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Freight forwarders and shippers, and their partners, need to tighten up internal controls on shared cargo information to fight a new breed of “21st century bad guys” that are terrorising the industry, delegates at Air Cargo Americas 2013 in Miami were warned.

Perversely in a world of heightened security, measures introduced to fight terrorism have created a new set of problems for authorities and industry stakeholders, with criminals using corruption to take advantage of the era of advanced manifests.

The increased information being filed to comply with regulatory demands becomes a weak link in the supply chain if it is not adequately controlled, Ed Petow, head of law enforcement liaison at cargo theft analyst FreightWatch International, told delegates.

“This is the crime today; companies are making all this information available to clients and customers, and the bad guys are getting access,” Mr Petow said.

With higher visibility becoming the norm in the shipping industry, the task of preventing sensitive leaks is becoming increasingly difficult, agreed Mark Tierney, vice-president of corporate security at Maersk Line.

“The information goes out to the importer and, as it spreads, there is more risk,” he told delegates.

Shippers of hi-tech consumer goods believe organised crime gangs are particularly targeting their high-value shipments.

Leopoldo Coronado, chief operating officer at Intcomex, which ships $1.2bn of hi-tech products a year, said criminals were “going for specific stuff they know they can sell”.

He added: “There are rewards for valuable information about what is inside containers so they can plan ahead, so I have to feel protected that this information is not getting into the wrong hands.”

His company had experienced containers arriving empty or loaded with sand bags, without any sign of damage to container seals or other security measures. Mr Coronado said removing the doors or opening the roof of a container had become common practice for the most organised gangs.

FreightWatch International recorded 946 cases of cargo theft in the US in 2012, and while this figures saw the US now listed as a high-risk country, in line with France, India,Venezuela and Russia, the worst nations in the Americas remain Mexico and Brazil.

In Mexico, the figure was almost 1,519 incidents in 2012; while cargo theft is said to cost the Brazilian economy $442m a year.

Shippers and security officials said the key internal recommendations to successfully fight organised crime were to carry out continuous background checks on employees, not just when first recruited, and to invest in security staff trained to identify suspicious behaviour by employees.

Doug Brittin, secretary general of The International Air Cargo Association (Tiaca), told delegates it was no longer enough to post security guards to look out for dodgy characters lurking around the gates in a trench coat and a fedora. The modern threat came from inside the office.

“The bad guys of the 21st century are the same bad guys from the 20th century, but they have smart phones now,” Mr Brittin said.

Training people to identify unusual behaviour was a key step in tightening up internal procedures, agreed Mark Hatfield, federal security director from the US Department of Homeland Security.

“While we don’t encourage profiling per se, we do embrace education in behaviour profiling, as it can give you a lot of clues on identifying the bad guys,” he said.

Beyond tightening up domestically, Mr Coronado said it was also important to pass responsibility to partners through the supply chain.

“It’s very important to make your partners more accountable,” he said, adding that he dealt effectively with certain issues in Colombia by allocating greater responsibility to partners there.

“You need to tell them: ‘If you have an incident and you don’t report it in two hours, then it’s on you’.

“Write their responsibilities into contracts, and make it clear that if they don’t comply then they are accountable. Guess what? No incidents,” he said.

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