updated 7/27/2006 9:56:34 PM ET 2006-07-28T01:56:34

The pirates of today are not, as Joseph Conrad called them, "those colorful Vagabonds of the sea" anymore than they are romantic tars from the pen of Robert Louis Stevenson, singing "Yo, ho, ho, and a bottle of rum." They are desperate, well-armed and nasty killers, rapists, thieves and kidnappers.

Modern high-seas piracy costs the world about $15 billion per year. But according to Michael McDaniel, a leading expert on sea law, a principal of Countryman & McDaniel and the star of the History Channel program Return of the Pirates, "this is a false figure, as only about 10 percent of piracy is reported. If cargo crime is added in with piracy, the figure is around $50 billion per year, and growing, worldwide."

The connections between piracy, cargo theft and terrorism are adding new and frightening dimensions to this problem. To the company that suffers the loss, it does not make a great deal of difference if it happened en route to the port, at the port, on the high seas or while unloading. Piracy is just another form of theft unless it willfully takes lives as well. Sea piracy surged 57 percent in 2000, with Indonesia at the forefront.

"There are 11 million containers moving through L.A. and Long Beach each year. They are vulnerable to crime. We lose $2 million per day at L.A. They can hit a container full of cigarettes, and it doesn't take much to add up to $2 million," says McDaniel in reference to port-located crime.

The trouble is that too often crimes go unreported. There are various reasons why: The ports don't like to talk; shipping companies like Maersk Line, P&O Nedlloyd and Evergreen don't want to advertise their vulnerability; governments don't want bad press; and the press just doesn't report enough, according to McDaniel.

The cruise ship industry is not exactly thrilled to talk about being hit by a grenade launcher. The memory of Achille Lauro is still vivid, and it happened in 1985. The more recent Seabourn Spirit's flight from pirates armed with machine guns and rocket propelled grenades remains all too fresh, as it happened in the last year.

The International Maritime Bureau, headquartered in Britain and a subdivision of the International Chamber of Commerce, issues a weekly report of piracy action.

In the week of July 11 to July 17, 2006 there were five incidents. They ranged from pirates who boarded a containership and left empty handed in the anchorage of Luanda, Angola, to the boarding of a chemical tanker in Godau port, Vietnam, where three pirates stole the ship's stores and safety equipment, and escaped.

The report lists the following places as piracy-prone zones: Bangladesh (Chittagong anchorage), Indonesia (particularly Galasa Straits and Jakarta), Malacca straits and Singapore straits. A strait is a body of water connecting two other bodies of water (like New York's so-called East River). These are usually sheltered waters with quick access to ports and a complex shoreline that gives modern-day Bluebeards plenty of places to hide.

In the first quarter of 2006, global piracy jumped 8 percent over the same period a year earlier. In 61 incidents, some 63 crew members were taken hostage. This would have been far worse, according to IMB Director Captain Pottengal Mukundan, if there had not been increased law enforcement in high-risk areas. Somalia and Nigeria, where oil pirates operate almost at will, are still dangerous waters.

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