International crime organizations steal millions from Valley ag

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At the ports along the California coast, international crime rings are shipping a new type of product overseas, and they're coming to the Central Valley to harvest it. (KFSN)

Investigators suspect a large criminal organization is using high-tech operations to steal millions from Valley ag industries.

At the ports along the California coast, international crime rings are shipping a new type of product overseas, and they're coming to the Central Valley to harvest it.

"They're targeting pistachios, almonds, walnuts," said Richard Matoian of American Pistachio Growers.

Insurers say food replaced electronics as the number one mark for large scale criminal operations. Nuts are an expensive commodity, especially in Asia and the Middle East, and at a seminar Thursday in Modesto, Matoian talked to growers about how hard nuts are to track once they're stolen.

"A food item, once it's consumed, there's no serial number so it can be moved very quickly and lost in the system very quickly," he said.

Nut thefts hit an all-time high in California last year at $4.6 million, and they're coming in bunches. Fresno's Caro Nut wrapped up a $200,000 sale last April.

"We thought they were a legitimate trucking company and we loaded them up," said Todd Crosswell.

Only days later did Crosswell figure out the entire truckload was gone. Between April and September, thieves stole six truckloads worth a total of more than $1 million.

Investigators believe they hacked into a database, got real information about shipments and showed up with so-called ghost trucks. After picking up the loads, they disappeared.

"In my opinion, this is not a small, typical organization theft, it's a big organization that's working this," Crosswell said.

Caro Nut is a mid-size company processing 1.5 million pounds of cashews every month. It can't afford to lose trucks. They're now checking truck driver IDs, fingerprinting them, and checking VINs on the trucks -- doing everything they can to stop getting ripped off.

And so far, it's worked. The last theft happened in September. But Crosswell knows these crime rings will be a tough nut to crack.

The FBI and the Tulare County Sheriff's Department are investigating just which organizations may be involved.
Related Topics:
newsagriculturefresno countycrimeFresno County
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