Beware the Clones

Something wasn’t right. On Oct. 11, 2006, amid the sparse, rolling desert dunes of southern Arizona, two US Border Patrol agents approached a green and white Border Patrol van parked off the highway. Seeing the agents approach, a man later identified as the driver of the van jumped down and ran across the unmarked desert border back into Mexico. The agents, from the small Border Patrol outpost at Case Grande, Ariz., couldn’t believe their eyes when they opened up the doors to the extended Dodge
Ram van: Crammed inside were 31 Mexican aliens "stacked on top of one another inside. …" "That was quite a shock," recalled one Arizona-based Border Patrol agent. There was only one tiny flaw on the seemingly authentic Border Patrol van that had
caught the agents’ attention-a tell-tale letter "H," instead of the letter "P"—in its displayed serial number, used to differentiate the Patrol’s vans from its Jeep Wranglers.
The undocumented "passengers" told the agents that they had been "picked up" by the fake van in the small town of Altar, in the Mexican state of Sonora, some 65 miles south of the US border.
"We’ve had several more cases" since the 2006 incident, said another Border Patrol intelligence specialist in an HSToday interview, "involving not only Border Patrol but other government vehicles" along the Mexican border.
‘Nightmare scenario’
Those little-publicized Arizona incidents also caught the attention of intelligence analysts at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE). In a nationwide survey of recent "cloned" vehicle reports, a troubling pattern emerged. In their study, tagged "law enforcement sensitive," and completed this January, the FDLE charted some 15 incidents involving both faked official and commercial vehicles between 2005 and 2007, which should serve as a wake-up call to law enforcement and counterterrorism officials worldwide.
As the FDLE’s study, The Road Map to Cloned Vehicles, put it: "… the use of government vehicles with official markings, especially those associated with friendly military, government and public safety entities, could be a means of delivering a vehicle-borne explosive device to a target site. This method could allow terrorists to bypass established security protocols and strike hardened, high-value targets."
"Load it with a conventional explosive or even a radiological device and you have the makings of a truly ‘ultimate nightmare’ scenario," said a federal counterterrorism official familiar with the new Florida study.
Officially, at least, the FDLE declined to comment on their restricted clone report when asked for comment recently by HSToday. "That is ‘Law Enforcement Sensitive.’ The lawyers are looking at that now," said Eva Rhody of the FDLE’s Office of Statewide Intelligence.
Some of the agencies, entities and commercial companies cited in this report also declined on-the-record interviews about the numerous incidents listed. To put it in context, they, too, are actually "victims" of such illicit practices.
One of the more ominous cases uncovered by the FDLE study was a July 2006 joint federal and state investigation in the Portland, Ore., area in which one stolen pickup truck displaying both National Security Agency (NSA) and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) emblems was seized.
"During the investigation, a second stolen truck, again with FEMA markings and other FEMA documentation, was also recovered," the report stated. The results of this rather worrisome case have still not been released.
It’s not just law enforcement that has to be worried. "We’ve had a few incidents, too," as Bill Anderson, Ryder Truck’s director of global security, put it in an interview with HSToday. "Fortunately, they ‘only’ involved cargo theft," and not terrorism threats, he said.
Indeed, almost all of the other incidents and arrests cited in the new report involved either drug transportation or money laundering operations and, in the one case, illegal alien smuggling.
The FDLE study cited several instances of cloned Federal Express (FedEx) vehicles, which could easily be used to exploit the ubiquitous, hide-in-plain-sight nature of today’s busy commercial environment. In one 2005 incident, the Missouri Highway Patrol arrested a suspect driving a fake FedEx van, loaded with more than 1,300 pounds of marijuana. Officers had already traced the license plate to another drug suspect in Texas.
"I was involved in the Missouri case," recalled Jerry Easom, FedEx Freight East’s managing director for corporate security. "If you didn’t know exactly what you were looking at, you would never know it—they do it pretty good."
"These days [the problem] is trying to clone government vehicles—highway department and [US] Customs vehicles," the Arkansas-based security executive told HSToday. To combat the problem in recent years, FedEx has "increased driver awareness and implemented security management companywide to constantly visually check [all] our vehicles on the road. And some technical things I can’t really talk about—enhancing our security brand, so to speak."
There were also a slew of earlier phony FedEx vans and step-trucks sighted along the Tucson-Phoenix axis in the years between 2002 and 2004. Most were also suspected drug courier vehicles. "Our employees are not reporting an increase in suspicious activity" of late, Easom said. "Frequently, the bad guys use FedEx until they’re caught, then they switch to other brands."
On two occasions cited by the FDLE, matching fake corporate uniforms were even employed. In one November 2006 incident, the Arkansas State Police stopped a Chevrolet van in Johnson County, Ark., for a traffic violation. The van "was completely outfitted to resemble a Dish Network installation van," the FDLE reported. The rather nervous driver was even wearing a Dish Network jump suit. The state troopers uncovered "$140,060 concealed inside drums of cable."
Bleak history
The issue of deceptive vehicles is one with potentially catastrophic consequences, as history has shown in bombings of the World Trade Center in 1993 and the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, both of which employed Ryder rental trucks. Then there was the furious hunt for upwards of 40 missing rental trucks in the chaotic weeks following Sept. 11, 2001, and the erroneous search for a missing "white Isuzu box truck" during the 2002 Washington DC-area sniper case. In the past two years, phony ambulances have been a favorite ploy of terrorists in both Iraq and Beirut, Lebanon.
"And as we know," another federal counterterrorism official noted to HSToday, "terrorists emulate terrorists."
Today, amid renewed reports of hijacked gasoline trucks in the Washington-Baltimore area, US law enforcement agencies and commercial fleet operators have finally begun to focus on the use of fake uniforms, documentation and vehicles by criminals and terrorists.
"These days, we’re always on a heightened alert, level Orange," said Ryder System’s Anderson.
Telltale signs
The small, but signature, signs law enforcement responders need to be on the lookout for include "after-market" accessories like license plate brackets, CD players, whitewall tires or tinted windows (like the fake postal truck mentioned in the sidebar), misspelled words and, in particular, phone numbers that don’t check out.
In some cases, it’s the proverbial dog-that-didn’t-bark-type clues that give away cloned vehicles: for example, the lack of company or agency equipment inside the vehicle or the lack of company or agency paperwork or personnel identification.
Faking vehicle identifications is no longer just a matter of slapping on the magnetic placards of old. The ease and simplicity of faking vehicle decals in the digital age is astonishing, FDLE analysts note. Do-it-yourselfers can cheaply employ software like the widely available Adobe Photoshop to copy or manipulate almost any image. For as little as $12.95, commercial websites like can help potential criminals or terrorists clandestinely clone-up their Chevy step van "from the comfort of their own home with little or no interaction with others," as the FDLE agents put it.
A full vehicle clone with decals can run up to several hundred dollars, the FDLE noted, and a professional vinyl wrap can run between $1,000 and $6,000 per vehicle, which includes custom-colored stripes, custom logos, window decals, the works.
Application and removal techniques and much more are all available with "free shipping [on] all orders over $75," states one decal website. There are many other websites and commercial outfits that can do the same, it should be noted.
"We’ve not run into anything like that," said Ben Atkins, the proprietor of the StreetDecals website singled out by the FDLE for illustration purposes only. "About 99 percent of what we do is decorative stock decals, like flames and so on. The only businesses that we do are local entities like contractors."
Before taking over the Sarasota, Fla., Web business last November, Atkins’ background was actually in the security industry: "So I do understand the security threat. We would certainly notice something like a request for government decals," he told HSToday.
Nonetheless, "through the use of the Internet and other available technology, criminals are able to easily obtain the materials necessary to clone a vehicle with little fear of detection as there is no ‘face to face’ interaction required to make a purchase via the Internet," the FDLE concluded.
Solutions and defenses
Proposed solutions to the problem vary. As the ease and availability of custom decals demonstrate, it is a two-way, high-tech/low-tech battle. Good old-fashioned, observant police work is the best line of defense. High-tech items like digital imaging at change-over points, biometric driver fingerprint verification and LoJack-type global positioning satellite tracking systems, although more of a theft deterrent, can also deter terrorists, security officials note.
The same is pretty much true on the commercial side of the ledger, said Ryder System’s Bill Anderson. He said Ryder’s truck and supply chain management company has added some straightforward precautions since 9/11.
"Although our main concern is cargo theft, the basic techniques are mutually compatible" with present day counterterrorism measures, according to Anderson. Since the company is now focused on supply chain management and fleet operations (only 1 percent is retail rentals these days), they know their customers.
"It’s the basics—employee training and vetting, the removal of vehicle keys, locking vehicles in well-lighted, secured areas where possible, and double checking the paperwork," said Anderson.
Ryder has instituted security protocols requiring driver verification, confirming vehicle numbers and rechecking the paperwork. "It’s very hard to clone all three," he said, "and we place little credence on vehicle decals."
As he put it: "Know your customers; secure your assets; implement barriers."
For the supply chain and fleet clients, Anderson suggested: "Know the carrier and driver that are scheduled to pick up your cargo and verify his identity before a load is released. Monitor delivery schedules and routes, treat suspiciously any overdue shipments or out-of-route journeys.
"And we maintain excellent working relationships with law enforcement and other agencies, both here and overseas," said the Miami-based trucking security executive.
In addition, "law enforcement should be completely familiar with the emergency services and emergency vehicles … operating within their jurisdiction, including 24- hour contact information," the FDLE analysts pointed out. "To better assist law enforcement, emergency service agencies should have verification procedures in place for their vehicles and employees, especially in times of disasters or other events."
Legal gymnastics
While phonying-up federal vehicles or rescue vehicles can be prosecuted, the use of commercial clones highlights another glaring legal loophole—it is not a crime in itself to fake a corporate logo; it’s merely trademark infringement. There are virtually no federal or state laws against cloning vehicles, according to the FDLE study, which has recommended law enforcement lobbying on the issue nationwide.
"Like so many cross-jurisdictional issues these days, it imposes legal gymnastics on the poor, street-level officers," one former state prosecutor noted.
As the FDLE report cautions: "Improper use of a company’s logos and colors, without more evidence of criminal activity, are trademark violations, which are civil in nature and not enforceable by law enforcement officers."
{mospagebreak} Image The FDLE suggests two enforcement approaches:

"If an officer can articulate [in court] the basis of his/her suspicion that the vehicle is cloned—i.e., the Border Patrol vehicle with the wrong letter inthe vehicle ID number [cited earlier]—then a traffic stop may be legally justified," according to the report.
"Additional information obtained after the vehicle is stopped may provide probable cause for a search or seizure of the vehicle. One minor indicator probably would not be enough for probable cause,though it might provide reasonable suspicion. Multiple indicators would provide probable cause. It all depends on how clearly the officer is able to articulate his/her reasons for conducting the stop and search."
As if police officers do not have enough on their plates already.
False, false positives
Finally, to further confuse diligent law enforcement officers, they need beware the false fakes—which might even be doing some good when the veil of confusion is lifted.
These include two non-public issues not otherwise addressed in the comprehensive FDLE survey, but raised by sources exclusively to HSToday. In recent years, a few private security firms have taken to purposely "cloning" UPS-style, brown step vans for use in surreptitious surveillance in various types of cases, particularly for large insurance companies fighting expensive fraudulent disability claims. According to several private security executives interviewed by HSToday, the phony brown vans have proven particularly effective in crowded metropolitan areas like New York City and its environs.
"No one notices when a brown ‘delivery’ truck is frequently seen hanging around their neighborhood," one of the executives pointed out. "Of course, the operators all have the appropriate corporate security credentials should they be questioned by law enforcement," stated the New York-based executive.
"The operators report any suspicious neighborhood activities," he added.
Another more seemingly ominous practice is being newly employed by UPS contractors, which recently raised major red flags for Washington, DC law enforcement officers.
According to a January 2008 "official use only" circular issued by DHS’ Federal Protective Service regional intelligence division, an unmarked Toyota Camry was found unattended outside the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center on Washington’s busy 14th Street last December. The roof of the gray sedan was covered with numerous short antennas and "bundles of wires wrapped together on the exterior of the vehicle and leading into the trunk."
When the resulting bomb alert went out, a massive traffic tie-up promptly ensued. A Federal Protective Service (FPS) inspector was brought in to check the vehicle for radiological emissions, "but found none," according to the circular. The DC Police had a bomb disposal technician examine the car and declare it safe. "The bundles of wires from the antennas were found to be connected to a sealed computer-type box inside the passenger compartment of the vehicle. The owner of the vehicle was located, and he explained that he was a contract UPS employee and that the antenna array, wires and sealed box were installed under a UPS contract by the name of ‘Market Driver Program.’"
Regional UPS officials quickly confirmed the driver’s story to FPS special agents and provided them with the following background information:
"It is a national UPS program with about 400 privately owned vehicles (POV) registered in the program to contract UPS employees. Some of these employees are issued UPS identification cards and some are not issued an ID card. These contract employees deliver UPS packages in their POVs and cover a multi-state service area. The program is a joint effort where UPS is under contract with Sprint [Communications] to have Sprint equipment (antenna array, wire bundles and a sealed computer type box) professionally installed in the UPS contract employee’s POV. This [extra] Sprint equipment records data from their cellular towers to … test signals and triangulation data. This equipment operates without any user input."
The FDLE study has been widely noted in the networked community of federal, state and corporate security officers. There would appear, as well, to be a fair amount of justifiable concern about the potential threat, counterterrorism (CT) intelligence officials emphasizedto HSToday.
"We would not be surprised to find foreign terrorist cells in the US taking an approach like this in their planning, especially when planning to carry out something like a dirty bomb attack or to transport an actual nuclear weapon of some sort," said a veteran federal CT hand. "They’ve got to find some sort of inconspicuous way to transport and deliver such a weapon. Or, they could use vehicles like these to inconspicuously transport members and equipment, carry out surveillance or any number of other activities in preparation for an attack without drawing scrutiny."
Since the FDLE report was given wide distribution among law enforcement agencies, there has been a heightened state of awareness of the problem.
Several state CT officials contacted by HSToday would not divulge details of various ongoing investigations but said they had substantive leads linking some of the trucks to Mexican-based drug traffickers and their infrastructure within the United States, where they believe trucks were outfitted to look like Wal-Mart trucks.
Cargo transportation experts, including Ryder System’s Anderson, noted that it would be much easier to disguise legitimate vehicles allowed to cross the Mexican border after they’re inside the United States than to produce all the phony documentation that would have to go with a cloned truck entering from Mexico.
The landmark report compiled by FDLE’s intelligence analysts had the assistance of members of the privately run law enforcement intelligence organization Black Asphalt Electronic Networking System (, a members-only site).
"It is essential that all law enforcement personnel maintain vigilance and remain alert to the possible use of what appear to be marked official vehicles as part of a terrorist operation," the FDLE report concluded. "It is imperative for law enforcement agencies to be aware that any vehicle, from governmental to commercial, has the potential to be cloned."
And so it would seem that the day of the clone is indeed upon us. HST
W. Scott Malone is a multiple Emmy and Peabody award-winning investigative journalist who is the publisher of the private counterterrorism newsletter BlackNET Intelligence. HSToday Senior Reporter Anthony Kimery contributed to this story.

A recent litany
The litany of some cited incidents in the FDLE survey are reminiscent of scenes from Hollywood heist movies:

  • A Chevrolet utility truck displaying Southwestern Bell Telephone Company logos contained almost 1,800 pounds of marijuana when the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) seized it in July 2006.
  • A month later, the Texas DPS nabbed a complete Wal-Mart tractor-trailer rig containing 3,000 pounds of marijuana and 204 kilograms (about 450 pounds) of cocaine. The fake rig even had cloned commercial Oklahoma license plates that “returned” back to the legitimate Wal-Mart Transportation Inc. Oklahoma Highway Patrol and Oklahoma Bureau of Investigations counterterrorism and counter-narcotics detectives have actively investigated a number of reports of cloned vehicles, including several 18-wheel Wal-Mart tractor-trailer clones.

Officials at both agencies told HSToday on background that they were part of a multistate probe involving Texas, Arkansas, Missouri and Kansas—all states where these rigs, or similar ones, reportedly were spotted. They said the investigations also involved the departments of Transportation and Homeland Security and FBI due to the interstate nature of the crimes. The investigation is ongoing.

  • Police in Mississippi stopped a Dodge “rescue/emergency van” in October 2006. Only one problem—the fake ambulance did not contain any medical equipment or supplies. The driver, “a known drug violator” from Texas, and his passenger said they were simply transporting the vehicle to Dallas. After a fruitless consensual search, they and their vehicle were sent on their way without charges.
  • In November 2006, giving new meaning to the term “going postal,” Texas DPS troopers, acting on tips from suspicious US Postal Service carriers, spotted a familiar red, white and blue-striped Ford Windstar van cruising near the Brownsville, Texas—Mexican border. It turned out to have non-regulation tinted windows.
  • Two separate incidents in 2007 put the spotlight on the Texas Department of Transportation (DoT). A cloned DoT truck was wrecked and the occupants fled. It contained illegal drugs. A second DoT truck clone contained bales of marijuana, and the driver was successfully apprehended because “… the windows were tinted too dark,” according to state officials. “We got one, one day, and one the next,” said Texas DoT analyst Scott Alley. “It was a couple of drug runners—not even sure if they were related.”

The FDLE report further noted that cable company vans seem to be a particular favorite of cloners, no doubt due to their ubiquity.
Some of the perpetrators are not without a certain sense of humor. A van seized by police officers in Pearl, Miss., in September 2006 displayed DirecTV and other cable company logos and contained 786 pounds of cocaine. The 800-telephone number listed on the truck sent the caller to a 99-cent-per-minute adult sex chat line.

Trust but verify: Uniforms may not tell the story
Fake vehicles combined with false uniforms are a security nightmare. “If the bad guys coupled [cloned vehicles] with good phony uniforms and/or fake identification documents, we would have to go back and review and reformat all levels of the cross-referenced threat indicators within our [current] security architectures,” noted a federal counterterrorism official familiar with the Florida cloned vehicle study.
Not mentioned in the FDLE report was a companywide scare at United Parcel Service (UPS) just before the busy Christmas delivery season in 2006. According to two former UPS employees, a security bulletin was issued warning that more than 1,000 distinct brown UPS uniforms had possibly been stolen.
“It could have been the invasion of the ‘men in brown,’” said one UPS driver, referring to the movie “Men in Black.” It apparently turned out that the “missing” uniforms bulletin was actually an internal denial of a regurgitated 2003 Internet hoax, which even UPS employees had managed to garble, company executives now believe.
It is not only such corporate incidents that have raised recent concern, however. In a January Super Bowl Threat Advisory, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials expressed concern about police and FBI identification, vests and even weapons stolen from law enforcement vehicles.
Prepared Jan. 14 by DHS’ Office of Intelligence and Analysis in conjunction with the FBI and intelligence community, the “for official use only,” advisory described thefts of official equipment.
“The list of stolen equipment includes access cards; ammunition; body armor; firearms; Kevlar helmets; marked and unmarked emergency services, fire and police vehicles; official badges and credentials; radios; raid shirts and jackets; rifles; uniforms; and weapons,” the assessment stated, adding, “numerous thefts of government and law enforcement property that could be used to facilitate unauthorized entry have been reported.” (This incident was reported exclusively at the time on the HSToday website,
The UPS uniform “scare” and the recent DHS Super Bowl alert are eerily reminiscent of alittle-known “plot” during the inauguration celebrations for President Ronald Reagan back in January 1981. In response to the unsolved theft of at least eight Metropolitan Police Department uniforms from a dry cleaner and informant reports about a possible Iranian-sponsored assassination attempt, local police, FBI andSecret Service special agents warned or detained almost 200 Iranian immigrants in the DC metropolitan area in order to prevent them from attending the inauguration festivities, according to then-Washington, DC, police intelligence detective Carl Schoffler. (This security “roust” was considered legally questionable even at that time, according to Schoffler.)

Recommendations and conclusions from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement
1. Law enforcement should keep abreast of concealment methods as the criminal element has proven ingenious in developing new ones (from hiding contraband in tires to chemically engineering cocaine in acrylic glass).
2. Law enforcement agencies should stay in constant communication with commercial industries that provide tools for cloned vehicles. This will give law enforcement the information needed to keep up with new trends that may be available to legitimate companies and allow it to educate the industry on how to detect suspicious clients and report them.
3. Regarding terrorist/criminal activities, law enforcement should have communication and verification procedures in place for government vehicles operating within their jurisdiction, with specific emphasis on emergency services and emergency vehicles to include fire and other rescue vehicles. Emergency service agencies should have verification procedures in place for their vehicles and employees. Law enforcement agencies should also be aware of the various commercial entities and vehicles operating within their jurisdiction.
4. Law enforcement should encourage creation of laws designed to criminalize the use of cloned vehicles. With clearly defined, consistent federal and state statutes available to assist them, law enforcement officers can effectively act against people using cloned vehicles to further their criminal activities.
Without law enforcement intervention, cloned vehicles will continue to provide criminals with the means necessary to carry out their initiatives. As discussed earlier, the initiatives may be smuggling drugs, illegal aliens or weapons that may be used by terrorists. It is important for law enforcement agencies to work together and combine investigative efforts on developing cases that involve cloned vehicles. Increased communication and the sharing of information will be a step in the right direction in stopping criminals from using commercial and private industries to their advantage.
Source: The Road Map to Cloned Vehicles, January 2008

Websites and resources

Sources: FDLE, “The Road Map to Cloned Vehicles,” January 2008. “Securing Your Supply Chain—Prevent Cargo Theft, ” by Bill Anderson, director, Global Security, Ryder System Inc.

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