Hijacking recovery agents – are they involved?

When you say the word ‘risk’ many people would be forgiven to merely think ‘danger’ in the general sense.  To the common public, risk is nothing more than something you should be thinking about; but never do.

 It’s a bit like contraception:  everyone knows about it, most people know when and where it should be applied but too many people are enjoying the benefits of its absence to care – that feeling of ‘freedom’ with no worries.  Oh, they’re quick to change their attitude after their little bubbles of bliss have been burst.  But they hammer on – pardon the pun – in any event until that one day, when their ‘luck’ changes to ‘bad luck’.

When you speak to a transporter. Especially those operating trucks on South African roads, it’s a completely different story.  Ask them what ‘risk’ means and they’ll ask you how much time you have.  There are so many risks for transporters these days; you might be forgiven for asking why they’re in this industry in the first place!

If you truly consider the transport industry as a living, breathing, evolving entity, you will quickly realise that ‘staying healthy’ is as complex as maintaining actual good health.  There are the obvious risks – collisions, mechanical failure, theft, strike action, social unrest, abuse, theft, etc.  But, what about hijackings? Yes! Everyone knows about that!

The problem with hijacking has become so terrible that practically every single transporter has been exposed to it at some stage, in the last five years.  And – just for the record – if you’ve dodged the bullet thus far, consider yourself lucky.  Statistics show that hijackings are at an all-time high, that hijackers have become more organised, more equipped, more skilled, and more brazen and it’s really just a matter of time. 

See – when criminals were nothing more than “poor, homeless people who are only to put food on the table” everything was still manageable.  The police had skills they did not:  police were armed while they were seldom; and police had a national communications network while criminals had to shout at each other; police had vehicles and many criminals travelled on foot and most criminal encounters involved knives or garden tools.

These days, criminals are trained, experienced, equipped, mobile and in constant communication with their cohorts.  They understand police procedures, they have cell phone jammers, they use high-end fast and powerful cars, they coordinate in groups, they have national communication networks, and they use some of the latest technologies available for planning, coordination and execution.  They plan properly, they coordinate properly, they execute hijackings or heists with military accuracy, and they are fearless.

When you look at some of the recent social media posts and the videos that are making the rounds, specifically showing hijackings and cash-in-transit heists, you quickly realize that these are not crimes of mere opportunity.  The kind of personal commitment, psychological preparation and courage it takes to actually approach and engage a cash-in-transit vehicle or a even a police vehicle, knowing full well that your parry is heavily armed, trained and experienced, in a highly unpredictable confrontation and with no control over the environment, is nearly inhuman.  But these guys do it.

They can plan, prepare, and execute in groups as small as two or three or as large as around twenty.  The opportunities are endless for armed encounter with a committed enemy.  Everyday.  Any transporter knows this, every transporter fears this, every transporter tries to prepare for this, and every transporter tries to minimize this risk as far as they can.

But what can we do? Well – if you’re like most transporters, you listen to and take advice from ‘those in the know’, We all know that you must, at the very least, install a ‘tracking system’.  You would be forgiven for believing that the biggest names are the best in the business.  And you’d be right, if by ‘business’ you actually meant ‘business’.  See – when it comes to tracking, there are a number of issues to consider, the first of which is credibility.  Again, you’d be excused for believing that a brand everyone knows must be the most credible – but you might very well be wrong.

Corruption is one of the biggest problems faced by tracking companies today.  They are constantly trying to verify that their control room operators or agents are not involved in or coerced by syndicates. Truck hijackings are a big-money-business and competition is fierce.  The benefits are perceived to far outweigh the risk and the tracking companies know this.  They try their best to manage it.

But, like any other business with a large staff contingent, staff will cycle.  People will resign, retire and move on and new recruits will be placed almost daily.  If you offer a national footprint, you need installers – many installers.  That function is often outsourced by smaller operations and there exists the constant fear that somewhere, sometime, someone will release sensitive information about the operation, the people, the technology, the installation position, or the client’s movements.  It’s a risk we face daily.  And it is happening already. Today.

So, when your vehicle is hijacked, a lot happens behind the scenes. Typically, your driver will be dropped off in some remote location, unless he is not the lucky.  He will eventually get loose and find help.  By then, your vehicle has moved hundreds of kilometres. You will inform y our tracking company.  They will recover it.  Well…. Not really, You see – tracking companies do not personally employ thousands of people all over the country, just sitting waiting for hijacked vehicles to come their way.  Most use sub-contracted recovery agents.

Enter the heroes, here to save the day – hijacking recovery agents.  We’re talking about the boots-on-the-ground, armed recovery officer that you will never actually meet – the guy who actually touches criminals – the ‘Rambo’ and the private security outfits that do the brunt of the work.  Sure, there are helicopters and branded vehicles driving around with aerials on the roof and the police sometimes or even often get involved in recoveries, but we’re talking about those guys that operate for days without sleep.  The guys whose pants are faded, whose breath smells of cigarettes, coffee and maybe even something stronger; the guys who prefer not to be known – the Private Military Contractors of hijacking recoveries.

When you actually meet them and walk among them, you will realize that these are not rocket scientists or accountants.  They thrive on the rush, they seek out confrontation, they live, eat, sleep and breathe armed conflict, they sleep with one eye open, and their guns are shiny with wear.

While you are sleeping or stressing about your vehicle, they rush right into danger.  They go into ’sub-culture-mode’, they speak their own language, they tap into near-federal private networks, groups and social platforms, they cover hundreds of kilometers in one night and they see their families so seldom their own dogs bark at them, their kids call them ‘uncle’ and their wives feel like they’re having affairs when they sleep over occasionally.  They are the real unsung heroes of hijacking recoveries.

Or are they?

When all is said and done – these guys are not your typical choir boys.  Well – most anyway.  Your typical recovery agent lives hard, plays hard and talks straight.  They take no crap from nobody, they live by a code, they belong to a ‘brotherhood’ and they love it.  This makes them who they are.  Around the fire, they don’t talk polities or stock trends.  No. It’s all war.  They talk guns, calibers, and confrontations.  They compare battle scars, brag about their armed encounters, and demonstrate their experience, skill and ability by telling stories that you would probably not ever believe if you weren’t actually there.

But the individual doesn’t earn the greatest salary either.  Most of the time, as in many other industries, the people working the hardest, sleeping the least and taking the greatest risk are getting the least money.  While they might think, act and perform like the predators at the top of the food chain, they are often right at the bottom of the food chain when it comes to cash.  And where cash is king, personal motivations become very strong forces and opportunities for corruption increase tenfold.

And therein lies the problem.  Where men form gangs, clans or groups band together, see a common enemy and fight the same war, the lines between ‘them’ and ‘us’ can start blurring.  Before you know it, those ‘war stories’ can evolve, or decline – depending how you look at it – into suggestions and proposals.  It starts as a joke.  All someone needs to say is: “Jissie ouens; these criminals are darem maar stupid, hey? Imagine if we had to hijack a truck! They’d never catch us…” What comes next is a function only of the integrity of the group and the people involved…

At one stage some time ago, there was a terrible trend with a certain brand of vehicles being targeted for theft and hijackings.  As many as fifteen of one specific make and model/type were stolen or hijacked in one night.  A long-standing police crime intelligence colleague of mine expressed dissatisfaction and dismay with the success of their efforts and asked what ‘we’ could do about.

I suggested a special operation and offered to spend a couple of days in his area, assisting with the planning and execution of a strategy that would surely result in some success.  Immediately, other friends from the industry hopped onto the strand and offered to assist, should I be running such an operation and …. BAM! I was kicked off the group by the Administrator.  I wondered why, but more about that later…

At another stage, also on a WhatsApp group, I re-posted a success achieved by the SAPS, where 13 members of the police were caught in a sting operation and linked to robbery, hijackings, and other crimes, and …. BAM! I was kicked off another group.

Interestingly, a trend developed:  Every time I became too involved in the planning on groups or suggested workable strategies, I would get criticized or kicked off.  This often involving a small group of ‘recovery guys.’  So, I started to analyze the trend, went back on old messages, and read them carefully.  What I picked up was rather interesting, to say the least!

For starters, I noticed that some tracking companies never posted anything but were on multiple groups.  One wonders why you would be aware of a hijacking or theft and simply not post so that everyone can look out for the vehicle immediately.  Oh, sure – they will tell you it is “to prevent the criminal from knowing that he is being hunted”.  Really? So – while hijacking a truck, having to deal with the driver, communicating permanently with lookouts and rushing for the border, the criminals have time to scan ALL WhatsApp groups to see if they are wanted?


Then you have the other side of the same coin, my research revealed.  After a car or truck is hijacked and put out, multiple recovery agents are obviously deployed, as sub-contractors are mobilized in different areas.  After two off day, someone might send an update or a comment, in reference to the original theft or hijacking, asking for additional information, updates, etc.  Then someone else will simply rely with ‘recovered’.  Nothing more.  No location, date, time, circumstances, details about arrests or anything.  So-how do we know that is not the criminals just trying to mislead?

As if this is not bad enough, I detected another trend:  some tracking companies will become aware of a hijacking or theft and say nothing until about 24 hours after.  You are left with the impression that they are first trying to recover the vehicle themselves and – only if they fail – will they ‘let others also look’.  This trend, if ever proven, might be driven more by profit motivations than criminal intent, but has the same net effect:  recoveries are slower, or vehicles are lost forever.

But then I have a working theory to share:  what if some of the recovery agents are actually involved in hijackings, but target only the vehicles of their competitors? What if they become aware of hijackings and say and do nothing, in their area, until the vehicles have passed through and then only act as if they are ready and able to offer recoveries?

When there was a house robbery in Hartbeespoort some time ago, the criminals asked the house owner if he had tracking on his vehicle.  He obviously said he did not, hoping it would be enough.  But no! Not that easy! The criminal hopped on the phone, walked out and had a conversation and came back… “Don’t you lie to me! You are with X!” It took him minutes to find out who the vehicle was registered with! It was taken and never recovered, in spite of this!

Then there is another concerning trend:  many recovery agents actually recover vehicles – often ‘without stock’ worth millions.  They then had the vehicles over to the police and leave.  They have no records of when and how they got the call, of when and where they made first contact of where they were when the report was received, how far away they were, how long it took them to get to the area or how it was recovered.  They almost never asked to submit statements to the SAPS; they produce ‘activation reports’ that are so scarce with information that it may as well be a thumb-suck.

In one instance, a tracking company become aware of a hijacking and a vehicle was recovered some hours later. I was asked to help prepare a detailed narrative of how it unfolded.  By the time I had done the basic groundwork, I had so many names, phone numbers and references, tracking companies, police jurisdictions and even community police forum members involved, it was practically impossible to actually know how it happened that the truck and trailers were recovered.

The recovery involved a shooting incident, and the truck was riddled with bullet holes, but no suspects were arrested.  The story evolved from “recovery agents found the truck and the hijackers reversed and came straight at them, so they shot at them” to “the police shot at the hijackers – we don’t really know what happened” in one day!


So, what can be done? And – as long as vehicles are recovered, who cares what happens behind the scenes, right? Well – in an industry that seems to be infiltrated by possible corruption, criminality, self-serving motives, glory-hounds and even unskilled citizens – a massive disaster is looming.  And I would argue that it is the responsibility of commercial transporters to start pushing their tracking and recovery companies for quality and integrity. 

A good example of what you should expect of a tracking and/or recovery company comes in the form of a One Stop Group, based in northern Johannesburg and run by Tony Dobson.  “When a client loses an asset, they are obviously trying to get it back as quickly as possible, with minimal or no loss or damage and without any injury to staff.  That’s understandable but that is not where our tsk or function stops.

“There is more to it.  If our recovery efforts, our procedures, our approach, contact with suspects, handling of suspects and arrests are not conducted professionally, in compliance with the Criminal Procedures Act and supported by the appropriate evidence, those very criminals we chase after can walk on a technicality.”

Instead of rushing off and chasing after criminals half-cocked, rushing into the darkness, gun-in-hand and then rather than leaving as soon as the action is over, One Stop is spending a lot of time, effort and money on the collection of evidence all the way through the recovery process.  They use a closed, private WhatsApp group as a time-sensitive running diary of events.  Their members are not allowed to use cell phones during the tactical contact stages of a recovery – they must focus on the task at hand and update only when it is safe to do so.  They use in-car video cameras and record and retain the total deployment for each vehicle from the first report through the recovery and hand-over to the SAPS for every recovery they are involved in.  They immediately produce a report, with the total timeline, all relevant phone numbers, all photographs, and all locations, after each recovery.

Tony adds: “When you are deployed on a recovery, there is a risk to property and lives at every stage of the operation.  For this reason, nothing can be left to chance.  While our industry this reason, nothing can be left to chance.  While our industry is typically known for being rife with – let’s just say over-zealous operators – we pride ourselves on our ability to transcend beyond the scope of mere contact.  We prefer to become a vital link in the total crime management process and to ensure that everything we do is recorded and documented in a time- and space-sensitive format for later reference, right into court and though convection.”

Look back at your last recovery – if you have been unfortunate enough to have experienced one – and see if your recovery agent checked all the boxes Tony believes should be checked, in every recovery operation.  He says: “If your recovery agent falls short on just one leg of the recovery operation, the total case could be lost, and criminals put back on the streets – wiser than before.  I think a water-tight recovery should include the following aspects in order for it to effectively contribute to the reduction in crime rather than being nothing more than a crisis management effort. “Only if you have all this information at hand, can you be assured that the efforts of your recovery agent are contributing to the fight against crime and not just to the temporary interference in criminal efforts.  Arrests are not successes – convictions are.  We strive to contribute to those and not to war-stories alone.”

I am not suggesting that every tracking company is bad, that all operators are corrupt or Rambo’s or that you should make any changes.  I am merely suggesting that you ensure that your recovery agent is really and truly looking after your interests, makes full use of all resources at their disposal as quickly as possible and that they should place your interests ahead of their own.  If you can achieve this and only if everyone truly works together and shares a common agenda, will we ever stand a chance of winning this war.

For commercial operators who want to be on Stan Bezuidenhout’s SA National Risk Updates on Telegram Group message 063-891-8200 or email ibfinvestigations@gmail.com to be added to the group.

Leave a Comment