You don’t have to be in the produce industry to know what a big deal nuts have become. If you’ve watched even a little TV, you’ve seen Psy, Snoop Dogg, Dennis Rodman or some other celebrity hawking pistachios.
Unfortunately, nuts have also gotten the attention of thieves. That will happen when you have products that in some cases have almost tripled in price in the past few years, said Carl Eidsath, technical support director of the Folsom-based California Walnut Board.
Some of those thieves aren’t exactly beginners.
“Now that tree nuts are so valuable, people have become more sophisticated,” Eidsath said. “It’s almost like the mafia.”
It started last year, Eidsath said. Thieves hacked into brokers’ computers and stole IDs and other information that made them look like legitimate truckers.
Using that information, they forged documents, drove trucks to nut packers, conned their way in and drove away with loads, Eidsath said.
“At $7 a pound, if you lose 42,000 pounds (the size of a typical truckload), that really adds up.”
Such crimes occurred six times at the most in 2012, Eidsath said. There have been three more this year.
They haven’t been the only kind of theft of valuable California product. In early October, thieves broke through a fence at Escalon, Calif.-based GoldRiver Orchards and made off with an estimated 63.5 tons of raw walnuts worth about $400,000, Eidsath said.
In that case, thieves hooked three tractors up to harvest wagons, where the untreated nuts were heaped. The nuts were recovered not long after in an adjacent county, but the thieves weren’t caught, Eidsath said.
There have been thefts of raw product before, but none of that magnitude.
“It’s the largest scale I’ve ever heard of,” Eidsath said. “There are thefts where a single pickup comes in and they shovel as much off the ground as they can.”
Perpetrators of those crimes, including the big heist at GoldRiver, are usually thought to be the work of locals, Eidsath said.
However, the more sophisticated kind of theft, where thieves hack into computers and fool shippers into believing they’re legitimate truckers, could be the work of Eastern European criminals, Los Angeles police told Eidsath and other members of a joint industry task force.
The task force, made up of members of California walnut, pistachio and almond marketing boards and one shipper who was the victim of a theft, was launched in October to find ways to protect the industry.
Since its founding, there have been no additional thefts, to Eidsath’s knowledge. Best practices developed by the task force include using black lights to check IDs and contacting brokers before releasing product to get a serial number that only a real broker has.
In addition to the LAPD, California county sheriffs have aided the task force and the California nut industry in general in cracking down on the crimes, Eidsath said.
So far, at least, it seems to be working.
“We’ve been pretty successful.”