializes in digital audits involving cell phone and computer evidence for attorneys, private investigators, human resources consultants and companies.

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