Crime Rings Going Nuts For California’s Almonds, Walnuts, And Pistachios

John Houck

International crime rings are taking aim at California's nut industry by stealing truckloads of almonds, walnuts and pistachios valued anywhere between $150,000 and $500,000. Victims of the crimes are losing millions of dollars. Now, state as well as federal law enforcement agencies are ramping up efforts to bust the agricultural thieves.

The crime organizations use a combination of sophisticated methods in an effort to get their hands on the nut bounty. Many of these tactics involve stealing a trucking company's identity, then creating illegitimate shipping documents, posing as a truck driver, and driving off with a load full of the high-value nuts.

In 2015, the California nut industry lost more than $4.6 million from just 31 reported cases of theft. According to a Fox News report, this is more than the previous 3 years combined. CargoNet, a group made up of several shipping firms and law enforcement agencies, said losses for the last four years combined totaled $7.6 million.

"It's made my life miserable," said Todd Crosswell, general manager of Caro Nut Co. "You get hit with that kind of loss -- it hurts."

Since the thefts, Crosswell has implemented several new security measures to lessen the chance of getting hit again, but still fears the criminals will defeat his efforts.

"Whoever they are, they're watching," Crosswell said. "They'll try it again. They'll figure out how to beat the system. We just have to stay one step ahead of them."

Caro fell victim to the crime rings six times last year, with losses exceeding $1.2 million. In every one of the cases, the thieves took roasted and packaged cashews that had been previously imported from Vietnam and Africa. Crosswell has since collected the photographs and fingerprints of the 25 truck drivers that regularly pull up to the company's shipping docks.

As the demand for healthy snacks increases worldwide, the nut industry has grown substantially, especially in California. The state produces more almonds, walnuts, and pistachios than any other place in the U.S. According to 2014 statistics, the combined value of California crops was nearly $9.3 billion, while almonds alone were worth $5.9 billion.

Whenever an industry experiences dramatic growth, crime rings see opportunity. According to Sacramento FBI agent Dan Bryant, the organizations are taking advantage of various flaws in the shipping industry to generate significant profits.

Bryant said the agency is taking the crimes very seriously and stepping up efforts to crack down on the thieves.

"It's not just some teenage kids ripping off nuts," he said. "These are sophisticated people."

Tulare detectives investigated one large-scale pistachio theft in the county 3 years ago, but no new cases were reported in 2014. Then, in 2015, six truckloads of almonds and pistachios valued at $1.6 million were stolen. Authorities were able to track down one of the shipments and arrested one individual connected to the crime.

"They do tend to have some overseas connections," said Travelers Insurance investigator Scott Cornell. "Wherever they can sell it and move it, they're going to."

To help fight the crime rings, one California lawmaker has introduced legislation to provide additional funding for a statewide unit committed to cargo robberies. Several law enforcement officials and members of the agriculture industry recently met to discuss ideas on how to prevent future nut thefts from increasing.

[Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images]