CHICAGO -- Fuel theft in the United States is becoming big business, with criminal gangs using skimmed credit-card information to steal fuel from gas stations and specially equipped trucks and vans to carry it away.
Criminals can earn $1,000 or more per day reselling the fuel to unscrupulous truckers, construction sites and other gas stations that are looking to cut costs, according to an Associated Press report.
“It's pretty rampant,” said Owen DeWitt, president of Know Control, Lampasas, Texas, which provides products to prevent fuel theft. Interstate 10 from Jacksonville, Fla., to Los Angeles, is a hot spot for the activity; California, Florida and Texas have the highest rates of the crime, DeWitt said.
The black market for fuel took off in 2006 when skimmers grew in availability, according to DeWitt. After installing the devices at gas pumps, criminals capture customers’ credit-card data, and later copy it on to a counterfeit card. Because the fuel thefts typically top out at a few hundred dollars, many prosecutors have tended to not prioritize pursuing the cases, which has helped the black market grow.
Adam Putnam, Florida’s commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said fuel thefts were viewed as a “slap-on-the-wrist-type crime, and yet [thieves] were making more money doing this than a lot of other criminal activities that had a lot higher sentences.” However, state and federal officials are paying more attention to fuel theft as organized crime rings have entered the business.
Steve Scarince, assistant to the special agent in charge of the U.S. Secret Service and the head of the agency's fraud taskforce in Los Angeles, said fuel theft is high in Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Miami, which combined see about 20 million gallons in diesel theft each year.
Scarince said the “least-profitable group” that the Secret Service has investigated was making $5 million annually on reselling stolen fuel, while some groups earn upwards of $20 million. “The gangbangers 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 get probation,” he told AP.
In one Secret Service case from 2014, a group of criminals stole $16,000 worth of fuel each day for more than 10 months, using pickup trucks and SUVs outfitted with hidden fuel tanks that could hold up to 300 gallons each. In the process, they used stolen credit-card information from around 900 people. They would then move the fuel into a 4,500-gallon tanker and resell it each day to gas stations.
Another gang used fraudulent credit cards to steal $100,000 worth of diesel from two gas stations in central Florida over the course of a month.
As authorities pursue these criminals, there are safety concerns. In Los Angeles, one fuel thief on the run from police crashed his truck with 1,650 gallons of stolen diesel. A van driven by another suspect in Miami-Dade County exploded as he was filling its secret tank.
“God forbid that hits a school bus with a bunch of kids on it,” Ned Bowman, executive director of the Florida Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association, Tallahassee, Fla., told AP. “A car full of that much fuel is like a bomb going down the street.”