The thefts are little-known and seldom discussed outside the world of commercial trucking. Companies that have been victimized are often reluctant to talk about their losses. But crime reports and Associated Press interviews with law enforcement and industry leaders reveal an alarming pattern that hurts commerce, pushes up consumer prices and potentially puts Americans' health and safety at risk.

"In the end, the consumer winds up paying the toll on this," said Keith Lewis, vice president of CargoNet, a theft-prevention network that provides information to the insurance industry.

The economic results go beyond adding a few nickels or dimes to retail prices. The "consequential damages" from stolen cargo easily run into the millions of dollars, far exceeding the value of the lost shipments. For example, a stolen load of pharmaceuticals might necessitate a worldwide recall of every drug with that lot number to ensure none of the product ends up back in the market in case it gets tampered with.

Stolen food shipments pose similar health concerns.

"It might be low value, but that load of poultry could be high-risk," Lewis said, explaining that if it spoils and gets back into the supply chain, hundreds or thousands of people could get sick.

The scheme works like this: Thieves assume the identity of a trucking company, often by reactivating a dormant Department of Transportation carrier number from a government website for as little as $300. That lets them pretend to be a long-established firm with a seemingly good safety record. The fraud often includes paperwork such as insurance policies, fake driver's licenses and other documents.

Then the con artists offer low bids to freight brokers who handle shipping for numerous companies. When the truckers show up at a company, everything seems legitimate. But once driven away, the goods are never seen again.

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