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Thieves Are Making Off With Millions of Dollars in Stolen Nuts

It’s a hard case to crack

(Harsha K R)
smithsonian.com

Forget bank robberies and art heists: if you want to get rich quick, the best thing to lift is food. From bourbon to honey to Parmesan cheese, over the years sneaky thieves have made off with all sorts of expensive foods to hawk on their own. But, as Nick Rose writes for Munchies, few of these thefts matches up to the scale and audacity of those who have preyed on California’s nut industry for years.

Tree nuts like walnuts, almonds and pistachios mean money. California’s nut industry alone makes about $9.3 billion a year, Rose reports. However, unlike Rembrandts or cold hard cash, once a nut goes missing it’s nearly impossible to track it down. Just one nut cargo load was reported to the U.S Department of Justice in 2009, but the problem has escalated. Last year, 32 nut cargo loads made their way to criminal hands, costing the industry millions, reports CNN’s Danielle Garcia. This year, the robberies show no signs of slowing down.

"It hit us right between the eyes," Roger Isom, CEO of the Western Agricultural Processors Association, tells Garcia. "This is not anything we've really seen before...we've experienced 30 thefts in the last six months.”

Wily criminals aren’t sneaking around farms in the dead of night and stuffing their pockets with the precious crops or holding up warehouses with weaponry. But all it takes is a laptop, a cell phone and a truck to cart off the haul, Rob Wile writes for Fusion.

To make their score, nut thieves have exploited weaknesses in the systems that distributors usually use to make sure their cargo is getting to the right stores. In some instances, the criminals hide behind a real trucking company’s identity, but switch the contact information so the nut sellers think they’re legitimate. Other times, they falsify paperwork and pick up the cargo before the real truck company can, or hire a trucker to do it for them in exchange for cash on the spot, Garcia reports.

While the methods may differ, the surprisingly low-tech trickery often leaves distributors in the dark until the real shipping company shows up later – and by then, the nuts have disappeared without a trace.

"They basically trick [the distributors] into giving [the criminals] the cargo," Scott Cornell, transportation lead and cargo & theft specialist at Travelers Insurance, tells Garcia.

These thefts are no joke—while electronics used to be the targets of choice, demand for those goods dropped during the 2008 Recession. People still needed to eat, however, and demand for food continued to rise.

So far, no one has been hurt in these heists, which makes them relatively minor crimes under California law. However, farmers, distributors, truckers, insurers and police are all working together to try and come up with a way to stop these criminals. Some distributors are beefing up security and requiring drivers to verify their identities before driving off with their cargo, while law enforcement takes to the skies to track down would-be thieves, Rose writes. With prime nut harvest season just around the corner, these nuts are only going to become a more tempting target.

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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