Fuel thefts making criminals millions
Gangs use stolen credit cards to sell black-market gas.
A black market for diesel fuel and gasoline has rapidly spread around the nation, with organized crime gangs using fraudulent credit cards to siphon millions of dollars in fuel from gas stations into large tanks hidden inside pickup trucks and vans.
Stealing fuel can be less risky than selling drugs or other illegal endeavors, and criminals can make $1,000 or more a day reselling the stolen fuel at construction sites and unscrupulous gas stations, or to truckers looking to cut costs, investigators and industry experts say.
“It’s pretty rampant,” said Owen DeWitt, whose Texas-based company, Know Control, focuses solely on helping gas stations prevent fuel theft. He said the crime is worst along Interstate 10, from Jacksonville, Fla., to the Los Angeles area.
“California and Florida are the two worst,” he said. “Texas is No. 3.”
Black-market diesel started becoming a big business when credit card “skimmers” became more prevalent around 2006, DeWitt said. Thieves install the devices at gas station pumps, where they record card informa- tion as unsuspecting customers fuel up.
The information is later transferred to a magnetic strip on a counterfeit card, which can then be used to steal fuel.
The black market has grown quickly in p art because the thefts total a few hundred dollars at a time, and prosecutors have been slow to prioritize them. But as fuel thefts become more organized, they have caught the attention of state and federal authorities around the country.
State Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner Adam Putnam’s department takes the lead on prosecuting these crimes in Florida. He said they used to be considered a “victim- less” or “slap-on-the-wrist-type crime, and yet they were making more money doing this than a lot of other criminal activities that had a lot higher sentences.”
The U.S. Secret Service, which investigates financial crimes, is involved because of the use of credit card skimmers.
Agent Steve Scarince said Miami, Los Angeles and Las Vegas are hot spots, together accounting for about 20 million gallons a year in stolen diesel.
“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,” Scarince said. “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 get probation.”
Court records from a sin- gle Secret Service case pros- ecuted in 2014 illustrate how much money even a small crew can take in.
Agents in the Los Angeles area surveilled a group with seven pickup trucks and SUVs with hidden fuel tanks holding up to 300 gal- lons each. For 10 months, credit cardinformation stolen from about 900 people to fill up three times a day. They transferred the diesel into a 4,500-gallon industrial fuel tanker that made daily runs to sell the fuel to gas stations.
Agents estimated the group stole close to $16,000 in fuel every day, with the potential to steal $7 million a year. Records indicated it was in operation for about five years before agents shut it down.
“Theft has been involved with fuel for as long as retail- ers have been selling fuel,” said Jeff Lenard, a vice president of the National Association of Convenience Stores in Alexandria, Va.
But he said today’s crimi- nals are “trying to steal hundreds, if not thousands, of gallons.”
Thieves often use dozens of fraudulent cards at a time, inserting one after another to fill up hidden tanks. One gang used fraudulent credit cards for a month to steal $100,000 in diesel from two stations in central Florida.
In other cases, one thief parks a truck to block the clerk’s view while another pumps diesel directly from an underground tank through a hole in the vehi- cle’s floorboards, investiga- tors say.
Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar has pursued sellers of black market fuel for breaking state motor fuel tax evasion laws, securing some stiff sentences: In 2015 alone, his office worked to indict more than 100 suspected motor fuel thieves. A Gorman, Texas, man got 40 years in 2015, and a Haskell, Texas, man was sentenced to 10 years last August.
This pickup is fitted with a large tank that was used to siphon gas from fueling stations using stolen credit cards. California, Florida and Texas are the three states with the highest number of fuel-theft crimes.