The surveillance tape shows a white car pulling up to a Chevron station in Charlotte, N.C., after closing time. Two men emerge, tinker with a gas pump and somehow manage to activate it. Before long, vehicles begin filing through, as the two men direct them and help fill up their tanks. One trucker tops off at least three 55-gallon drums. The video shows drivers paying off the two men and making calls on their cell phones, perhaps summoning friends to partake in the bonanza. "I watched at least 20 cars come through over several hours" on the surveillance footage, says Detective Bill Riggins of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, who is investigating the incident. "It was organized. [The two men] appeared to know who was coming." The night's haul: roughly 800 gallons, leaving the gas station owner on the hook for about $4,000.
As gas prices climb past a national average of $4 a gallon, reports of heists like these are cropping up across the country. Incidents of siphoning are on the rise, too, says Jeff Lenard, vice president of communications at the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS). But the bandits aren't just striking gas stations; they're hitting truck stops, construction sites, citrus fields—anywhere a cache of fuel lies unattended. Last month in Houston, according to news reports, one audacious thief hijacked a fuel tanker at gunpoint, yanked the driver out of the cab and made away with 7,500 gallons. Web sites like YouTube are replete with videos detailing the latest ingenious methods of pilfering fuel. (One particularly far-fetched idea: distract a driver at a gas station by asking for directions, while a dwarf surreptitiously transfers the nozzle from the victim's vehicle to yours.)
In the past the most common form of fuel theft was to drive away from the station without paying. Station owners have fought back in recent years by forcing drivers to pay before fueling. These days 99 percent of the nation's million-plus pumps have that requirement, according to the NACS. As a result "drive-offs" have actually been declining, says Lenard. While gas theft cost the convenience store industry $300 million in 2005, that figure declined to $134 million in 2007.
Because of the prepayment requirement, thieves have had to devise more creative schemes. Some have learned how to manipulate the security system on pumps; after prepaying for a few dollars' worth of gas they manage to keep the pump operating far beyond the amount paid for. Others have posed as maintenance personnel and somehow tapped a pump's metering system, releasing a flow of fuel. Another, more brazen approach involves 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 guzzle up hundreds of gallons. "It's incredibly dangerous," says Lenard. "If you don't have the right vapor recovery system, you die." One small spark could ignite an inferno.
Truckers are increasingly falling prey to thieves targeting diesel, which has also reached stratospheric prices. At Dysart's, a truck stop in Bangor, Me., owner Ed Dysart says he's been hearing more reports of theft. "Drivers leave their truck for the weekend, they come back, and they are out of fuel," he says. Down in Daytona Beach, Fla., Sgt. Billy Rhodes says that in recent months truckers who stay at highway motels or who park their rigs in poorly lit lots have been targeted.
Average drivers are falling victim to siphoners too. SUVs have proved to be especially alluring targets, with their large, elevated tanks and high-grade fuel. Crooks use a variety of methods: inserting a hose directly through the valve, cutting the fuel line and draining gas from there, or drilling a hole directly into the tank. The American Automobile Association recommends that members purchase locking fuel caps. Another suggestion offered by some mechanics: replace rubber fuel lines with steel ones that are harder to cut. But there's only so much that car owners can do to prevent a determined thief.
In response to the rise in fuel-related crime, authorities are becoming more vigilant. Earlier this week firefighters in Oak Ridge, Tenn., noticed two trucks driving by with 55-gallon drums in their beds that reeked of fuel. Suspicious, they alerted the police, who went to investigate and found that the trucks were operated by two brothers who were in possession of nine 55-gallon drums, one 30-gallon drum and a gas tank from an old truck, all filled with different grades of fuel, according to police chief David Beams. The brothers told the police they had purchased the fuel from a local Phillips 66 station with a credit card. But when the cops contacted the station, the owner said no such transaction had occurred and that, in fact, he was missing 1,100 gallons. Police are now investigating the brothers' possible connection to that and other fuel crimes in the area. They may be only two culprits among a growing army, but these days, every drop of rescued fuel counts.