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

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.

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.

Prince William County police recently charged a Spotsylvania County man with grand larceny on suspicion of stealing more than $50,000 of gas over a period of months from a Chevron station near Potomac Mills mall. Police said that Phillip Harris, 23, had an electronic device that enabled him to turn on the pumps at the Woodbridge gas station after hours and that he sold the fuel to friends for half-price.

For months, Sarvan Rapaval, the manager of the station, thought that the tanks might have been leaking.

Drivers are becoming more aware that their gas tanks could be targeted. A salesman at a West Hyattsville Pep Boys said the store sells at least five locking gas caps a day, ranging from $11.99 to $19.99. Before the spring, sales were minimal.

Jesse Tageant, parts sales manager at an AutoZone in the Del Ray area of Alexandria, said the store had sold "quite a few" locking caps in recent weeks.

Chris Frates recently bought one for his Ford Ranger after turning on the ignition one morning and seeing that he had only half a tank of gas. Frates, who lives on Capitol Hill, said he knew his tank had been full when he parked the car a few days earlier because he had loaded up on $3.99-a-gallon gas while shopping in Virginia.

"I went that night and bought a locking gas cap," said Frates, who said he reported the crime to D.C. police. "It's like a retro throwback to the '70s," he said, when a gas crisis sparked concern about thefts.

Cars parked in dimly lighted lots are often targeted, said Lon Anderson, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. He recommended that drivers park in well-lighted, high-traffic areas.

A Northwest Washington couple have also been victimized.

When Harold Singletary went to fill up his Honda CRV one weekend late last month, he said he saw that "there was a dent and the gas cap was gone." His wife's Volkswagen Beetle was also targeted. Both cars had been parked outside their home.

Singletary took a closer look at the damage to his car. He said he found fingerprints near the gas tank and "a footprint as well."

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