High-tech thieves siphoning diesel fuel from South Florida gas stations

05/11/2014 2:54 PM

05/11/2014 3:00 PM

A slew of diesel fuel thefts in Miami-Dade County has gas station owners lamenting financial losses and industry professionals concerned about the public’s safety.

“This is common practice down here in South Florida,” said John Peach, vice president of operations for Victory Petroleum. The company owns and operates more than 100 gas stations, primarily in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach, and has had dozens of diesel fuel thefts amounting to more than $10,000 in losses, Peach said.

The fashion in which the thefts unfold is right out of an action movie.

Thieves typically park their car on top of the tank field and then get to underground storage tanks by removing a false floorboard at the bottom of their vehicle, Peach said. The modified cars are often minivans and SUVs that usually have tanks in the back.

“They break the lid open, stick a siphon into the tank and turn on the small motor,” Peach said. “In 10 minutes they steal a couple thousand dollars in gas. It’s extremely frustrating.”

According to Peach, the thieves sell the stolen diesel fuel on the black market.

“It’s a thriving business; they sell it well under market value,” Peach said.

But the financial hit to the company isn’t the only concern.

“If there’s a little spark, not only does the car blow up, but innocent bystanders would get hurt,” Peach said. However, the danger to the public is not limited to the pump, he said. “It is very scary to think that there are cars out there with hundreds of gallons of diesel in their trunk.”

Jeff Lenard of the National Association of Convenience Stores, an international trade association representing more than 2,200 retail and 1,600 supplier company members, shares the worry.

“The problem is that it is pretty difficult to do and even more dangerous,” Lenard said. “You need to have a fairly sophisticated process to capture vapor. If you know of anyone who is doing that, you need to turn them in because it’s incredibly unsafe.”

Lenard suspects that the thieves sell the diesel to “somebody who is looking to fuel a fleet of diesel-powered vehicles.” He said there’s a possibility that particles could enter the fuel, which could lead to further complications.

So, how are gas stations handling the problem? By asking their employees to stay alert.

“What stores could do is be more attentive if someone parks there for an extensive amount of time,” Lenard said.

It’s a strategy with which Peach is all too familiar.

Video surveillance from two of their Mobil-branded gas stations, one in Cutler Bay and one at 137th and 88th Street in Kendall, shows a silver Nissan Sedan parking on top of the tank field while a black Ford truck acts as the lookout car.

“We have now caught the same two people at three different locations in the past couple months,” Peach said. “We actually have a very clear picture of the lookout guy.”

According to Peach, the lookout person enters the gas station’s convenience store, usually while on his cellphone talking to his partner in the Nissan, to monitor the store’s employees. They also wait to hear if any alarms from the underground storage tanks go off, Peach said.

The two suspects that have been seen on camera most frequently are responsible for at least six cases of fuel thefts over the course of the past seven months, according to Peach. Since October, the duo has targeted gas stations in Doral, Kendall, Cutler Bay, Lake Worth and Miami Gardens, and have netted 750 gallons of diesel fuel.

“We are seeing more reports in fuel thefts,” said Ned Bowman, executive director of the Florida Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association. “There has definitely been a noticeable rise.”

Although it’s something that happens all over the country, South Florida sees it more often, said John Fleming of the Florida Retail Federation, a 6,000-member strong nonprofit trade organization.

Proximity to transportation corridors, such as ports and major highways, is a big reason why South Florida is a center of organized retail crime, Fleming said. “It’s a hub for distribution and shipping, almost like a central clearinghouse.”

Both Fleming and Bowman suspect fuel thefts are the work of an organized retail ring.

“These are not stupid people,” Peach said. “This is borderline white-collar racketeering.”

Fleming said that property crime sometime gets overlooked by police, but also concedes that the regional nature of the crimes makes it difficult for law enforcement to pursue suspects.

“Connecting the dots is very difficult if you have a group operating regionally,” Fleming said.

Mom-and-pop gas stations are especially vulnerable, Fleming said.

“The larger companies have a lot more resources and also have access to better technology,” he said. “The mom-and-pops don’t always have the funds.”

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