Gas thieves

Did you know that homebrewed beer is now cheaper per gallon than gasoline? I wish more people were outraged by that. A keg of Bud Light costs about $6.50 a gallon but homebrew is about $2.50 and tastes a lot better. With the price of gas going up over $4.00 a gallon every time there’s a “refinery fire” or some other lie from the gas industry’s propaganda machine, it’s actually a surprise to me that we haven’t seen more people being gas thieves.

It’s ridiculously easy to rip off gas. Maybe people just haven’t figured it out yet. I’m not advocating that people steal gas Robin Hood style, but sometimes I think the gas companies are going to start getting a taste of their own medicine that they so richly deserve.

Let me explain the three kinds of gas thieves so you understand what I mean when I say how easy it is to rip off gas stations. Here they are:

The Drive Off Artist

I call the first kind of gas thief the “Drive Off Artist” out of respect for their pure artistic talent. They are engaged in a criminal undertaking to be sure, but even I can admire their aesthetic standards and high sensibilities. I think you will, too, in a few moments.

Modern gas pumps.

These folks often start off their gas theft by doing something really smart. They switch their license plate with a similar looking car they find parked at the local supermarket. Then they drive straight over to the gas station and ask for a fill-up. If they’re pressed to give a credit card, they say they only have cash and they want to pay inside because they need to buy some expensive stuff. Gas stations don’t really make any money off the gas so they’re not going to stop somebody who wants to go buy overpriced snacks inside.

The Drive Off Artist then goes inside and watches and waits until the pump stops. He puts the Ho Ho’s and Fritos down on the counter and says “Oops, I forgot my wallet. I’ll be right back.” He heads back to the car, hops in, and just drives right back to the supermarket to return the stolen license plate.

The gas station is going to call the cops and maybe even turn over the video tape. It’s going to show some stringy looking guy in a hoodie and a dark scruffy beard, and it’s going to probably have a decent view of the license plate on the back of the car. The pump attendant wrote down the license plate anyway, so cop feels pretty confident when they pull over the innocent person who was buying groceries the whole time and now is getting cited for Theft. Ouch, sucks to be them.

The other artistic way they sometimes start this one off is to actually paint themselves a fake license plate. They just make up the letters and numbers and install it over their real license plate with a lot of care. Then they do the drive off like I just described, pull over in a nearby neighborhood and remove the fake plate. Simple as pie but no innocent people get arrested. This way is a little more, how should I say it, pure maybe.

If you do the math, Drive Off Artists can get something like $70 to $80 in free gas each week. That comes out to more than $3,000 a year. They have to spread the thefts around to all the local gas stations so they don’t get recognized and therefore beat up, but there are gas stations everywhere. Combine that with three different shifts per day and horrendous staff turn over at the pumps and a really devoted Drive Off Artist can perform their art forever.

The secret pumper

If the Drive Off Artist wins the award for the most creative gas thief, then the secret pumper wins two awards for the most complex plan and the most energetic effort. These guys – and I mean guys because I have never dealt with any women doing this stuff – start off planning their heists like they are working a covert CIA operation in a Soviet Block country. They case the place thoroughly. They hide in a deer stand across the street in the trees with binoculars until they know exactly where and when to strike. They gather the gear they need like a surgeon preps for open heart surgery. Their van or truck gets a new coat of paint to hide it, the complicated pumps are built and worked a few times to make sure they are ready, and they buy bags of kitty litter to clean up spills to minimize fire risk. Sometimes they use 55 gallon drums but often they hand craft a custom fuel tank with welding skill that is truly impressive. They arrange a diversion if they think they may have problems escaping. Everything is planned down to the last second like a perfect black op.

If these guys put even half this effort into something worthwhile like a career, school, or a legitimate business they would be very wealthy. That’s never going to happen, though, because they don’t like living lawfully. They are thieves. They don’t think like you and me. Well at least not like me. They enjoy the risk and the stealing business. It’s fun. This whole caper is exciting and gives meaning to their lives, which would otherwise be wasted away drinking a half-rack of cheap beer every night.

A van rigged to steal from underground tanks in the middle of the day.

So back to their stunt. Once they find a mark, prep like crazy, and line up the gear – they strike. They zoom in, send the girl in the bikini top in to distract the guy behind the counter, open the hatch in the bottom of their rig, pop the in-ground tank lid in the asphalt, drop their hose line down and pump up 50 gallons of gas. Then they just drive away like it was nothing.

Sometimes they hit farm supplies but mostly it’s an out-of-the way gas station that never really knows it lost the gas. A big name place has all kinds of meters and gauges to monitor supplies in the in-ground tanks. Not so for the independent stations and the older ones. Losing 50 gallons is sort of like maybe a small leak and you don’t want to call the cops if you might have one of those. The state shuts you down and makes you dig up your tanks to check. Nope, those station owners just keep watching things and hope it doesn’t happen again.

The funny part here is that the secret pumpers really don’t have to do all the prep work. They could practically waltz right in there and take as long as they want. The stations wouldn’t notice in the middle of the night. The only way they get caught is if they tell too many people what they are doing or maybe get stuck in the mud driving away.

Update October 8, 2012: Thieves in California used a pickup truck to siphon off 1,153 gallons of gas from a Shell station in Roseville. They went back THREE TIMES over two days. That gas was selling for $4.70 per gallon, so these guys made $5,419. Know how they got caught? The third, and last, time they went to suck up gas was during daylight hours and right in front of the cashier who wrote down their license plate number. They would never have been caught if they had just stuck to midnight runs or spread the work around to other gas stations. Click here for the link to the ABC News story.

The nervous Nellie

I saved these for last because they’re the inexperienced and dumb ones. In light of the kind of skill and planning employed by the other kinds of gas thieves, I have nothing but contempt for nervous Nellies. They create by far the greatest calamities and the most fuss of the three kinds of gas thieves.

This nervous Nellie forgot to let his accomplice/girlfriend get in the car before he drove off with the hose attached to his car. That’s gas gushing out of the pump.

You see, the nervous Nellies drive up to the pump planning to drive away after they get the gas. They’re thinking they are going to do the dine-and-dash of the gas thieving world. They’re rarely alone in the car. Their buddies, probably drunk, are in the back seat egging them on the whole time. The Nellie orders a fill-up and says they only have cash. Then they wait for the right moment to just drive away.

The thing is, the attendants develop a sixth-sense about when the gas pump is just about done and they’re supposed to collect the money. They are hovering around right there by the car just when the Nellie is trying to decide when to run. Uh, oh, what is the Nellie going to do? They could distract the guy or maybe say they’re going to go in and pay inside. That could work except that these people are so nervous and inexperienced that they don’t think about smart things like that.

See that long gas pump hose? It’s full of gas. Remember that next time you fill up.

They panic. Their friends egg them on and say stuff like “Just go! Just go!” and so they do. They drive off, most of the time with the gas pump nozzle still in their car.

If you’ve never seen this happen you’ve really missed something. I saw it once and I’ll never forget it.

I wish I could post the police reports from a couple of these incidents. They read like the place was a war zone. A lot of the cops from around here went to Iraq or Afghanistan once or twice so they’re probably OK handling this kind of thing but I’m not.

The gas pump nozzles are firmly attached to the hoses, but the other end of the hose is only plugged into the pump assembly. As the nervous Nellie guns their car and lurches away, the six or eight foot hose pops off at the top of the pump while it’s full of gas. It flaps in the air beside their car as they drive away. The pump itself shuts off so no gas comes from that part, but I’m guessing there is maybe a gallon in the hose, maybe more.

Now if the attendant was close to the car he is going to get sprayed with gas from the hose that’s flapping around, which A VERY BAD THING no matter how you look at it. One cheap cigarette butt going that guy’s way and the gas pump jockey knows they are going up in flames. Plus there’s gas spraying everywhere out of the hose and it splashes all over the other cars and the parking lot. Just about everybody rightfully freaks out and panics. They start screaming and they run all over the place to avoid the fiery inferno they think is coming.

The fire department comes out in full force to do hazardous waste cleanup. You got the scene commander directing the haz mat guys, the cops are just waiting to push the crowds away from the bonfire, and at least one usually sane customer is trying to rip their kid’s car seat buckle out with their bare hands. Nothing funny about that last part except that they always forget to just push the red ‘release’ button. The other gas station employees sit on the curb joking with each other about roasting marshmallows.

It’s a zoo, and all because the Nellie couldn’t think to wait a few minutes or distract the guy. If you’re thinking of trying the drive off, please stay out of my neighborhood.

-Samuel Owen

© Samuel Owen 2012. All rights reserved. Please read important notices and disclaimers by clicking here.

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