Lorry owners estimate that there are more than 100 thefts of vehicles or their contents every day. They are particularly concerned about a recent rise in the use of weapons and the threat of violence during robberies. Only about one in ten of the lorries stolen is recovered.
Gangs are also using increasingly sophisticated methods to locate and steal vehicles. Police believe many of the larger articulated lorries are stolen to order.
Although most criminals only steal the contents of the lorry, there are now well-established routes for stolen parts - particularly engines, axles and gearboxes - from Britain to the Irish Republic, Australia and South Africa. Other popular destinations include India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Cyprus and Malta.
Other parts can also be sold off as scrap. Lorries cost from between pounds 40,000 to pounds 120,000. The industry estimates yearly losses at around pounds 200m.
Most thefts occur in London and Essex (especially along the A13), near the ports in Kent, and along the Scottish borders. There is also a current spate in the West Midlands and South Wales.
In the past two weeks there have been several hijacks. On 4 December gunmen bound and gagged a driver who was about to go to sleep in a lorry park near Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire. They stole his vehicle and its load of whisky, together worth about pounds 100,000. The driver, who had been driving from Grangemouth in Scotland to Dagenham, Essex, was later found on the hard shoulder of the M6, nearly 250 miles away, where the hijackers had left him.
In the same week, armed robbers wearing police uniforms - in a car with a blue flashing light - flagged down an articulated lorry carrying Royal Mail parcels on the A2 near Cobham in Kent. They threatened the driver with a handgun and handcuffed him before dumping him a few miles away.
Criminals have also been known to wear customs officers' uniforms and force foreign drivers to leave their vehicles while their documents are checked.
Most vehicles, however, are stolen from depots and overnight lorry parks. Criminals travel around the country looking for specific vehicles and easy places to break into. They will also follow valuable loads to observe regular routes and stop-offs.
'Once a lorry is stolen it will be taken to a breakers' yard where a team of six men can cut it up in less than an hour,' according to Detective Sergeant Roger Durrant, of the Stolen Vehicle Unit, part of Scotland Yard's International Organised Crime Branch. The parts are then transported abroad or to British dealers.
DS Durrant added: 'The theft and disposal of lorries is becoming more organised, and we think that more people are involved now than ever before.'
Graham Houghton, security controller of the Road Haulage Association, said: 'The recession has meant the market in second hand parts is at a high at the moment.'
'We are also very concerned at the rise in the threat of violence.'Reuse content