Thieves are swiping tractor-trailers filled with goods, triggering a spike in cargo theft on the nation's highways.

Over five days last month, an 18-wheeler carrying 710 cartons of consumer electronics was stolen from a Pennsylvania rest stop, a 53-foot-long rig packed with 43,000 pounds of paper was ripped off in Ottawa, Ill., and a 40-foot-long truck filled with reclining armchairs went missing in Atlanta.

Truckloads containing $487 million of goods were stolen in the U.S. in 2009, a 67 percent increase over the $290 million worth of products swiped a year earlier. Thieves stole 859 truckloads in 2009, up from 767 loads in 2008 and 672 in 2007, according to FreightWatch International, an Austin, Texas-based supply-chain security firm that maintains a database of thefts that several government agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, look to for trends.

"In the past two months, we've just seen such an increase that it's to the point where criminals are just wreaking havoc," said Sandor Lengyel, a detective sergeant and squad leader in New Jersey State Police's cargo-theft unit. "They'll pretty much steal anything." Cargo thieves ripped off $28 million in goods in New Jersey in 2009, an 87 percent spike from the $15 million stolen in 2008, he said.

Law-enforcement authorities in Illinois, California and Pennsylvania are among several agencies and industry groups also reporting a spike.

Chubb Corp., a major insurer based in Warren, N.J., said that its own insurance claims and data from other sources show 725 cargo thefts in 2009, up 6.6 percent from 680 in 2008, and up 23 percent from 592 cargo thefts recorded for 2007. Chubb estimates the 2009 thefts amounted to $435 million of products.

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