It's a 'Mad Max' world: Rising gas prices fuel criminal ingenuity

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With gas hovering around $4 a gallon, more and more people are deciding they'd rather steal it than pay for it.

Theft of fuel has traditionally risen and fallen with pump prices, but now crooks are going beyond simply siphoning gas from a parked car or driving off without paying after a fill-up. Around the nation, thieves are using ingenious methods and breathtaking brazenness to empty the tanks of trucks, industrial fleets and even gas stations themselves.

Some of the unusual incidents that have occurred in the past two months include:

  • A group of men were arrested in Davis, Calif., after they were caught on tape using a customized truck to pump gasoline directly out of underground storage tanks at area gas stations. The truck was disguised as a bread delivery truck for cover.
  • In Tampa, local cops interrupted two men at a BP station as they were pumping out gas from storage tanks into barrels set up in a modified minivan. The incident has put local authorities on high alert.
  • Utah has seen a spike in thefts from cars and trucks, and other machinery at construction sites, including $200 worth of diesel stolen from a 40-ton excavator at one site in the town of West Point.
  • In South Texas, a man was charged with murder after he and two cohorts caused an explosion after trying to siphon fuel from natural gas condensate tanks, leaving one dead and others severely burned.
  • In the California Wine Country region, Emeritus Vineyards shelled out thousands of dollars beefing up security after thieves were cutting fence locks and stealing gas from the winemaker’s fleet of delivery trucks.

The old school method of siphoning the fuel out of the tank of a car isn't always possible, according to experts.

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    “With the newer model vehicles, the gas tanks are designed in a way where it’s impossible to stick a hose down there,” said Robert Sinclair, spokesman for AAA New York. "Most cars on the road are from the past ten years and those older models could be a bigger issue.”

    Retailers told they have seen an increase in sales of theft prevention products such as gas caps that require a key as consumers are taking preventive measures.

    “Anytime gas hits $4 a gallon, we see more interest in products like lock gas caps,” said Shelley Whitaker, a spokeswoman for Advance Auto Parts, a national retailer.

    But a $15 locking gas cap won't stop every petro pilferer. Law enforcement authorities have reported a rising number of cases in which fuel tanks are  punctured or the gas line cut, costing victims far more than the cost of the stolen gas in repairs.

    Since gas theft is always correlated with sudden increases at the pump, good news could be on the horizon with prices expected to drop by the end of the month.

    “Crude oil has dropped to $101 a barrel. We should see a drop in prices within the next two or three weeks,” Sinclair said.