MONEY

Rising gas prices present 'new crime of opportunity' for thieves nationwide

The small timers will drill right into tanks. Theft rings try to hit the underground tanks at gas stations.

As gas prices have gone up, so have reports of criminals trying to cash in, from small-time crooks drilling into vehicle tanks to brazen thieves secretly pumping hundreds of gallons from stations' underground tanks. 

“It’s almost like the new crime of opportunity,” said Doug Shupe, spokesman for the Automobile Club of Southern California.

Though California has the highest gas prices of any state – $5.75 a gallon Tuesday versus $4.32 nationwide, AAA says – reports of fuel thefts have trickled in from across the country, Shupe said.

When gas prices peaked previously, including during the supply crunches of the 1970s, thieves mostly siphoned fuel by sticking hoses down gas filler tubes and sucking out the precious liquid.

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Now, though, valves installed inside the tubes to prevent fuel from spilling in event of a rollover accident also thwart siphoning, Shupe said. Some criminals have resorted to drilling into tanks, collecting fuel as it trickles out.

Large SUVs and pickups can be especially vulnerable not only because they have higher ground clearance that makes it easier to crawl underneath, but because their tanks can hold 20 gallons or more, making them a more lucrative target than compact cars.

Replacing the tank can cost $1,000 or more, he said.

The tank drillers struck, for instance, over two nights last week in Independence, Missouri.

“Both vehicles were Dodge trucks parked in driveways.  A hole was drilled in the tanks and the gas drained out,” said police officer Jack Taylor. The culprit has so far gotten away.

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Gas stations a target

Some bigger heists have occurred at gas stations.

Police in Long Beach, California, arrested a 27-year-old Las Vegas man for suspicion of grand theft, conspiracy and possession of burglary tools at a gas station. He was one of the suspects in three vehicles that police believe were working together last week to steal gas, said police spokesman Richard Mejia. 

All three vehicles were impounded by police and detectives were searching leads to additional suspects.

In Houston, the manager of a gas station chased off a van that had been surreptitiously pumping gas from the underground tanks.

More people are driving as the pandemic eases. But with gas prices high, thieves have taken notice.

Manager Jerry Thayil became suspicious when he spotted a 360-gallon diesel fuel discrepancy when totaling up sales at his family’s Fuqua Express station. He thought the sensors might be out of whack.

Then it happened again the next day. Thayil now knew it was no malfunction, and he spent hours poring over video footage until found a pair of minivans that had been suspiciously parked over the inlets for the station’s tanks.

On the third day, he called the cops, but before officers could arrive, he saw one of the vans pull up again. He ran out after it and it sped away. In total, though, the suspect sucked up more than $5,000 worth of fuel into the van’s hidden compartments.

“I guess I looked up at the right time,” he said. “I’m glad I went out there because that’s just my instincts. I served five years in the Marines and ‘get up and go’ is what we do.”

Thayil's station isn't the only one hit by thieves near Houston. 

Suspects in several vehicles, including a flatbed truck, were caught on video stealing 1,754 gallons of diesel last week from a Chevron station in the North Hampton neighborhood, the office of Harris County Constable Mark Herman reported.

No word on whether the thefts are connected.

Tips on preventing, reporting gas thefts

As gas prices have surged, criminals have taken notice. Here are some tips from AAA to protect your vehicle from fuel pilferage:

  • If you can, park in a home garage.
  • Out on the streets, park in well-lit and if possible, fenced-in areas.
  • Park in an area as highly visible as possible, one where a lot of people will walk by and notice if someone has crawled underneath a vehicle.

If you smell gas, see a puddle underneath, find that the vehicle doesn't start or the "check engine" light is illuminated, you have been a victim. Once you confirm your vehicle has been tampered with, you should:

  • Contact the police to file a report
  • Reach out to your insurance agent to learn if your policy covers the repair
  • Take your vehicle to a trusted repair facility as soon as possible.
  • You can find a AAA Approved Auto Repair shop by visiting www.aaa.com/repair.

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