How to Prevent Vehicle Fuel Theft
Best steps for defending against diesel thieves as prices and pilfering rise
Fuel theft has always been bad in the trucking world, but with the recent spike in diesel prices to well over $5 a gallon, it’s become brazen. Fuel theft in its many forms amounts to hundreds of billions of dollars every year, the Atlantic Council estimates—and those costs are likely to grow in current conditions.
Thieves are going to new extremes. They’re launching schemes like the crew that reportedly stole about a thousand gallons of diesel over several days from a gas station using a minivan converted to hold a hidden tank and pumping system.
Big heists like these are increasing, and so are hits on individual trucks. No matter what direction oil prices take, understanding the steps fleets and drivers can take to protect fuel is a key strategy in controlling costs.
What is fuel theft, and how can it be prevented?
Fuel theft occurs everywhere from gas stations and refineries to rest stops and truck yards. The majority of crimes take place out on the road with diesel being stolen on a small scale. According to experts in fuel theft and fraud, gang or organized robberies like the one previously mentioned, while significant, account for only 1% of the fuel stolen globally.
Small scale fuel attacks on trucks are far from a small problem. Considering today’s prices of over $5 per gallon of diesel, the incentive for thieves is large. Tanks on big rigs average 300 gallons. Whether thieves steal a lot or a little, it’s real money.
Who’s doing the stealing? Another driver may be siphoning off fuel to their own tanks. Third parties steal fuel and sell it to drivers at truck stops for cut-rate prices. Drivers themselves sometimes steal fuel from the fleets they drive for by “skimming” or siphoning off diesel from their own trucks and selling it to other drivers.
Preventing fuel theft requires a multi-pronged approach as the impetus for stealing grows and thieves become craftier. Today’s fuel protection strategies range from devices for deterring and technologies for alerting to preventative measures in the yard and defensive tactics out on the road.
Why is fuel theft a problem?
Fuel is 31.8% of vehicle-based operating costs, according to figures released in the National Private Truck Council 2021 Benchmarking Report. Even in normal times, it’s a cost center that needs to be carefully controlled and monitored. The fact that it’s often stolen at a small scale that goes unnoticed and unreported, belies a much bigger problem for fleets.
Most thefts aren’t for a whole tank. Rather they are the result of skimming 20-50 gallons, as one fuel security specialist explained in Trucker Info. It happens quickly, and because this type of theft usually only amounts to 2-4% of fuel consumption, he said, it’s often missed. For a small or medium fleet, that 2-4% amounts to a massive hit—and one that’s only growing with the price of diesel and the incidence of theft.
The cost of the fuel lost is only the beginning. Trucks with insufficient fuel can’t make their runs. That can lead to missed appointments, cancelled contracts and penalties. Thieves can do expensive damage to equipment, too, as they break off locked fuel caps, puncture tanks and cut fuel lines. When they finish, they often leave fuel leaking on the ground, creating a fire hazard and environmental mess.
How fuel is stolen from a vehicle
Most of the filching happens at truck stops, fleet yards and delivery sites. It doesn’t take a lot of time to steal fuel—especially using a pump—and it doesn’t make a lot of noise. Heists go down during short breaks like while a trucker is using a bathroom and often occur while drivers are sleeping. Thieves use four main methods:
Breaching the fuel cap. Gas caps without locks are easy. Even locking caps can be jimmied with similar keys or just ripped off using brute force. Once the cap’s off, thieves insert a rubber or plastic tube and siphon the diesel out, using their mouth to start the flow or by using an electric pump to speed their work.
Removal of vent cables, valve and siphon. This method is more difficult for robbers. Vents tend to be hard to reach. If the vents can be accessed, the hose can be removed, vents unscrewed and a tube inserted to siphon off the fuel.
Cutting fuel pick up tubes is another method being used. Although pick up tubes tend to be welded into tanks and hard to reach and remove, thieves will cut them and then collect the fuel as it flows out.
Drilling through or puncturing the tanks can be the easiest and fastest way to steal. A hole is made and the fuel is caught in a container as it drains out.
How do I stop people siphoning my gas?
The best results come from combining anti-theft measures and continuous attention to the risk. Many devices are effective in thwarting and slowing down thieves. Technologies can help deter robbers in the act and catch them after the fact. Common sense basics like educating drivers to the risks also make a difference. So does enforcing company policies like banning drivers from stops with high crime rates and maintaining a safe, secure yard environment.
Seven tips for preventing fuel theft today
1. Locking gas caps are an essential.
The first line of defense for fuel tanks should be using locking gas caps for all gas tanks—including reefer units if applicable. Some locking caps are sturdier and harder to jimmy than others, but no locking cap is foolproof. So they are best combined with other preventative measures.
2. Make anti-siphoning devices your standard.
Fuel tank anti-siphons are a natural addition. They can be installed in tanks to facilitate fueling but prevent siphoning by stopping hoses from reaching down into the fuel. They do the job of thwarting thieves. Different designs make siphoning difficult to varying degrees using valves and other features.
3. Fuel sensors and monitoring enable a real-time response.
Technology provides opportunities to alert drivers and fleet managers to a fuel robbery in progress. Aftermarket sensors can be installed in fuel tanks to detect an unusual drop in fuel level or the breach of a gas cap. These sensors can be connected to the fuel management system of fleet management software. In the event of a fuel robbery, these systems can then be set to send a text alert to sleeping driver or security personnel monitoring a yard where the truck is parked.
4. Security cameras inside and outside vehicles look promising.
Placing security cameras with motion detectors on the outside of trucks provides a way for fleet managers, security providers or truckers to spot a burglary in progress and prevent it. Even if a response isn’t possible, the recording could be useful to law enforcement and insurance companies after the fact. Infrared cameras for recording at night improve chances for spotting and recording criminals when they’re often most active. One downside is that cameras outside can be tampered with or affected by the elements.
Security cameras inside the vehicle are safe from tampering and can also help spot a heist in progress and record crimes. Dash cameras and onboard video intelligence are standard equipment in many fleet vehicles and can be used by remote parties and drivers to spot threats and trigger alerts.
The knowledge of security cameras in itself is an important deterrent to thieves. Making cameras obvious or putting up stickers alerting viewers to the presence of a camera can make the risk not worth the trouble to robbers.
5. Note suspicious activity: know the signs.
It’s common practice for thieves to probe for vulnerabilities before striking. They may be seen walking around a truck and trying the gas caps. They may also be seen milling about a yard spying for cameras, lighting, blind spots and security guards.
Trust your instincts when you spot someone acting suspiciously around a truck or the yard. Make a note, engage the person if it is safe to do so, alert the authorities, and earmark any video you may capture of them. Law enforcement authorities need to know about threats so they can increase surveillance and be on the lookout.
A proactive approach can help prevent fuel loss before it happens. It can also lessen the chance of a driver intervening and being attacked. Thieves looking to steal fuel aren’t above stealing other items of value, so preventing fuel theft may prevent an even bigger loss.
6. Defensive parking: don’t make it easy for thieves.
Defensive parking is simply parking in a way that makes it hard for people to access fuel tanks. Examples are parking close to a wall or very close to the tanks of other trucks on each side. Doing so makes it impossible for another truck to sidle up and siphon away fuel to their tanks. It also restricts thieves’ movement which slows their work down and hampers their use of containers and pumps.
Thieves like to do their work in the shadows, so it’s important to park where tanks are visible to drivers, passers-by or security cameras. How one parks is as important as where one parks. If it’s possible to angle the truck for a clearer view of fuel tanks, all the better.
Perhaps the best defense is to reduce the risk of robbery by limiting the amount of diesel left in the tank overnight or over extended periods.
7. Monitor the yard: thieves hate a hard target.
Taking measures to make the areas where trucks park lighter and safer seems like a given, but it’s far from a one-and-done duty. Monitoring measures need to start smart and be kept up.
Begin with the basics of having security lighting that makes trucks visible to employees as well as the public. Dusk to dawn lights will do the trick without drawing complaints about a glare. Lights connected to motion detectors will save on electricity but require regular testing. Thieves will break lights to ease their work, so consider lighting with protective cages.
Security cameras are a fuel thief’s worst enemy. Just their appearance is a deterrence. A monitored camera system gives operators the opportunity to intervene, report the incident to the authorities or blast a warning over a loudspeaker.
Dissuade would-be robbers by posting stern signs telling people they’re on camera, security is on duty, trucks have alarms or vehicles are parked with minimum fuel.
Be sure and check your fence regularly for holes. A well-kept fence slows down fuel thieves and discourages opportunistic intruders. Fencing alone is not enough, especially in secluded areas. Increase the barrier for burglars by adding other measures like security cameras and devices that deter intruders from climbing over.
Common sense measures also support continuous security. Clean up any drums, tubes, hand carts and heavy objects that might aid thieves.
Take the opportunity to sharpen your fuel protection
With no end in sight to the rise of diesel prices and the incidence of fuel theft, all security options are on the table today. And as thieves get smarter and more determined, the more methods you can combine, the better.
The preceding tips provide ways to remain vigilant, mix things up and make it hard for thieves. In the end, that is the best strategy for protecting fuel now and in the future.
Imperial Supplies has a full range of parts and devices to aid your efforts. Talk to an expert today.