GPS Tracking Technology Used In Amazon Theft Sting

CNBC reports today that Jersey City Police Department, in cooperation with Amazon, conducted a sting operation using dummy amazon boxes containing GPS tracking technology.

From illegal ivory and luxury chocolate bars to perfumes and packets of cigarettes, I’ve had a lot of fun working out how to track a wide range of objects around the world. The creative challenge is enjoyable, but the reality always needs to be kept front of mind — my clients approach me with a serious problem to be solved and apart from thinking tracking technology may solve it, they have no idea how to go about it.

Working with various organisations, companies and police departments using GPS trackers as part of covert intelligence or corporate investigations, I’ve learned the hard way that a successful GPS tracking operation is not that easy to pull off and it very rarely works as smoothly as you see in the movies.

So, if you think GPS tracking can solve an expensive problem like cargo theft, product diversion or asset loss for your business or organisation, here are 10 pointers to help you increase your chance of a successful GPS tracking operation:

1. Why Are We Doing This — Define Your Objective

The objective is either:

1. To catch a thief redhanded — like the Jersey City PD operation — or,

2. To build up a richer intelligence picture by playing the long game. This latter option is used mainly by companies with “Bermuda triangles” in their product distribution network. Targets could be drivers, loading bay employees, warehouse employees, front men for distribution companies ….

2. Get Creative — Track The Package or the Merchandise?

In the Amazon — Jersey City PD operation, tracking the box was all that was needed, they wanted to catch the thieves red-handed as soon as they had taken the package.

It is possible to extend and deepen the operation by seeding the merchandise with the tracking technology and then following it. This is useful to catch large organised gangs who raid warehouses for example. One way to do this is to create fake product with the technology covertly fitted.

3. Surprise! GPS Isn’t A Communication Network.

GPS trackers (the ones that work long range / over the horizon) require a regular data connection e.g. a 3G data signal.

In the USA for example it is not uncommon that T Mobile will have better coverage than ATT in some areas and vice versa, so ensuring your tracker will have a reliable data connection in the environment it is being used in is important. Some SIMs can hop between multiple network providers.

Whilst the majority of merchandise and package theft doesn’t involve an international dimension, some unique and highly specialised items (pharmaceuticals; medical devices; high tech machinery) being stolen are often destined to be sold in foreign black markets — again it is important the device and the data connection will work outside of its “home” country so the intelligence operation can continue.

4. Yes, It’s Real and Live! Define What Realtime Intelligence You Need

With the GPS tracker in place, a pretty standard implementation will run with the following intel needs:

  • Positioning — street level, sub 5 meter accuracy
  • Motion alerts — movement detection, can trigger SMS alerts to investigator’s cell phones
  • Location — using geofencing functionality to know a tracker has entered or left a predefined area. Will also send alerts to investigator’s cell phones
  • Package opened — can be done in several ways, quite nuanced and intricate to pull off

5. No Exploding Batteries — Choose Technology Carefully

Ironically, Amazon is awash with dirt cheap GPS trackers aimed at the “cheating spouse” market. Avoid. Choose technology from a specialist GPS tracking solution provider and you will also get the benefit of their expertise in implementing it.

You will need:

  • Reliable modem, antenna and GPS chip made by good manufacturers
  • Reliable battery
  • IP rated enclosure
  • Roaming SIM cards
  • Easy to use software that allows you to get the data you need from point 4.


6. Fail to Plan etc — Yes, Have an Implementation Plan

To avoid a failed GPS tracking implementation, it’s important all the stakeholders are clear on who is doing what — the supplier of the technology is not going to run the operation for you unless you ask (and pay) them to.

Here’s what should be in your plan:

  • Have a working hypothesis. By the time you head to Google to search “GPS package tracking” you will have learnt enough over the previous months to speculate who, where, how, what. A simple working hypothesis will provide a starting point for your operation.
  • Who owns the operation? Choose someone who is going to ensure everything in the implementation plan is carried out
  • Who handles the kit before implementation? Keep the technology stored safe and preferably with fully charged batteries.
  • What alerts are needed? Ahead of time, define the intel required and how it should be delivered — sms or email, or even on screen alerts within the tracking software dashboard
  • Who needs to learn the software interface and functionality? Nominate people who will be getting the intel from the device and the software. Ensure they have practised with a live device, tracking their own car over the weekend usually works very well.
  • How is the technology installed and who does it? Know your shipping container and think about how to fit the technology into it. Sometimes a customised pouch or holder is required. Send photos to your GPS tracking solution provider, they will know how best to fit the device.
  • What happens next? So, your GPS trackers show that some bad guys are ‘nicking your stuff’ (British expression) — you should have a plan for what you do with the data. Do you call the police, do you use it to sack an employee or terminate a distribution agreement? Know what the implications are going to be ahead of implementing your GPS tracking operation.

7. An Animal May Take Your Tracker — Prepare For The Unknown and Unexpected

It could be that your hypothesis is completely wrong as to who, how and where.

It could be that an animal runs off with the package containing the tracker.

The tracked package could fall off a truck or get stuck somewhere….

I once had a magnetised GPS tracker accidentally attach itself to the inside of a mail boat crossing between two well known European cities. It kept going backwards and forwards for weeks before the battery went flat, teasing me with images of the sights and sounds of each city as it went between them every Friday night and Monday morning.

8. The Walls Have Ears — Keep The Project On The Down-Low

Whilst building the hypothesis and putting together a team, it is important that you carefully consider who to involve within your organisation and the outside world. Someone, somewhere will be in on it.

9. Read The Manual

Operational errors abound in these operations therefore user guides and onboarding sessions by your suppliers should be read and attended. Have the team spend a weekend playing with the GPS tracker, stuff it inside a child’s backpack and engage with the technology in a fun way — it is faster to learn that way.

10. Don’t Be That Guy — Charge The Battery and Switch the Device On Before Using

Yes, it happens — a lot!

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