Mark Eppley has been around the PC business almost since day one, when he invented a special cable to enable two computers to transfer data between them. Laplink went on to be one of the longest-selling brands in PC history, eventually selling more than 30 million copies, and Eppley became a fixture at industry conferences and events.
Now the venerable pitchman is running a new business called SC-Integrity that has nothing to do with laptops, cables, or computers – directly. Call it LoJack for finding lost tractor trailer freight loads. The problem is that more than 100 truck loads a day on average are lost or more likely stolen from America’s roads. These aren’t just some random pickup, but full 50-foot trailers that can carry anywhere from $100,000 worth of clothing to multi-million dollar loads of pharmaceuticals. And recovering these stolen goods is all being done with hi-tech that until recently wasn’t even possible.
The idea is fiendishly simple: place a tracking device of about the size of a deck of cards deep down inside a pallet of goods that is carried by trucks around the country. The device sends out a signal every 30 seconds telling the central monitoring command center where it is located. If it goes someplace unexpected, call the cops.
“A pallet of Viagra is worth $1.2 million on the retail market, and there are 28 pallets in the average-sized trailer,” said Eppley.
The problem is that all this missing merchandise is the result of some very determined and clever crooks, and Eppley’s company is using tech to track them down and stop the losses. So far this year they have recovered more than $7 million in goods. “The problem is that trucks and their trailers are almost always recovered, but not before they have been emptied out of their freight,” he says. The FBI says that all it takes is $5,000 in cash offered to a driver, and he’ll gladly leave his motor running at a truck stop when taking a break.
“You can have professionals unload a truck in about five minutes,” says Eppley. “We get a fix every 30 seconds on our trucks. If there is a problem, we can immediately detect that within one minute and notify the proper authorities.”
Why so many missing trucks? First off, drivers are infrequently prosecuted, and when they are state laws let them get off lightly. “The problem is that in many states, vehicle theft is not a felony and many people are just prosecuted for the value of the empty trailer and not the freight, which can be at most $25,000.” Your average BMW costs more than that. Several states, including California, are passing harsher laws to make it more risky for stealing freight. But clearly, theft is on the rise, and the bad guys know how to game the system.
When Miami cracked down on freight theft earlier this year, the thieves moved north to Atlanta, who had more lenient laws. “Things do change and the crooks do move around, although a lot of the theft is centered around the port cities,” said Eppley.
And despite the popular image of Italian-surnamed thieves and the mob, Eppley paints a picture where many gangs are involved. “It is highly organized, and it is ethnic based. Everyone — Cubans, Latin groups, whatever — they all specialize and have their network of fences for the stolen goods and particular kinds of goods that they steal,” he said.
Some of the goods get sold by being incorporated back into legitimate distribution systems, he said. “There are many retailers who will buy merchandise from a distributor that they know is hot, especially clothes and shoes. This just goes back into the stores. We all end up paying for it in the costs of goods and in the vendor’s insurance premiums,” he says.
So how does it work? The devices, called SC-Tracker, are self-powered and don’t require any external antennas. Part of the challenge for the tracking device is battery life, as any of you would instantly recognize. “Our device gets a seven day minimum life on a battery charge. Our closest competitor says that they generate 700 reports, but we generate 20,000 reports over the week that the device is active.” The issue is that you have to be paying attention to where you load is going, and make sure that you can quickly get a fix on its location.
“It doesn’t work to get a report once a day or once an hour. The truck could be emptied by then. You need to be almost constantly in touch with where it is,” said Eppley. To do this requires what he calls “geo-fencing” meaning putting in a very specific route profile into their systems, so when a truck veers off that course an alarm will sound and they can figure out what caused the event. Also, typical rest periods for the driver are included, so unscheduled stops also create alarms.
They use multiple radio modes to broadcast their location, and are designed to be durable, small, and work under many adverse conditions. Like a LoJack unit, they are placed without the driver knowing where they are located inside the truck’s trailer load, otherwise thieves could easily find and remove them. “We have a hybrid solution, because no single technology will work in the environments that our customers put them in,” says Eppley.
And the solution is working. In the short time that the company has been in business, they have gathered their share of customers, who are paying them six-figure annual fees. In one noted event, their technology figured prominently in the capture of more than a million dollars in Microsoft software that was repacked on a different truck and taken to the Chicago area. It turned out that more than a dozen arrests were made, including some sheriffs from the Cook County police department.
The company has been operating in stealth mode for at least two years, but is now getting noticed and gathering steam. Eppley, who is the president of the company, co-founded it with Dennis duNann. And unlike typical hi-tech firms, you won’t find any management bios on their Web site, or other identifying information.
“We are one of the only companies that have delivered this solution. Our competitors will say that they have certain capabilities and accuracy levels, but when you get under the covers and do the tests, you don’t see the same stuff that we have.” Eppley mentions how GPS truck tracking has been around for more than a decade, but only with miniaturized technology and longer-lasting batteries and better wireless products has he been able to produce an entire solution. “All of this has only been possible in the last couple of years It is a simple concept, but has very difficult execution. We are as accurate 5 to 200 meters, depending on where you are, density of cell towers. We also are integrated with our clients’ business services and security services and have a proven ROI record too,” he says.