Carriers beware: avoiding mis-delivery of shipments

Date published

26/07/2017

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It’s the increasingly familiar phone call no carrier wants to receive. Your shipment’s gone missing in transit, and didn’t arrive at its destination. In today’s world, savvy thieves can arrange to intercept and pilfer your shipments with the anonymous click of a button.

So to remain protected to the fullest extent possible, it’s imperative that carriers and property brokers stay vigilant. In this article, we will cover simple steps you can take to reduce or eliminate these thefts, and provide a potential defense if a civil lawsuit does arise.

It has become an all too familiar tale – a shipment of goods goes missing while in transit due to the fraudulent conduct of thieves posing as legitimate truck drivers, brokers, or consignees.

Criminals are able to induce property brokers and carriers into unwittingly turning over shipments to them simply by using the resources and information available online. Websites such as the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (www.fmcsa.dot.gov) and Internet Truck Stop (www.truckstop.com) provide valuable information to thieves such as names, addresses and phone numbers of motor carriers and brokers, as well as their DOT numbers and relevant insurance information. These sites also contain information concerning loads available for shipment which are often offered to carriers, sight unseen. Behind the protection of their computer screens, potential thieves can arrange for the interception of these goods without anyone being the wiser until the goods have disappeared, often using the legal but highly questionable practice of switch or blind bills of lading.

So what are some means a carrier or property broker can use to guard it from being victimized by these internet hijackers?

Understand the methods criminals employ

Although the end result is typically the same, the manner in which these thefts occur vary.

In some instances, the thief identifies a shipment to steal on an internet load board sight (1), which offers loads to carriers at large looking to fill their trailers, perhaps when returning from a delivery. Such shipments are typically offered blindly by property brokers who never see the carrier that claims the shipment the broker is offering. Everything is done online and or by phone. In such instances the fraudulent carrier assumes the identity of a real carrier, using information easily obtainable online, sometime creates dummy documents by Photoshopping legitimate forms, and takes custody of a shipment from the shipper.

In other instances, the imposter contacts a carrier mid-delivery, purporting to be a legitimate shipper, carrier or property broker. The imposter may provide false evidence of authority to instruct the carrier to deliver the goods to a different address or person than what’s listed on the original bill of lading. It ends up in the hands of the fraudster or a confederate instead of the legitimate intended consignee. The practice is known as switch or blind bills of lading. It is particularly insidious and difficult to detect as a fraud, since it is a somewhat common and legal practice for shippers, or property brokers acting on behalf of a shipper, to redirect a shipment in transit to another destination for legitimate - and sometimes not so legitimate - commercial reasons (2). Others simply appear at the delivery address purporting to be the consignee.

Honor the original bill of lading

Unless the carrier carefully and fully verifies an instruction changing the bill of lading, delivery should be made in accordance with the original bill of lading to protect the carrier from potential liability for a miss-delivery. No instruction amending the consignee or delivery terms should be accepted on face value, even if accompanied by written instructions on seemingly legitimate load confirmation or similar forms.

Where a carrier fails to follow the express instructions of the shipper in making a delivery, it acts at its peril and assumes the risk of wrong delivery.

Following the instructions contained on the original bill of lading to a “T”, absent proper confirmation of the deviation in the original transportation contract, can prevent a carrier from unwittingly being induced to abet the perpetration of a fraudulent delivery. In all instances, such steps should include direct verbal contact with the shipper.

Care in confirming the legitimacy of any change in the delivery terms of the bill of lading can also provide a defense to the carrier in the event that, despite the carrier’s best efforts, the shipment is miss-delivered.

A carrier will generally not be found liable for refusing to deliver goods where they are unable to verify the identity of the consignee, or are otherwise unable to fulfill the instructions on the bill of lading. The potential liability of the carrier in cases involving wrong deliveries typically turns on whether the goods were delivered to the intended party. By always verifying the identity of the intended recipient, in the face of circumstances redirecting the location or identity of the receiver, a carrier ensures that the goods are left in the hands of the correct consignee.

Stay vigilant and don’t be timid about double-checking with the shipper

In many instances an inadvertent miss-delivery due to attempted third-party fraudulent interference with the handling of a shipment could have been avoided had the carrier simply verified the proper address and consignee with the shipper. When a supplemental instruction is received altering the information in the original bill of lading, verifying the authenticity of the instruction is imperative. This simple step could prevent a theft from occurring, and in the event of a miss-delivery, provides the carrier with a potential defense in the event of a civil lawsuit.

Keep a record

Should a miss-delivery occur, a record of the carrier’s efforts to ensure the proper delivery could provide a defense to a subsequent civil action. Maintaining a record of the interactions with the shipper, the original bill of lading, and any actions taken to ensure the proper delivery in compliance with the shipper’s instructions, all will demonstrate the carrier’s freedom from negligence.

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In a world where thefts can be set in motion simply with the click of a button, staying vigilant and informed can protect carriers to the fullest extent possible.

(1)This in itself is a questionable practice as it can lead to persons that engage in trucker identity theft taking and disappearing with a shipment, often because the property broker does not engage in the kind of vetting that it should otherwise undertake when selecting a carrier. It is all done on line and/or phone and on the fly, and neither party ever really can say they are sure with whom they are dealing. 

(2) One example is the practice of buying goods wholesale, supposedly for the purchaser’s own consumption or retail sale, which are sold under a restrictive term that precludes the purchaser from reselling the goods to another retailer or distributor, such as a warehouse retailer like a Costco. The purchasing shipper arranges for the carrier to receive the shipment showing the purchasing shipper as the consignee. Thereafter, while the goods are in transit the purchasing shipper instructs the carrier to divert the shipment to a third-party, violating the original seller’s restrictive sales terms without its knowledge.