Hiding in plain sight: How to identify suspicious shipments

Training, collaborating with local law enforcement are key

A customer arrives at your service center in California and requests to ship three empty 100 pound propane cylinders to Georgia. The customer indicates that a business associate will receive the shipment at your company’s service center in Georgia. A shipping clerk initiates the billing process and briefly examines the heavy-duty wooden crate containing the cylinders.

When the billing clerk inquires if the cylinders contain any residue, the customer advises that the new cylinders were recently purchased from a home improvement store. The shipping clerk generates a freight bill, and the customer prepays the $1000 freight charges prior to departing.

Identifying suspicious shipmentsUnder normal circumstances, the freight would move to destination without incident; however, this time was different. The shipping clerk recently received security training on suspicious shipments, and after a quick online search, the clerk found that the cost of each cylinder was less than $150. The shipping clerk contacted the safety department and advised that the freight charges exceeded the cost of the freight. The safety team notified law enforcement, which ultimately resulted in multiple arrests — and the seizure of $1.5 million of methamphetamine.

In today’s fast paced environment, it’s easy to miss predictive indicators for suspicious shipments. Are you providing security training to your front-line employees?

Suspected suspicious shipments

Illegal drugs sold on the black market in the United States have an estimated value exceeding $200 billion each year. In 2021, The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) seized 913,326 pounds of illegal drugs from 82,946 individual stops. Criminal entities reduce risk by using the transportation industry to unknowingly move illegal drugs throughout the country.

Illegal drug shipments are introduced to the supply chain as common freight, and they are difficult to identify without security training. Illegal drug shipments generally involve two or more of the following indicators:

  • Dock drop off/dock pickup
  • Out-of-service telephone numbers on shipping papers
  • Delivery in parking lot or apartment complex
  • Uncoded account, first time shipper
  • Cash payment at origin or delivery
  • Freight charges exceed value of freight
  • Foul or unusual odor
  • Well-constructed, heavily fortified shipping container
  • Numerous phone calls to destination

Scenario-based training

Reinforce common indicators of suspicious shipments using various scenarios that will help your employees connect the dots. The following is an example of effective scenario-based training:

An operations supervisor detected a strong perfume odor emitting from a heavily fortified wooden crate on the dock. The bill of lading indicated that “used shop rags” were being shipped from southern Texas to Ohio, and the customer prepaid for expedited services. The safety department explained to law enforcement that the freight charges appeared to exceed the value of the freight, and a canine officer was dispatched to the service center.

An illegal shipment was seized because an observant supervisor identified multiple predictive indicators.

Collaborate with law enforcement

Developing a relationship with local law enforcement should be a priority for your organization. An effective strategy involves allowing canine officers to use your dock for training during non-peak business hours. Law enforcement enjoys working with the transportation industry, so don’t be afraid to reach out and make new friends.

If you don’t offer training on suspicious shipments, consider these ideas to enhance your security program. Focus on predictive indicators, conduct scenario-based training, and develop local law enforcement contacts. The next time you recognize an unusual shipment, take a deeper dive to see if anything is hiding in plain sight.


Key to remember: Communication with your employees will provide the knowledge and confidence to report suspicious shipments and increase employee engagement at your next monthly safety meeting.