Truck hijackings in South Africa are rising rapidly, and are up by around 10% year to date over 2013 statistics, says Road Freight Association (RFA) technical and operations manager Gavin Kelly.
This adds up to a 5.1% increase for 2013/14, to 991 incidents, compared with 943 truck hijackings in 2012/13, according to South Africa’s official crime statistics, released earlier this year.
The same statistics say there were 821 truck hijackings in 2011/12.
“There have been roughly 1 200 truck hijackings in the new year,” says Kelly. “As the road freight industry, we will lose around R1.2-billion this year.”
The hope is that a new South African Police Service (Saps) task team, with the RFA a close partner, will be able to curb the increase, he notes.
“We will have to wait for 2015’s numbers to see if we have succeeded. We need a more reliable baseline to work from, and we hope 2014’s numbers will provide that baseline.”
Kelly questions some existing data.
“We are trying to gain some perspective on the problem. The truck population is increasing. So, is the percentage of the truck population out there being hijacked also growing? Are trucks becoming an increasingly easy target? If so, which trucks and which loads? Are more truck hijackings finally being reported? Or, are these crimes merely receiving more publicity than before? In other words, how big is the problem really?”
However, Kelly is not a denialist.
“There is no doubt we have a problem. Truck hijackings exist because there is a market for the goods being hijacked.”
THREE TYPES OF HIJACKINGS
There are three types of truck hijackings, explains Kelly.
The first targets the contents of the truck trailer, largely for their resale value. Trucks that are hijacked typically carry fuel, cigarettes, electronic goods and food.
For example, in September a truck transporting 35 000 ℓ of petrol was hijacked in Johannesburg, and found empty in Soweto a few hours later.
The truck driver said four men forced him to stop on the freeway and then dropped him off in Brakpan.
The value of the petrol was estimated to be more than R400 000.
In May last year, the police arrested suspects, some of whom included police officers, who hijacked a delivery truck carrying laptops in Midrand.
The police officers pretended to be on roadblock duty.
In May this year, a cigarette truck carrying goods worth more than R10-million was hijacked by five men on the N3, near Heidelberg.
The group posed as police officers and travelled in a vehicle with blue lights.
“Hijackings like this mean there is a clear market for the goods,” says Kelly. “You don’t hijack a petrol tanker if you do not know where and how you are going to unload and resell the contents. There must be some logistics behind the operation.”
At the moment, the contents of food truck hijackings, such as cooking oil and mealie meal, travel north of South Africa.
However, hijackings such as these can also be opportunistic and for social reasons. They will typically focus on the contents of a smaller vehicle carrying food, such as a small bread delivery truck, driving through a poor rural or township area.
The second type of hijacking focuses on the vehicle, with the horse and/or trailer resold and the goods often seen as a bonus, says Kelly.
The third type of hijacking is about parts, with the vehicle dismantled for its components.
The first type of hijacking is the most common, with organised syndicates largely responsible for the crime, says Kelly.
“When the truck is hijacked, not only do you lose the goods, but operators also experience downtime,” he adds.
“Drivers are also often hurt. Hijackings were very violent at one point.”
HOT SPOT AND PEAK TIMES
Truck hijackings typically peak on Wednesdays, between 09:00 and 12:00, and 18:00 and 20:00, says Kelly.
“We suspect drivers are more relaxed, or that the syndicates have established a drop-off and pick-up pattern by then.
“Wednesdays and Fridays see the most hijackings on the N3 corridor.”
The N3 route between Durban and Gauteng is a major hot spot, as is the manufacturing and distribution hub of Ekurhuleni.
The modus operandi can differ from highly organised operations where the criminals imitate police officers, or where police officers are involved, to opportunistic incidents where trucks are hijacked at truck stops.
“When a truck pulls up to load your goods, how do you know the driver is who he claims to be? Sometimes the easiest way to hijack a truck is to swap drivers,” adds Kelly.
Syndicates also use cellphone and truck tracking system jammers.
“They will often use a device that cancels a truck’s GPS signal so that the vehicle becomes invisible. As the truck disappears, the tracking company has little choice but to go to the truck’s last position, but where to from there?” says Kelly.
“It can also appear as if the truck is still in the same position.
Also, the faster industry works to come up with innovative solutions, the harder syndicates work to find a way around them.”
Kelly applauds the support the road freight industry has received from the Saps.
“With the support of the police, we have managed to capture a number of bogus police officers and vehicles. But yes, there are allegations that real cops are involved in the hijackings and, in some cases, this is true.
We know of two more vehicles, marked as Saps vehicles, out there in Gauteng involved in truck hijackings. Whether they are real or fake, we don’t know.”
SAPS TASK TEAM
Around 18 months ago, the RFA noticed what appears to be a steady increase in truck hijackings, targeting especially fuel tankers.
“The RFA, business and Saps formed a task team focused on fuel truck hijackings,” explains Kelly.
Then last year, a blue light syndicate hijacking fuel trucks on the N3 was busted. The syndicate offloaded the tankers’ contents on a farm, with the fuel sold on to a wholesaler, who, in turn, sold it to service stations.
The Saps task team has since expanded its focus beyond fuel tankers.
“Nine months ago, we started a hotline to ensure that any truck hijacking can be reported to the task team, using one control point,” says Kelly.
“The aim was to deal with any truck hijacking as soon as possible. Sometimes it takes up to 48 hours before a hijacking is reported.
“We also knew that a number of truck hijackings went unnoticed, as some operators felt it was of little use to report the crime.”
Kelly says Saps intelligence gathered over the last three months shows that insiders are involved in around 70% of the truck hijackings.
“It can be the driver, the receiver, the loader or whoever is responsible for the scheduling.”
Kelly says road freight operators can assist the RFA and Saps by reporting a hijacking as quickly as possible.
“We are also looking at implementing standard procedures for a number of situations. For example, when a truck is pulled over by people who appear to be from the police, the driver must be able to push a button on the dashboard indicating to his control room what is happening. He can also phone the control room.”
Kelly says the RFA and Saps are working to understand the “nature of the beast”.
“Tracking companies are providing us with statistics, and we are working on some technical solutions. This is important as the festive season is upon us, with truck operators especially vulnerable during this period.”
“Truck hijackings are increasing, but it is not one of the worst crimes in the set of statistics the Saps released earlier this year,” says Institute of Security Studies senior researcher Dr Johan Burger.
“However, we are seeing a correlation between the type of goods targeted in truck hijackings, and the recent wave of shopping centre robberies.
“Recent shopping mall robberies have targeted cellphones and information technology products, such as laptops – all easy to transport.
This is a good indication that the market for these good has opened up in Africa.”
Burger says store robberies have increased 142% over the last three years.
He says truck hijackings and mall robberies all appear to be well planned and executed with minimal violence, in an attempt to stay under the Saps’ radar, currently aimed largely at violent crime.
“What is bothering us about truck hijackings, and other similar crimes, is the lack of crime intelligence within the police,” adds Burger.
The continued politics surrounding former crime intelligence boss Richard Mdluli and police commissioner Riah Phiyega has resulted in the purge of a number of highly capable, experienced crime intelligence officers at the police’s crime intelligence division, says Burger.
“The structure is not operating optimally, and to make a dent in syndicates, you need a well-oiled crime intelligence unit. Crime syndicates are no doubt taking advantage of the current situation.
“The police’s ability to infiltrate and identify syndicates is rather poor at the moment.
We urgently need to return some experience to the crime intelligence division.”
In the absence of effective crime intelligence, the solution to preventing hijackings can lie in private security initiatives.
FleetBoard is a Mercedes-Benz driver and fleet management system aimed at preventing breakdowns, reducing maintenance and operator costs, and improving driver habits.
The system has a myriad of purposes, most of which involve 24/7 technical monitoring, says Mercedes-Benz South Africa (MBSA)
Daimler Trucks and Buses FleetBoard national sales manager Rowlands Peters.
FleetBoard will, for example, notify the owner of a vehicle of its next service, a technical fault on the truck, as well as instances of speeding, excessive idling and braking.
MBSA collects and translates the data.
FleetBoard can, however, also locate a truck by means of GPS positioning, which it determines every 30 seconds.
MBSA has a joint venture with vehicle tracking companies C-Track and Tracker to recover vehicles in the event of a hijacking, says Peters.
“If the FleetBoard system is disconnected or tampered with, we contact C-Track or Tracker and they retrieve the vehicle. Our call centre links directly to the tracking companies.”
FleetBoard has aided in the recovery of between 20 and 30 hijacked vehicles over the last three years, says Peters.
However, the system can also fight a number of other crimes. For example, the telematics systems, which can measure tonnage, can determine where and when a truck has been offloaded.
MBSA recently found that five trucks, carrying break-bulk commodities, were being offloaded illegally on the East Rand.
Also, following the hijacking of a fuel truck, FleetBoard could determine where the trailer was parked, while also locating the two filling stations where the fuel was sold.
“We could pinpoint the stations and the tonnage discarded at each station,” explains Peters.
“We make a lot of recoveries on the East Rand,” he adds.
“We also see a number of trucks being abandoned at the Mozambican border.
“It is as if the hijackers wait to see if the vehicle is being tracked, or for someone across the border to come and collect the vehicle.”
FleetBoard has also helped to nab around 100 drivers in different organisations for fuel theft.
The telematics system can monitor fuel levels and fuel burned for the kilometres travelled.
“Syndicates would typically wait at fuel stations for the driver to fill up with say 80 ℓ of diesel, but charge for 120 ℓ, with the difference then pumped into the next vehicle they have waiting,” says Peters.
He adds that, while telematic systems can help curb hijackings and theft, truck operators must ensure they gather the right type and amount of information for their organisations.
Some operators have four to five tracking systems on one truck, says Peters.
“They have two devices on the truck and another two on the trailer. They receive so much information, they start ignoring the text messages the systems push to their phones.”
Peters believes one answer to increased truck hijackings would be to establish two- way communication between the truck and the control room, with the truck communicating with the control room, instead of being monitored only.
“If the truck travels between Durban and Gauteng, it could, at certain set geographic route points, automatically, every few minutes, send messages to the control room about its exact progress, positioning and any deviation on the route.”
In-cab video and audio systems, currently being developed for FleetBoard, may also assist.
MORE CONVICTIONS, HARSHER SENTENCES
MiX Telematics MD Brendan Horan believes there is a direct correlation between the current economic downturn and the rise in truck hijackings.
“In addition, we know that road transport is the most popular way to transport goods, due to the deteriorating railway infrastructure. High-value goods are, therefore, guaranteed to be on the roads and are targeted more frequently.”
There is no hard and fast rule as to when and where hijackings occur, he adds.
“It is often extremely well planned and executed. It is always done in teams and can range from a simulated police stop to a ‘hit’ at a truck stop. The phenomenon of [tracker signal] jamming is also becoming more prevalent.”
Horan says “innovative telematics technologies are one of the biggest advances in combating crime and ensuring full visibility of fleet vehicles, at any one time”.
MiX Telematics’ solutions, for example, provide the fleet manager with a full view of his fleet at any given time.
“If the driver gets out the vehicle, there is constant mobile communication on his actions, such as deliveries being made, orders taken, and so forth.
“As such, should there be unusual movement, it is easier to identify this in real time – which can be a huge advantage in situations such as hijackings.
“MiX also offers the Eyes-on-Screen solution, where routes are plotted and trucks are scheduled to those routes. Any deviations trigger immediate action in a centralised control room. The monitoring is done on behalf of the customer.”
Horan urges fleet operators to maximise the visibility of their fleets, and to provide the driver with the correct tools to activate an alarm when any situation seems suspicious.
“We will never be able to prevent truck hijackings. The key is to act upon them so efficiently and quickly that potential hijackers will think twice before embarking upon another such attempt.
“In addition, transport operators need to diligently report these incidents to the police to ensure that the law can take its course.
Plentiful and successful convictions, as well as appropriately harsh sentences, will always have a major impact on the crime rate.
Finally, closing down the markets for stolen goods will be the ideal situation. However, that is an ambitious target, given the number of socioeconomic challenges locally.”