Our Daily Bleg: Who Are the Gas Siphoners?

A reader from Boston named Robert Veneman-Hughes writes in with a bleg request on a subject we’ve wondered about before here: gas siphoning.

Here’s what I wrote not long ago at the end of a post about an increase in theft of catalytic converters:

I haven’t read many articles lately about people who steal gas out of people’s tanks, even though the price of gas is historically high. Why not?

I am guessing that, although this does happen once in a while, it’s never been very popular since it’s just not practical to a) siphon off enough gas to make a lot of money, and b) find a willing buyer for used gas.

Now Robert has fleshed out the question a bit. Read below and please offer any insights you have. I like his black-market theory.

Last night, while at the supermarket, someone tried to break into the gas tank of his car and siphon out gas. They used a crowbar to pry open his gas tank door (it was one of the models that has to be unlatched by the driver), stole his gas cap, and then tried to jam something into the gas spout that deformed the metal. Someone scared off the would-be thieves before they could actually take any gas, but the intent was certainly there.

This got me thinking. What is the motivation behind gas thieves? Are they just siphoning off a few gallons for themselves? (If so, it seems like it’s quite a bit of effort.)

Is there a market for stolen gasoline — a less-than-honest gas station, perhaps, buying no-questions-asked gasoline on the side? Alternately, is there an unofficial economy in this — like the unlicensed “gypsy taxis” in the inner cities — where someone serves as a black market distributor for gasoline to others?


Janet25

Super. It took almost a day to find this info. Thanks! Good job. :)

Ruel

you should come to philippines where everything get stolen. stolen gasoline/diesels get sold in coke or pepsi (glass) bottles (1 liter). they are usually bought by public utulity vehicles here in philippines which are driven by unscrupulous drivers. they tend to steal from each other anyway.
there are even cases wherein tankers just coming from gas depots near the ports, have their gas stolen while slowing down at traffic light intersections. ABS-CBN (our local news channel) have a full report on such activities.

Ben K.

We have a lot of transportation vans where I work and we got hit by this guy with fuel pump in his truck to suck the tanks dry. Needless to say we got locking gas caps.

http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2008/03/18/siphon/

Sean

It's not just siphoning now either. Some enterprising people in SoCal actually try drilling through the tanks with cordless drills. Not too bright.

geoffv

Teenagers

Eric

I've been siphoned once, but I think it's fairly rare - I can't think of it happening to anyone I know. But drive-offs at petrol stations are supposedly more common, and more stations now require customers to pay before they fill.

salliek76

On an opposite note: During the gas crisis of the seventies, my grandparents had a neighbor who constantly talked about his Volkswagen and what great fuel economy it had. In reality, my grandfather had secretly been adding 1/2-gallon or so of fuel to the neighbor's car every few days for his own amusement. He always told this story to his grandchildren to remind us of the importance of humility. (I wouldn't mind trying this on some smug Prius owners, but I live in Alabama so I've never seen one.) :)

Tulika

I'm sure a lot of you have heard of Trunk Monkeys. With the gas prices being what they are, here's an even better accessory.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1P7oGdbY33M

MRB

I hadn't thought about this, but this seems like a great way to beat high gas prices if your a cheap mizer like me, facing the prospect of a $1000 summer of gasoline. When I drive 6 miles to friends house, mentally I tell myself "that's $2 worth of driving". If I could just siphon off 2 or 3 gallons a week, that would satisfy my weekly driving needs until I hit the road.

Brilliant!

Celeste

People who siphon are using it themselves either in vehicles, mowers, chainsaws, etc. or potentially huffing it for a high. Siphoning is such a pain though, that usually they're cutting fuel lines or drilling into the tank.

I personally know someone who siphoned gas, but in his case is was as a prank. A coworker kept bragging about his great gas mileage, and so for a while people began actually putting more gas in his tank. Then one day they began siphoning, to rapidly decrease his gas mileage, and bragging about his new vehicle.

Alice

Siphoning gas is a pain! I spent $50 filling up my tank about three miles before my car broke down, and since I won't be able to afford the repairs for a while, I let one of my friends siphon the gas out of my tank.
I was amazed that, despite not having to worry about opening anything or being caught, it was a tedious and wasteful process. I think we got more of the gas on the ground than into my friend's car.

Michael D

Forget siphoning. Not sure if it's urban legend, but a few sources are reporting:

"Police departments and repair shops around the country say gasoline thieves have moved past the quaint crime of siphoning fuel and are brazenly cutting fuel lines and even drilling into vehicles' gas tanks"

It's quicker and less conspicous. Tapping an SUV or truck can yield you $100+ in gas.

frankenduf

the "gypsy taxis" in philly are called hacks, thankfully with no racial slur- and I disagree that they are a "black market"- they serve an important social function of sharing rides in poor areas

Brett

Major fuel siphoning usually happens in rural areas or with the gigantic pickup trucks/tractor-trailer rigs that have an auxiliary tank in the bed. Diesel is where there's money and buyers.

Steve

After nearly 25 years of driving, it finally happened. I filled up and parked at my hotel, planning to drive 200 miles home the next day. I can usually get 400 miles on a full tank but almost ran out. Its a good thing the siphoning stopped when the other vehicle was half full.

I then got a locking gas cap, not so much for the loss but since I don't want to find myself stuck on a lonely highway.

spri tekk

have had several reports of recent thefts - newer 'plastic' tanks, and they slide a 5 gallon oil tank (like the old 5 gal jerry cans). poke a hole in the tank with a screwdriver, take 5 gals and leave.

Anne

I agree with #4- you need gas to get home/ somewhere fun / get drugs/ do some other crime, so you have a go at siphoning it out of some random car nearby - it doesn't have to be part of a longterm successful profit making strategy (particularly since the examples you hear always seem to involve inept attempts). Cars are central enough to people's lives that it would be worth it to some of them to at least try this once, particularly since it at least seems plausible that you could do it with a crowbar and a length of hose or something like that.

cheyanne

In Pittsburgh, the "gypsy taxis" are known as JITNEYS. So I guess every major city has its own version of the same thing, except with a different name. And I agree with Philly "hack" guy they serve a much needed purpose to the community....it's an "unofficial" taxi win-win for everybody.

J

I don't buy the black market theory, mainly because siphoned gas tends to come in the sort of quantities you use yourself, directly offsets your living expenses, and thus has greater value to you personally than if you were to try to fence it. Someone who spends 10 minutes stealing 5 gallons of gas they now don't have to buy themselves is making the equivalent (on average) of $120/hr. After taxes. There may be s secondhand market for stolen gas, but it isn't being supplied by people siphoning gas out of cars at the supermarket,

Peter

Gas siphoning in the "old days" addressed not only cost, but availability (recall long lines, stockouts etc). Today you can get gas, just at higher cost, so the situation is a bit different.