Here are some practical ways station operators can prevent theft at the pump.
By Brian Reynolds
Fuel theft has always been a part of life for a fuel marketer. If you’ve been in this business long enough you hear of one-off events to remind everyone that it happens. Today it is prevalent, well organized, technically sophisticated and frequently happening in the middle of the day.
With any entrepreneurial activity, albeit in this case it’s illegal, you imagine somebody doing an analysis for return on investment (ROI). With regular-grade gasoline approaching $5 per gallon and diesel closing in on $6 a gallon (as of early June), the ROI is very compelling, and thieves are focusing on stealing as much as possible with each breach. It is very common to see a single fuel theft event often be between 400 and 1,000 gallons.
Mostly older dispensers are getting hacked from the payment terminal or by covertly placing the dispenser in stand-alone mode and bypassing detection at the POS. If the timing is right, automatic tank gauges (ATGs) get confused and don’t set off a sudden fuel loss alarm because the station is already busy with legitimate sales. Other methods include paying for a small amount of fuel, then quickly installing homemade devices that confuse the pulsars, allowing for a $5 purchase to net $500 worth of fuel. This seems to happen more frequently at standalone diesel islands.
Crooks also use the old tried and true method of parking a van directly over a UST manhole and pumping directly into a small tank inside the vehicle.
According to reports, diesel seems to be the product most vulnerable to theft since many convenience stores have a separate high-flow diesel island for trucks. Diesel may also be the easiest thing to sell for cash, particularly in areas where home heating oil is used, and thieves can pass off diesel as heating oil and selling it at substantially less than market value. And there are plenty of examples with recent police busts of “backyard” cash only filling stations.
The most extreme example of fuel theft I have heard of recently (and caught on video surveillance) is where an operator reported a theft with a thief disguised as a pump technician in a service truck and safety equipment—complete with red cones. There was no rush, with the thief going to every fueling position and pretending to calibrate meters. His helpers would go to the opposite side and pump as much product as they could in tanks hidden in the many accomplices’ vehicles. The thieves reportedly made off with over 12,000 gallons. All in a dishonest day’s work.
In preparing for a fuel theft presentation, my internet research was surprising. No longer is the internet solely the domain for “Do it Yourselfers.” You can get expert video advice on how to steal vast volumes of gasoline and diesel from a convenience store without getting caught.
So, what can be done to at least minimize or discourage fuel theft? Here are some things that every prudent operator should be doing:
- Change locks on the dispenser and consider audible alarms to the lower dispenser doors.
- Make sure the pin-out jumpers are removed and security codes are changed after every use.
- Install new locks and caps on the UST fill caps, and if possible, barricade the tank pad. Some operators are even putting fencing with locking gates around the tank pads.
- Add surveillance cameras that can time stamp to the second and be correlated with a wet stock management system.
- Educate store associates to be on the lookout for and report unusual behaviors on the forecourt.
- Add wet stock management, whereby all recorded sales are time stamped and any unrecorded removal is graphically portrayed. Additional analysis can be compared to the exact second of time and correlated to surveillance footage. This is a quick way to share evidence with law enforcement.
Plus, real-time wet stock management can further alert moments after a theft occurs, so a thief could be caught in the act and apprehended. It takes more than a couple of minutes to steal 500 gallons of fuel. Pumping directly from a dispenser would most likely take well over an hour. So real-time alerting provides for a gigantic fuel inventory burglar alarm. Wet stock management can also be done with older dispensers and virtually any ATG.
With $100 plus per barrel oil and fuel prices surging for the foreseeable future, loss prevention practices and the appropriate technology can minimize fuel shrinkage even if it can’t be eliminated entirely.
Brian Reynolds began his career working as a teenager in his family-owned jobbership in Cisco, Texas, and was at the forefront of many industry milestones. Reynolds was an early adopter of cardlock systems in the 1980s, a pioneer of high-volume supermarket fueling centers in the 1990s and one of the key architects of inventing reward-based fueling loyalty in the 2000s. He works for Dover Fueling Solutions in ClearView, wet stock management sales. He can be reached at Brian.Reynolds@DoverFS.com or (325) 733-6490.