The suspect: A shadowy crime ring. Its modus operandi: Fake documents, shell companies, and computer hacking. The target: California nuts. Truckloads of them.
Officials told BuzzFeed News crime rings use hacked information to divert truckloads of almonds, walnuts, and pistachios right from under the nose of growers and disappear with them before anyone notices.
"By then, it's already stolen, sold, and shipped off to wherever," an official with CargoNet, a New Jersey company that tracks cargo theft, said.
Experts say the state's tree nut industry is being targeted with the same vigor as cargo trucks filled with expensive big-screen televisions were in years past, adding up to at least $4.6 million in losses for the industry last year alone, according to CargoNet. Only this time, the thieves and stolen product have proven to be even more elusive.
"There's no serial number on a pistachio," said Scott Cornell, a crime and theft specialist for Travelers Insurance.
In most cases, the nuts are picked up straight from the grower with trucks and driven away before anyone realizes what's happened.
Cornell, whose company has assigned investigators to focus on cargo thefts, told BuzzFeed News the thieves have demonstrated intimate knowledge of not just the nut industry, but how the product is transported across the globe.
Industry leader and cargo companies first noticed the rising trend last year, when California nut growers reported 28 thefts, with each heist yielding an average of more than $200,000 in nuts.
There were no more than five thefts reported each year from 2012 and 2014, according to CargoNet.
The uptrend has vexed law enforcement officials across the state, even those with investigative units focused on cargo theft, such as the California Highway Patrol, Los Angeles Police, and Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.
On Thursday, however, law enforcement agencies from Central California met in Modesto to form a new task force to address the issue.
No suspected criminal organizations have been officially identified, but one thing is clear: They are going through a lot of trouble to get their hands on the tiny fruit.
The first thefts occurred with simple forging of truck company documents, copy-pasting of logos, and contact information.
As growers and companies grew savvy to the scheme, however, thieves began stealing specific information from trucking companies, including hacking into their systems, Cornell of Travelers Insurance said.
"If they get information from the truck company, they can hack into that company's account," he said.
That could give thieves not just company information, but pickup times, routes, and other information to further compromise the system.
In some cases, the drivers picking up the loads are from legitimate, unwitting trucking companies that have been hired by criminals.
"The trucking companies have no idea they have been compromised," he said.
In other cases, criminals pose as trucker contracted by a second company for the pickup — an industry norm — then re-route the driver to a location where thousands of nuts then disappear.
An official with CargoNet told BuzzFeed News the nuts often disappear in large metropolitan areas like Los Angeles, where they can be easily and quickly sold in mom-and-pop shops in the region. Other times, they can be shipped overseas.
"Part of the genius is that they're (criminals) looking for a cross-country haul," a CargoNet official told BuzzFeed News.
That means it could take days before the cargo company, the grower, and the intended recipient notice anything is amiss.
"By then it's already stolen, sold, and shipped off to wherever," said the official, who declined to use his name due to the sensitivity of the ongoing investigations.
Local authorities in some of the hardest hit areas, as well as the FBI, did not immediately respond to BuzzFeed News' request for comment.
Officials would not say definitively where the nuts are shipped to, or what crime organizations might be behind the thefts, citing several open investigations.
But in a $200,000 heist three years ago, Butte County sheriff's officials said they were able to track the shipment of nuts to the Los Angeles area, particularly Glendale and Van Nuys.
Documents seized during the investigation indicated they were intended bound for somewhere in Eastern Europe.
The thefts have hit an industry that has already been reeling from a devastating drought.
But when almond trees were singled out in drought media reports for requiring an average 1.1 gallons to produce just one nut, growers caught some high-profile publicity that some industry experts said may have pointed criminals in their direction.
"That also got us some unwanted attention from cargo thieves," Abhi Kulkarni, assistant director for technical support for the California Walnut Board told BuzzFeed News.
Almonds have been the primary target, Kulkarni added, most likely because of their stable, high price.
The spike of thefts, he said, caught the entire industry off-guard and unprepared, unlike companies that ship high-priced electronics.
"A lot of companies are taking additional measures, like taking photos and fingerprints of drivers," Kulkarni said.
Some are also considering live-tracking of shipments until they get to their destination. But as the agricultural industry has evolved, so too have the criminals, hacking into trucking company computers and the Department of Transportation for usable information.
"They know the transportation industry very well, and they know exactly where to insert themselves," Cornell said. "They are more strategic, more complicated now."
Salvador Hernandez is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles.
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