ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:
You've heard about criminals hiding payment card-skimmers in gas pumps to steal your credit card numbers, right? Well, this isn't your classic case of identity theft. Instead of going on shopping sprees or buying flatscreen TVs, organized crime gangs are now out buying gallons of diesel fuel. NPR's Daniel Hajek has our story.
DANIEL HAJEK, BYLINE: At the Glendale Police Department, just north of Los Angeles, Sergeant Dan Suttles sees this kind of thing all the time.
DAN SUTTLES: Every one of those are re-encoded...
HAJEK: He's in the evidence room, opening an envelope full of gift cards, hotel key cards, blank cards with magnetic strips.
SUTTLES: These are the types of things that we're finding that, you know, when we do these search warrants, and we're going to their houses - just stacks of cards...
HAJEK: ...All stored with stolen credit card numbers from card-skimming devices secretly installed in gas pumps across the country. But here's what's different. Thieves use these cards at gas stations to buy fuel - usually diesel - which is then sold on the black market. So who's buying it? Truckers, taxi companies and construction crews - anyone looking for cheap gas.
SUTTLES: They're going to drive through and go, hey, I've got some fuel. 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.
HAJEK: Suttle says, LA is a hotspot, but thieves in Atlanta, parts of Florida and Oregon are doing the same thing - selling stolen diesel by the truckload. U.S. Secret Service agent Steve Scarince is walking through an impound lot in Compton.
STEVE SCARINCE: Most of our cases will take anywhere from five to 10 trucks. That's a typical size crew that operates here in Los Angeles.
HAJEK: The Secret Service investigates financial fraud. Scarince's department is tasked with investigating these crimes. He says, gas thieves use utility vans and trucks with hidden tanks called bladders that hold the fuel, like this white Dodge Ram pick-up truck that they seized earlier this year. Scarince says, this group made runs between Vegas and LA. Underneath the truck beds hard cover is a homemade rig of tubes and a welded-together 250-gallon aluminum tank.
SCARINCE: When they first get these trucks, the first thing they do is they actually pull out the gas tank, and they punch holes into it. They just plumb in all the different pipes that they need to draw the fuel into this larger tank in the back.
HAJEK: He opens the driver-side door and points to a hidden switch on the dashboard.
SCARINCE: This red switch is what activates the siphoning pump.
HAJEK: Flip the switch, and a pump in the back of the truck kicks on. This is how the fuel moves from the 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.
SCARINCE: Our average case is between $5 and $10 million gross profit per year if we had just left them alone to do what they were doing.
HAJEK: Some crews even invest in tanker trucks. There's one parked in the back of the lot. He says, these thieves were stealing 4,000 gallons of diesel a day.
SCARINCE: Our big fear, of course, is when one of these goes and ignites, that's when it'd be a lot of carnage.
HAJEK: Those jerryrigged 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.
SUTTLES: I actually interviewed one of these guys, and I asked him - I said, why do you do this 'cause 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 USC. You tell me why I wouldn't do this.
HAJEK: The risk is low. Diesel is an untraceable commodity, but getting caught is a different story. A man in Texas and two men in Hawaii were sentenced to 20 years for installing skimming devices and gas pumps. In Idaho, a suspect faces a federal case. Meanwhile, here in California, Suttles says, re-encoding credit cards is a misdemeanor. In his view, that's too lenient.
SUTTLES: Literally just a slap on the wrist.
HAJEK: The reward, Suttles says, is too high. Thieves will keep filling up their tanks. Daniel Hajek, NPR News.
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