Florida police are on high alert after they intervened this week to disrupt an attempted theft of gasoline at a Tampa, Fla., BP station, evidence of soaring prices and the safety risks thieves are willing to endure for a fast buck, authorities say.
A deputy with the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office first spotted the alleged thieves in action Tuesday at the station. A minivan was parked over the in-ground fuel tanks and, police later discovered, was siphoning gas into the make-shift storage vehicle, WFTS ABC Action News in Tampa reported.
The suspects escaped in a second getaway car as the deputy drove closer to the gas station, leaving several hundred gallons of gas still inside the van with 25 gallons spilled in the parking lot. Workers were still cleaning the gas out of the sewer on this afternoon, according to the manager.
Marco Ishak, the gas station manager, told ABC News he was surprised by the attempted theft.
"People are getting desperate," he said.
The national average for regular gas is $3.59 a gallon, up 40 cents from a year ago and 7 cents from last week, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said Tuesday. The average is higher for the lower Atlantic region, at $3.63, which is why police say there is a growing profit margin in the black market for gas.
Patrick DeHaan, GasBuddy's senior petroleum analyst, said at least one gas station near the Orlando airport was charging $5.79 a gallon.
Larry McKinnon, spokesman for the sheriff's office at Hillsborough County who has worked with Florida law enforcement for 35 years , said he has seen about a dozen gas thefts a year, concentrated when gas prices increase.
"It kind of ebbs and flows," he said. "It will taper off for a while, and, you can bet your dollar, as the prices go up, we've told our patrol deputies to be on alert."
Thieves stole 239 gallons of diesel fuel Feb. 7 from a Hess Gas station in Riverview, Fla., and a similar alleged theft occurred Dec. 27 in Gibsonton. The Gibsonton suspect struck a clerk with his vehicle when he was confronted, authorities said.
McKinnon said consumers might ultimately have to pay higher gas prices to manage the cost of cleanup, inspections and lost gas. It is also possible gas station owners might not be aware of missing gas if thieves are stealing 50 gallons from a tank with a capacity of 5,000 gallons, attributing that instead to a leak.
McKinnon said independent truckers mighty ultimately buy the stolen gas at rest stops or other locations, sometimes for $2.50 a gallon. "It's kind of like stealing tools from a construction site for other construction workers," he said.
Thieves rig their vehicles to make a fast escape. In the minivan that was left behind this week, there was a hole drilled in the bottom of the vehicle so a hose could pump gas from the station. The suspects appeared to have stuffed large tanks into a car. In other cases, McKinnon said, thieves have towed a tank behind a car, similar to a pest control vehicle.
"Of course, we know none of them were designed to carry fuel and they're a deadly hazard. Fortunately, we haven't had a crash yet," he said. "But it's not a matter of 'if,' but 'when.'"