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Thieves Find Easy, Lucrative Work In Siphoning Fuel From Cars, Stations

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By Elissa Silverman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 6, 2008

Salim Bhabhrawala figured it out when he saw that his garden hose, in an alley near his Northeast Washington home, had been cut a few feet short.

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When he parked his car the night before, he had about half a tank of gas. Now, when he started up the Mercury Mariner, the low-fuel light glowed on the dashboard. He looked in the rearview mirror. The gas tank cover was wide open.

"Putting two and two together, I realized someone used my garden hose to siphon my tank," said Bhabhrawala, who parks the sport-utility vehicle behind his home, a few blocks from Union Station.

Rising prices have triggered an increase in gasoline thefts, according to police departments in the Washington region. With average prices of more than $4 a gallon for unleaded and $5 for diesel fuel, siphoning has become an easy and profitable crime of opportunity, officials said.

But one business has benefited from the crime spike: Lock-equipped gas caps have been flying out of auto parts stores.

D.C. police have sent e-mail alerts, using community group lists, to warn car owners about gas-related crimes.

"What we're trying to do is get the word out that it is a theft and when it does occur that people should make a police report," said Marco Santiago, a community relations coordinator for the 3rd District station.

Melanie Hadley, a spokeswoman for Montgomery County police, said reports of gas siphoning in the county have jumped this year. There was one report each in 2005 and 2006, she said. Last year, when the cost of unleaded gas hovered near $3 a gallon, there were none. This year, seven thefts had been reported as of June 1.

But the true number of heists is probably higher, because many people don't bother calling police when they notice a few gallons missing.

"If people don't report it, then we don't know it's occurring and we can't address it," Hadley said.

Pilfering gas requires little more than a hose and a container, although the low-tech method might involve a mouthful of fuel to get the flow going.

Most thieves nab four to five gallons from a vehicle's tank, but some have pilfered considerably more.


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