In a stunning reversal of what Americans have experienced at gas stations in recent weeks, thieves have figured out how to make off with thousands of dollars worth of gas, directly from the station.
Newsweek put together a few of the most recent incidents, where bands of fuel thieves hack their way into pumps or simply drive off with the liquid gold:
In a separate incident in Colorado last month, thieves allegedly stole roughly 5,000 gallons of gas valued at around $50,000 from a gas station. According to news station KXAN, a video showed the suspects arriving at the station, who pumped thousands of gallons of gas into tanks in the back of their vehicle, without paying. The manager of the business said he believed a remote control was used to pull off the theft.
On Thursday, law enforcement officials in Florida announced that fuel thieves had allegedly used a “homemade device” to steal $60,000 worth of gasoline from two gas stations, which saw the arrest of six people. In another case in Florida, four men were arrested and accused of stealing more than 2,800 gallons worth of gas. Officials didn’t say how much the value of the gas totaled, but it could have been worth tens of thousands of dollars given other police departments’ estimates.
According to CBS Dallas-Fort Worth, the owner of a Valero gas station in Duncanville, Texas, said last month that thieves had stolen 6,000 gallons of diesel fuel worth over $23,000 from his business.
How are they doing this? Arizona State’s Center for Problem-Oriented Policing has an interesting breakdown of how thieves manage to make off with free fuel:
- Manipulating the security system on pumps. For example, after prepaying a few dollars worth of gas, some offenders have learned how to keep the pump operating beyond the amount paid for.
- Posing as maintenance personnel and tapping a pumps metering system to release fuel.
- Stealing directly from the underground tanks at service stations: a driver positions a truck with a hole drilled in its floor over the tank, pries off the tank cover, and inserts a pump that can gulp hundreds of gallons. This is highly dangerous, because the absence of an effective vapor recovery system means one small spark could ignite a blaze.1
- Using a van or other large vehicle to shield a smaller vehicle from the attendants view. Several gallons of fuel are siphoned from the gas pump into the smaller vehicles tank, the pump meter is reset, and then fueling is completed. The offender then pays for the small amount registered on the meter.
- Working as a pair, one offender distracts the attendant through purchases or conversation, while his or her accomplice at the pump fills the vehicles tank and drives away.2
While it may seem satisfying to see gas companies suffer some minor financial loss after announcing record profits during record prices, there’s a lot to consider here.
Most gas in the U.S. is sold by independent stores which have a contract with a gas company to supply fuel to their pumps. Gas stations can seek to recover stolen gas via insurance claims, though the research is vague on how often that happens. So small operators are sometimes hurt in the process, at least temporarily, but many treat it as the cost of doing business.
There are also safety factors to consider: First, thieves tend to drive off pretty quickly, which can result in dangerous traffic situations. It’s also incredibly dangerous to drive around with huge tanks of gasoline, stolen or otherwise. We saw this last year, when the Colonial Pipeline closure caused southern drivers to attempt to horde fuel.
“It’s an actual bomb that’s on the road and this is very volatile. It’s extremely dangerous,” Dallas police Sergeant Richard Santiesteban told CBS News after $5,000 worth of fuel was stolen in Houston.
As ASU notes, most fuel thieves are never caught and stations can experience on average around three drive-offs a week, and higher gas prices increase the frequency of thefts.