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CBS 2 Investigation: Train Robberies Hardly A Thing Of The Past

NORTH BERGEN, N.J. (CBS 2) -- Train heists are something you would expect from an old Western movie. But modern day train heists happen every single day.

And as CBS 2 investigative reporter Tamara Leitner found out recently these thieves are picking your pocket -- even if you don't ride the rail.

Stashed inside many battered, nondescript cargo cars are hundreds of thousands of dollars in high-end electronics, appliances, pharmaceuticals, and even designer clothes.

WEB EXTRA: See The Robbers At Work (credit: Immigration and Customs Enforcement)

And thieves know it.

"It's fairly easy to steal products from trains. It adds cost to products we buy and use every day," said Ron Green, VP of Freight Watch International.

Targeting freight trains, bandits have successfully broken into this multi-billion dollar industry.

"Thieves identify areas where it either stops or slows down, areas where they can easily jump on, pop open door or trailers, throw products off as it is moving or while it is standing still," Green said.

CBS 2's Leitner obtained a grainy undercover video shot by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. A gang of thieves is seen stealing high-end televisions in the desert outside of Los Angeles. These bandits wait for trains to get to remote, desolate areas before striking.

Not all of these train heists happen in the middle of the desert. Train yards like ones right here in New Jersey happen to be an easy target because often loads of cargo – high-end cargo -- will sit on site for hours at a time.

"You may have two miles of rail cars that are just sitting there," said Joe Clabby of Corporate Loss Prevention Associates.

Industry experts said these rail heists are a big problem in New Jersey.

There are about 1,000 miles of freight rail lines in New Jersey alone. And most of the large rail companies have their own police force to monitor the lines. Often, these departments quietly handle train heists, which keep negative publicity to a minimum, but also create a shroud of secrecy around the problem. CBS 2's Leitner contacted three of the major rail companies that operate in New Jersey and none of them would discuss the issue of thefts on freight trains.

But through federal court records, CBS 2 got a rare glimpse into how police catch these thieves – often using undercover informants and wire taps. Records also show that some gangs of train bandits use a secret language and code phrases while pulling off these highly organized heists. They may spend days scouting train yards for the perfect opportunity. The bandits sometimes sneak on the trains parked in the yards – in the dark -- and hide in the train axels until the train is miles away from the yard. Other times the thieves hop on the moving train when it slows around a corner or to go up a hill.

For a closer look at how these organized rail heists allegedly work, click here (PDF).

Former federal agent and NYPD officer Clabby said the bandits make up well-oiled units.

"We have groups out there that may even be better than organized crime, you know, because they've done their homework. Their overhead may not be that much because they can bring in kids that are 15 or 16 years old, kids that can climb over the fences and hit the cars," Clabby said.

Consumer watch dog groups say we end up paying for it. Companies make up for the loss by marking up products an extra 5-8 percent.

So while train heists have been happening for more than 150 years, these modern day bandits still control the rails and now also your wallets.

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