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The hijacking of $339,000 worth of rare Japanese KitKats

NEW YORK – Mr Danny Taing’s 55,000 Kit Kats began their long, twisted, and sometimes obscure journey in Japan.

Mr Taing is the founder of Bokksu, a New York company that sells Japanese snacks in subscription boxes, and he intended to make a tidy sum by flipping the sweets in the United States.

The KitKat shipment, which included sought-after flavours such as melon, matcha latte, and daifuku mochi, had cost US$110,000 (S$149,000), but Bokksu expected to make about US$250,000 in total revenue.

“You can fit a lot of KitKats into two containers,” Mr Taing said.

And they are a booming business. In Japan, enthusiasts clamour for the rarer flavours, with some sold for just a few weeks or only in a specific region. In the United States, obsessives fawn over the collectibles, comparing reviews on Japanese snack blogs and shelling out for limited editions.

These particular KitKats would become key players in an ultimately frustrating saga of shell e-mail accounts, phantom truckers, supply-chain fraud and one seriously bewildered cargo freight broker.

Interviews and e-mails shared with The New York Times tell the story of just one instance of “strategic theft”, a growing corner of the criminal world that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has said accounts for some US$30 billion in losses a year – with food being among the top targets.

The precious sweets landed safely enough in California, and were trucked about 48km across Los Angeles County to a temporary storage facility in South El Monte, run by a company called Japan Crate Acquisition.

After weeks of chugging across the Pacific Ocean, they just needed to make the remaining leg of their journey to Bokksu’s warehouse in Carlstadt, New Jersey, and then into the hands of avid candy fans.

That was where Mr Shane Black came in.

Mr Black, who runs a freight brokering company called Freight Rate Central in Sarasota, Florida, is part of an invisible army of professionals who coordinate and marshal the fleets of trucks that criss-cross the country, carrying everything from chickens to smartphones. For this job, Bokksu would pay him about US$13,000.

Mr Black got to it. He posted the job on a trucking board that is something like a Craigslist for freight. Someone named Tristan with HCH Trucking accepted the job (though he was using a Gmail account), and said he would have the shipment picked up shortly.

On Aug 9, Tristan wrote in an e-mail: “Hey man, The first one is loaded and rolling, the second one we’ll pick it up tomorrow first thing in the morning.”

“There was nothing out of the ordinary,” Mr Black said in an interview.

Coming clean

When the shipments failed to reach New Jersey days after any cross-country trip should have been completed, Mr Black started to have visions of KitKats melting in the summer heat.

“Please tell me the freight is in good order and has been refrigerated this whole time?” he e-mailed Tristan.

Tristan replied that one of the trucks had broken down in Washington, Pennsylvania, a small city just south-west of Pittsburgh. Tristan reassured him that the Kit Kats were cool and intact, but “if it’s not fixed by today we will have to head back to the shipper and re-unload them there”.

That sent up all kinds of red flags for Mr Black. If the truck was in good enough shape to drive over 3,800km back to California, why could it not make it fewer than 650km to New Jersey? So Mr Black called HCH Trucking.

“That’s when everything kind of hit the fan,” he said.

When he reached the HCH headquarters in Jersey City, New Jersey, he heard chaos in the background, sounds of panic. The representative told him that their information appeared to have been compromised. They had never heard of any Tristan.

If Mr Black was not dealing with HCH Trucking, who was he dealing with? And most important, where were the six figures’ worth of KitKats?

Seemingly on cue, Tristan followed up. “Time for some coming clean,” he confessed. “I’m actually a scammer and the owner of HCH doesn’t have anything to do with this.”

“Why though?” Mr Black replied plaintively. “What would you stand to gain? Can I please get access to the loads so I can get them to New Jersey? We’re not a big company at all. It‘s just me… I’m the owner and everything else.”

Tristan wrote back: “We’re trying to make money sir, I told you we’re scammers, really sorry I didn’t know your story, and hopefully the loads get to New Jersey.”

Tristan included the addresses of two warehouses, both just east of Los Angeles, where he had dropped the loads.

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The strange thing was that Mr Black had never paid Tristan any money; the shipping fee was due on delivery. If this was a con, so far it did not seem to be a very profitable one. In any case, Mr Black couldn’t believe his luck.

“When I found out they were at a cold-storage facility, I mean, I was just so happy,” he said. “I thought, ‘OK, we got the freight.’”

Out of service

Mr Black spun back into action. According to Tristan, one load was at Inland Empire Cold Storage in Jurupa Valley, California. The other was nearby, at Anytime Crossdock in Ontario, California. Tristan then went silent, and did not respond to repeated e-mails from NYTimes seeking comment.

Anytime was eager to get the load out of its warehouse and to be paid for nearly two weeks of storage.

It turned out that the KitKats had never left California. They had simply been driven about 50km east, put on ice and left to rack up storage fees.

“We would like to know when you are going to get this picked up,” Anytime wrote, “as we anticipated this to be a short-term storage request.”

The outstanding balance for the storage was US$3,830. Mr Black said he paid US$2,000 of that out of his own pocket to secure the release of the freight, with the promise to pay the rest later. Anytime did not respond to repeated requests for comment from NYTimes.

Daunted but determined, he started the process over, posting the job again on the freight board. This time he said he got a bite from ‘Manny’ from MVK Transport.

According to Mr Black, Manny had the KitKats picked up. At least this half of the shipment was on its way to New Jersey, Mr Black believed. After a few days, though, communications turned spotty.

“I’ve been writing you for days now,” Mr Black e-mailed a few days later. “I called yesterday and you hung up and now your phone says it’s out of service.”

The next morning, he followed up, now furious: “How do you make money on this??? Are you going to sell KitKats on the corner???”

He had been had again. This time, the KitKats had disappeared for good into the expanse of Southern California’s freewayland. Requests for comment sent to MVK went unanswered.

‘We cannot release the freight’

Inland Cold Empire Storage, at least, still had the other half of the KitKats, and Mr Black, by now frantic to salvage what he could of the candy, was still on the case.

“This load was stolen from us, and placed in your storage facility,” he wrote to Inland on Aug 21. Inland replied that its contract was with a man named Harry Centa.

“There is no ‘Harry’,” Mr Black explained. Bokksu, cc’ed on the e-mail, was the rightful owner. “‘Harry’ is a fictitious name.”

Harry Centa, however, is not a fictitious name. Mr Harry Centa lives in Ohio, and works in shipping. But the entire KitKat affair was news to him. “This is totally fraudulent and not me,” Mr Centa said in an e-mail to the NYTimes. “Good luck and hope they find the KitKats LOL.”

Nevertheless, Inland was unmoved: “Without proof that you are the rightful owner and payment for storage we cannot release the freight.”

Mr Black said he reached out to the sheriff’s departments of Riverside and San Bernardino counties, but said he was told jurisdictional issues kept them from getting involved, and no reports were filed.

He also turned to the team at Bokksu. Did they have anything that he could use to prove their ownership?

But Bokksu had essentially fired Mr Black in the meantime, stopped payment on his fee, filed a report with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department for insurance purposes, and decided to move on. The KitKats were dead to them.

“I don’t know if I would be comfortable selling these to customers,” said Mr Taing, Bokksu’s founder. “What if something actually happens to customers that eat this, and we get sued?”

Meanwhile, the KitKats are still at Inland, according to the company’s chief executive officer Kevin Sacalas.

“We have no use for this product and would happily release it to anyone who would show proof of proper ownership and pay the storage fees,” Mr Sacalas wrote in an e-mail to NYTimes.

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Chess v checkers

The Bokksu KitKats are just one instance of an increasingly common computer-based form of fraud that some experts call “fictitious pickups” or “strategic theft”. It is part identity theft, part extortion. The freight, sometimes called a “hostage load”, can vanish if the extortion demands are not met.

“The more you unpeel the onion, the worse it gets,” said Mr Keith Lewis, vice-president of operations at CargoNet, which is part of the global data analytics and technology provider Verisk. He said that strategic cargo theft is up 700 per cent in 2023.

“The supply chain is moving at the speed of light,” he said, adding: “The bad guys are playing chess and we’re playing checkers. We’re two or three steps behind them.”

As for Bokksu, its insurance claim has been denied. So the blame is now flowing backward along that supply chain.

Bokksu holds Mr Black responsible. He fell for an obvious scam, they said, and the Gmail addresses should have been a red flag.

Mr Black said truckers do not always use company domains. Ultimately, he blames Japan Crate Acquisition, which originally released the KitKats to ‘Tristan’.

“Obviously it didn’t go to an HCH truck,” Mr Black said, and whoever loaded the shipment “should’ve been suspicious.”

In possibly the strangest twist on the KitKat trail, Bokksu announced in September that it had acquired Japan Crate. But NYTimes discovered that the acquisition had actually been completed back in June. So Bokksu, through a wholly owned subsidiary, had in effect overseen the loading of its own KitKats onto the original two fraudulent trucks.

“I’ve been doing this for over two decades now, and I’ve never come across anything like this, anything of this magnitude,” Mr Black said. “It’s beyond crazy, it really is. Because there’s no answers.”

“I do feel cheated,” he added. “I just don’t know who is doing the cheating.” NYTIMES

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