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A multimillion dollar black market for stolen diesel and gasoline is spreading around the nation and has been rampant in certain areas of the country.
Fuel theft used to be considered a relatively trivial crime, not worthy of major investigations, but in the last few years it has grown to become a serious concern for law enforcement, business owners and consumers alike.
According to a report by the Associate Press, fuel theft via card largely began in 2006 when copying credit cards became an easier and more common practice in the criminal world. Thieves would apply devices to gas station pumps that would allow them to copy customer card information. The stolen card information would then be copied to blank cards with magnetic strips and used to purchase large amounts of diesel and gas from one, or often times multiple, unsuspecting fueling stations.
Stolen fuel is then resold illegally, usually at construction sites, to other gas stations, taxi drivers or to truckers. Thieves sell the fuel at prices lower than market value so their customers are often those hoping to cut costs in their business operations, and, as a result, the fuel is taken off their hands quickly. And since diesel is an untraceable commodity, tracking the stolen gas or even noticing that is missing in the first place is often very difficult.
"They're going to drive through and say, 'Hey, I've got some fuel,' " said Dan Suttles, a Glendale, CA, police officer, to NPR. "You either go across the street and you says pay a dollar extra a gallon for it, or you buy it from this guy for a dollar off."
Copying credit cards, stealing fuel and redistributing the fuel illicitly are all crimes met with relatively light punishments, especially compared to other illegal activities.
According to Adam Putnam, Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner whose agency prosecutes fuel theft crimes in Florida, fuel theft is still treated as a "slap-on-the-wrist-type crime, and yet they [thieves] were making more money doing this than a lot of other criminal activities that had a lot higher sentences," he said in a statement to Associated Press.
Criminals can make upward of $1,000 per day stealing and reselling fuel, and the low-risk to high-reward ratio prompts organized crime syndicates to enter the fray.
Custom gas tanks hold fuel stolen from fueling stations in major cities
Owen DeWitt owns a Texas-based company named Know Control that devotes its resources to helping gas stations prevent thieves from stealing their fuel. He told the Associated Press that cities along Interstate 10 are hit the hardest. The freeway runs from Jacksonville, FL, to Los Angeles, CA, and those two states get the brunt of the theft cases, with Texas following close behind.
In addition to protecting the president, the United States Secret Service investigates financial crimes and has been looking into these cases due to thieves' use of scammed credit and debit cards.
Agent Steve Scarince told the Associated Press that 20 million gallons of diesel is stolen each year between Miami, Los Angeles and Las Vegas alone. Atlanta and Oregon are also hotspots for diesel theft.
"The crews that we've investigated over the past couple of years — the least profitable group is $5 million a year. And then there are groups that will gross $20 million plus," said Scarince. "The gang-bangers in Los Angeles have been migrating to financial crimes instead of street crimes because it's much more profitable and if you get caught, you [only] get probation."
Criminals are clever
Groups that steal gas are able to get away with stealing so much fuel because of the covert tactics they use to acquire it.
In statements made to NPR, Scarince said thieves will purchase trucks, vans or SUVs and install a hidden gas tank on the vehicle to house the stolen gas inconspicuously. The original tank is removed and drilled with holes used to connect pipes from that tank to the secret tank they installed. These secondary tanks can be homemade and are often large in size, capable of holding hundreds of gallons of fuel. Pumps controlled by an operator switch then siphon gas from the standard tank to the secret one.
"Most of our cases will take anywhere from 5 to 10 trucks; that's a typical sized crew that operates here in Los Angeles," Scarince told NPR.
Offenders often use dozens of stolen cards at one time, filling up their secret gas tanks using one card after another. One gang in Florida stole $100,000 worth of diesel from two gas stations over the course of one month using scammed cards.
In another 2014 case, Los Angeles Secret Service agents tracked one crew for 10 months. In that time, they noted that the crew had seven vehicles fitted with secret storage tanks that held 300 gallons each. The thieves then filled them three times a day using information stolen from over 900 credit cards and made daily transfers to a 4,500-gallon industrial fuel tank truck so the fuel could be sold to gas stations.
The group in this case was estimated to have been running this operation for five years before it was shut down. They brought in around $16,000 per day and had the potential to rake in $7 million a year, according to records obtained by Associated Press.
Not only are these crimes ripping off millions of dollars from businesses and consumers, but they can also be extremely dangerous to public safety.
In 2014, a thief in Miami-Dade county had his van explode as he filled a secret tank with stolen gas. The following year, a high-speed chase involving a man driving a truck on the interstate with a stolen 1,650 gallons of diesel resulted in a fiery crash.
"Our big fear, of course, is when one of these goes and ignites," Scarince told NPR. "That's when there'll be a lot of carnage." But even amid the concerning rate at which these criminals succeed in their behavior, they are not impervious to being caught.
Glen Hegar, a Texas-based comptroller has been in steady pursuit of black market diesel retailers, pinning them for breaking state motor fuel tax evasion laws. In 2015, his office indicted over 100 motor fuel theft suspects. One Texas man received a 40 year sentence for his crimes and another was handed a 10-year sentence, according Associated Press.
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