Beware the gasoline thieves

May 1, 2007
WITH gasoline prices surging well above $3 a gallon, petroleum haulers face a greater threat from fuel thieves. It's a very real and potentially very

WITH gasoline prices surging well above $3 a gallon, petroleum haulers face a greater threat from fuel thieves. It's a very real and potentially very costly threat, with each tanker load of gasoline valued at upwards of $30,000.

Gasoline prices seem likely to go even higher over this summer, and petroleum fleets need to be proactive in making their operations as theft-proof as possible. The thieves are out there, (or may be within the carrier organization) and they are going to target the fuel fleets that seem least prepared and most vulnerable.

The recent experience of a southeastern petroleum hauler provides a vivid example of the risk now facing the refined fuels distribution sector. Most alarmingly, the fuel thefts involved one of the carrier's best drivers. The story shows how the carrier used its own security systems to help foil a sophisticated criminal enterprise.

It all started this spring when a convenience store served by the fleet discovered a variance between the stick readings taken by the driver and data recorded by the underground storage tank monitoring system. A week later, another variance occurred with the same driver at the same location. This time, though, the problem was discovered before the driver left the customer's property.

The driver claimed that the trailer system malfunctioned, but that wasn't the end of it. The fleet tractors are outfitted with a state-of-the-art satellite tracking system, and the fleet owner was able to review the driver's movements for the past 11 months.

The review showed that the driver had made the same non-authorized stop at least five times over several weeks. Local police investigated the site flagged by the tracking system and made a surprising discovery.

It was essentially a large fueling operation that dispensed stolen diesel from an MC306 trailer with a manifolded loading system and metered dispensing pump. Also on site was an underground storage tank containing gasoline. This was no fly-by-night operation.

While police were raiding the location, a truck driver arrived on scene and was detained. During questioning, he told police that he fueled his truck at the location because the diesel sold for $1.10 below market price. The operation allegedly was moving many thousands of gallons of stolen fuel each week.

This was a sophisticated criminal enterprise, and the sale of stolen fuel was just a small part of the operation, according to police. A large nightclub on the site allegedly contained evidence of illegal gambling, prostitution, and drug sales. Police said it was like a “mini Las Vegas.”

Of all the lessons to be taken away from this, none may be more important than the fact that the petroleum fleet management had implemented an effective security plan. Often, that's not the case even though the plans are federally mandated. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration enforcement officials report that they write a lot of citations for flawed security plans.

Good security technology also was in place. The fleet runs one of the best satellite tracking and communication systems on the market. That system was invaluable in cracking the case.

More sophisticated technology is available, and many of these systems are being installed by petroleum fleets. Examples include satellite tracking with geofencing capability. The systems aren't just tractor-based, either. In the future, the industry could see tank trailers fully outfitted with sensors that continually monitor cargo status and security.

In Europe and Latin America, custody transfer systems help prevent cargo theft and deliveries to unauthorized locations. However, such systems are very complex and expensive and would have to be implemented throughout the petroleum supply chain.

How much security technology is enough? How much detail is needed in a fleet security plan? The answers will differ for each petroleum fleet. The important thing is for fleet managers to develop a proactive plan. Otherwise they may not know their company is being robbed blind until it's too late.

About the Author

Charles Wilson

Charles E. Wilson has spent 20 years covering the tank truck, tank container, and storage terminal industries throughout North, South, and Central America. He has been editor of Bulk Transporter since 1989. Prior to that, Wilson was managing editor of Bulk Transporter and Refrigerated Transporter and associate editor of Trailer/Body Builders. Before joining the three publications in Houston TX, he wrote for various food industry trade publications in other parts of the country. Wilson has a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and served three years in the U.S. Army.