A nutty conspiracy theory

Millions of dollars' worth of almonds, pistachios, and walnuts are going missing in California. There's reason to believe the thefts are linked.

In California in recent years, nut jobs have become quite profitable: Almond, walnut, and pistachio theft is on the rise, and millions of dollars’ worth of nuts have been vanishing into thin air after they’re loaded onto truck beds and driven off into the distance. Investigators blame it on malicious middlemen.

Last week, Outside magazine published Peter Vigneron’s riveting story, “The Curious Case of the Disappearing Nuts.” Vigneron spent years investigating nut theft, which is apparently a big enough deal to have merited the formation of a law enforcement Nut Theft Task Force with half a dozen detectives, an Emergency Nut Theft Summit held by the Western Agricultural Processors Association, and even an FBI inquiry.

“You steal 370,000 pounds of almonds, you’re not going to sell it on the side of the road.”

There’s reason to believe a nutty conspiracy is afoot. Here’s how the thefts tend to be organized: A truck with fake plates shows up at the farm or processor to pick up a load of nuts. Its driver is using a burner phone and someone else’s license. Sometimes the truck and its driver bear the name and paperwork of a real shipping company, sometimes the entire company is a fake. Sometimes the thieves don’t bother with any paperwork at all—they just break into a farm, back up just the tractor cab of their truck to link it up to an already full trailer, and drive off. The thefts are clean, fast, and smart. And all that sophistication makes perfect sense: “You steal 370,000 pounds of almonds, you’re not going to sell it on the side of the road,” said Rich Paloma, a reporter for the Oakdale Leader who told Vigneron that back in 2013, he began to suspect that the thefts were connected.

Don’t miss Vigneron’s full story.

Vigneron explains that food is a pretty easy target for thieves. The evidence is consumed, and there aren’t many serial numbers in a truckload of raw pistachios. Farmers rely on brokers to connect them with trucking companies, and a private investigator told Vigneron that a broker’s vetting process can be pretty close to nonexistent, making it easy for a fake trucking company to contract for a shipment. Trucking companies bid on jobs through a Craigslist-style platform, and thieves posing as legitimate companies are in business as soon as they successfully bid for a shipment.

Half a dozen law enforcement officials told Vigneron they think many of the nut thefts originate with Armenian Power, a criminal group linked to a broader Russian organized-crime network. A few drivers have been prosecuted, but thefts continue as authorities try to collect evidence against the “bigger fish.” Meanwhile, nut farmers and processors are amping up security to stop “fictitious pickups,” the official term for the truck thefts.

So where do the stolen nuts end up? Sometimes Canada, sometimes Mexico, sometimes elsewhere in the United States. Vigneron asked a shipping security executive about who ends up buying the stolen nuts. “You do!” he answered. “You just don’t know it.” 

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H. Claire Brown is a senior staff writer for The Counter. Her work has also appeared in The Atlantic, The Guardian, and The Intercept and has won awards from the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing, the New York Press Club, the Newswomen's Club of New York, and others. A North Carolina native, she now lives in Brooklyn.