Black-Market Diesel: Thieves Sell Fuel By The Truckload
You may have heard about criminals hiding payment-card skimmers in gas pumps to steal credit card numbers.
But this isn't your classic case of identity theft — stealing those digits is just the start.
Instead of going on shopping sprees or buying flat-screen TVs, organized crime gangs are buying hundreds or thousands of gallons of diesel fuel, and reselling them to make an untraceable profit.
'Stacks Of Cards'
In Glendale, Calif., just north of Los Angeles, police officer Dan Suttles sees this kind of thing all the time.
In the police department evidence room, he opens an envelope full of gift cards, hotel key cards and blank cards with magnetic strips.
"These are the types of things that we're finding ... when we do these search warrants and we go to their houses, just stacks of cards," Sgt. Suttles says.
All of these cards store credit card numbers, stolen from skimmers secretly installed in gas pumps across the country.
Thieves use these cards to go from gas station to gas station, buying diesel fuel, which is then sold on the black market to truckers, taxi companies and construction companies.
"They're going to drive through and say, 'Hey, I've got some fuel,' " Suttles says. "You either go across the street and you pay a dollar extra a gallon for it, or you buy it from this guy for a dollar off."
Suttles says LA is a hot spot but thieves in Atlanta, parts of Florida and Oregon are doing the same thing: Selling stolen diesel by the truckload.
Beat-Up Trucks Hide Big Profits
U.S. Secret Service agent Steve Scarince is with the department tasked with investigating these crimes — the Secret Service may be famous for protecting the president, but the agency also investigates financial fraud.
"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 says, walking through an impound lot in Compton.
He says gas thieves use utility vans and trucks with hidden tanks, called bladders, that hold the fuel.
There's a white Dodge Ram pick-up truck on the lot that they seized earlier this year. Scarince says this group made runs between Las Vegas and LA.
Underneath the truck bed's hard cover is a homemade rig of tubes and a welded-together 250 gallon aluminum tank.
"When they first get these trucks, the first thing they do is they actually pull out the gas tank," Scarince says. "And they punch holes into it — they just plumb in all the different pipes that they need to draw in the fuel into this larger tank in the back."
He opens the driver-side door and points to a hidden switch on the dashboard.
"This red switch is what activates the siphoning pump," he says.
Flip the switch and a pump in the back of the truck kicks on. That's what moves the fuel from the vehicle's gas tank up into the bladder.
Don't be fooled by these beat-up trucks and makeshift rigs. Scarince says this is a lucrative enterprise.
"Our average case is between $5 and $10 million gross profit per year," he says.
High Risk Of Combustion, Low Risk Of Punishment
Some crews even invest in tanker trucks. There's one parked in the back of the impound lot. Scarince says these thieves were stealing 4,000 gallons of diesel a day.
"Our big fear, of course, is when one of these goes and ignites," Scarince says. "That's when there'll be a lot of carnage."
Those jerry-rigged pipes, pumps and gas tanks leak. Here in LA, a man lit a cigarette while he was stealing fuel a couple years back and his truck exploded.
Back at the Glendale Police Department, Sergeant Dan Suttles says that doesn't deter the thieves.
"I actually interviewed one of these guys," Suttles says. "And I asked him, 'Why do you do this? Because it's not right.' And he says, 'Well, I've opened up two legitimate businesses, I have a house that's clear and paid for, I have put my daughter through [the University of Southern California]. You tell me why I wouldn't do this.' "
The risk is low: Diesel is an untraceable commodity.
Sometimes, of course, people do get caught. A man in Texas and two men in Hawaii were sentenced to 20 years for installing skimming devices in gas pumps. In Idaho, a suspect faces a federal case.
Meanwhile, in California, Suttles says re-encoding credit cards is a misdemeanor. In his view, that's too lenient.
"It's literally just a slap on the wrist," he says.
The reward, Suttles says, is too high. Thieves will keep filling up their tanks.
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