Getting Gas for Free Comes at a Price

With the average gallon of gas still less than $2, the summer's excruciatingly high gas prices are now just a painful memory of how bad it can get.

But at the height of the gas price crisis, when the average approached $5 per gallon, a new type of blue collar crime started making headlines -- gas theft.

Watch the story on "What Would You Do?" Tuesday, Jan. 13th, at 10 p.m. ET.

Though prices have fallen since then, so has the economy and poaching petrol is still a growing problem. According to the National Association of Convenience Stores, gas theft cost the industry more than $134 million last year alone. A search of YouTube yielded plenty of videos where ordinary people show the steps it takes to pilfer petroleum.

So what would you do if you saw someone stealing gas?

In the midst of the hubbub over soaring gas prices, ABC News' "What Would You Do?" set up hidden cameras at a service station in suburban New York to see what would happen when customers saw a gas theft happen right in front of them.

ABC News hired an actor to drive up to the pump and start filling up his car. When he went inside to pay, another actor pulled up on the other side of the pump, took the nozzle out of the victim's car and started filling up his own tank.

"I saw the guy doing it and, and I, at first thought they were together. I thought maybe, maybe they had an arrangement. But then it was a little too fishy," customer Gerald Heintz said. "And, you know, that's when I said, 'Hey, dude.' You know, 'What's going on?'"

Heintz didn't stop the thief, but told the victim what had happened.

"My first obligation is to my family," he said. "I don't want to, you know, start having a confrontation with the guy."

Michael Pitaro, who also noticed the gas pump theft, said he has no sympathy for people that need gas that bad.

"We're all going through this gas crisis, it's not just me. You know, it's not just him, it's not just anybody, we're all going through it," he said. "I mean I had, one of my customers the other day said everybody should just stop buying gas for one day, I mean everybody should stop buying gas for a couple of days because this is, you know, ridiculous."

But should he have spoken up?

"Maybe I should have [said something], I could have been maybe a little more attentive," Pitaro said, "but it's really none of my business, you know, today you don't know if somebody's going to turn around and shoot you for saying, 'What are you doing?'"

Standing Up for the Victim

Stephen Muhard wouldn't let our actor go until justice was served. Pulling right up to the thief on his motorcycle, Muhard boldly got off his bike and demanded the thief exit his car.

"What gas costs nowadays, you know, it's a robbery. He's ripping him off so, you know what you got to be good citizens," he said. "I would hope somebody would do that for me."

Our actor brazenly filled his tank with our victim's pump right in front of more than 30 people that afternoon, even going as far as to use an actual siphon pump, but only Muhard stepped in and stopped ABC News' hired thief before he could pull away.

Was this because people were less likely to step in because the thief was a man? Would they be less intimidated if the person pinching gas was a woman?

We intended to find out. When we switched our male actor for a woman, it didn't take long before someone took action.

Cathy Madden didn't let the fact that she and her family were on their way to the beach stop her from doing the right thing. After going inside the gas station to tell our victim he was being ripped off, Madden came back outside and stood in front of the thief's car until she got out and paid the victim back.

"Stealing is stealing. It's wrong. I have two kids and I got three kids in the car," she said. "[I hope] they learn not to steal and that when somebody's doing something wrong, that you make sure they get in trouble for it."

During the course of this experiment, the reactions varied. Some people kept their mouths shut, some told the victim after the fact but few took action to stop the thief red-handed. One sentiment did remain constant -- stealing is stealing, no matter how hard we're feeling the pinch.