What’s their problem? Bully gas thieves go for the little guys causing owners $200 million in annual losses

As gas prices rise so does the number of gas thefts. But what is it and how is it done?

Last Updated:
January 24, 2024
| ~
min Read
Sarah Paxton
Marketing Writer

Outdoor video surveillance is critical to gas pump theft prevention

Getting a driver’s license, buying a car, going to work, and filling up the gas tank. All examples of “adulting.” Adulting is a common phrase that describes mundane, annoying tasks that grown-ups have to do with no other purpose than to seemingly maintain life. So when adults participate in non-adulting behavior, like stealing from gas pumps, it tends to blow the mind. In fact, 1 in 4 gas retailers reported an increase in theft since last year. This loss amounts to $200 million for gas station owners across the country. It is a growing issue that affects small towns and big cities alike.

Just look at a few recent headlines:

  • 400 gallons of gas were stolen from a BP station in North Point, NC using a remote device. (source: Fox 8 News)
  • 26,000 gallons were stolen in a coordinated theft in Paris. (source: PC Mag)
  • Thieves are using unique methods to steal gas as prices rise. (source: NBC 12 News)
  • $40 million in fuel was stolen in Singapore in 2018. (source: Reuters)

These stories from around the world emphasize the urgency of loss prevention for fuel station owners and operators. In the past, gas station owners have had few options when it comes to deterring thieves. Unfortunately, the smelly, carcinogenic petroleum-based product isn’t enough of a deterrent. Understanding the issue, how theft occurs, vulnerabilities in pump manufacturing, and how to protect gas stations, empowers owners to become proactive rather than reactive in fighting this crime.

These aren’t criminal masterminds.

We’ll cover:

  • What is gas pump theft?
  • When does gas theft occur?
  • How does gas pump theft occur?
  • Where are gas stations vulnerable to theft?
  • How can gas station owners prevent theft?
  • Tips to avoid theft
  • Where to place outdoor security surveillance
  • Conclusion: Is there an easy solution?

What is gas pump theft?

Stripping away the big numbers and headlines, what is gas pump theft, really? Gas pump theft is when thieves steal gas or consumer information from an unattended pump or onsite storage tank. The fuel or customer credentials are then re-sold at a profit or used for personal gain.

Access to gas pumps can be manipulated electronically with or without a physical presence at a station. Access can also be manipulated by picking the lock box or tampering with the pump handle.

While not directly gas pump theft, vehicles left unattended can also become the target of gas thieves. Siphoning gas and drilling holes directly into tanks are the two tactics most commonly used.

Credential theft most commonly occurs at any card swipe station.

Theft can happen at any time of the day, and station owners are faced with preventing loss in a variety of ways. It’s important for owners to keep an eye on pumps and on their property at all times, or they can lose thousands of dollars.  It goes far beyond the abilities of one person on-site. Video surveillance is always required for the best chance of a 360-degree view and protection around the clock.

When does gas theft occur?

The record-high price of fuel has attracted the interest of thieves at an unprecedented rate. This isn’t new. Gas station owners, as well as vehicle owners, have faced similar issues with the theft of catalytic converters over the past several years. Both are on the front lines of trying to protect themselves with a surveillance system deterring people prone to destructive tendencies.

For example, fuel theft made headlines and got the attention of authorities when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005. The hurricane destroyed oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, toppling supply and skyrocketing fuel prices.

National and local weather emergencies can also impact gas stations significantly, increasing their need for security systems. While everyday gas station owners are not faced with fuel theft or emergencies on such a large scale, it is important to understand the crime, when it occurs, and how to prevent it.

How does gas pump theft occur?

The boring truth is thieves steal from gas pumps by hacking into the pump’s computer, physically accessing fuel from storage tanks, or using common products to manipulate how much fuel is pumped into a vehicle. Maybe if the soundtrack from The Fast and The Furious played in the background it would be more exciting. But usually, the crime occurs in the quiet recesses of your average old gas station convenience store parking lots.

Stealing gas is incredibly easy—these thieves don’t have to be members of the hacker group Anonymous. One may argue these geniuses are quite the opposite.

Picture this: during a regular Saturday morning, dad goes to the hardware store. In addition to a hammer, 2x4s, and a toilet seat, he gets everything needed to create a low-tech device that manipulates gas pumps. The home garage becomes an evil lair of crime. It only takes a few hours.

If dad’s signature gas theft crime is a little more covert, he may just go on eBay and get a remote control. The evil lair of crime becomes the front porch or mailbox.

Gas pump theft is a Back to the Future-style crime. Meaning, it utilizes simple tools that could have been found in the ’80s, or even ’70’s. It seems out of place compared to the servers, networks, and programming required in today’s high-tech crimes. Gas station owners feel like Marty McFly going back in time 30 years when they learn how easy it is to steal gas. The technology is much the same. It is outdated on many fronts. It can use basic remote controls, drills, and keys. Here are some ways gas pump theft occurs so owners can fast forward to the future.

Where are gas stations vulnerable to theft?

Gas stations are primarily vulnerable to theft at pumps far away from bright lighting. A secure boundary should be established to protect all areas of the property day or night. Most importantly, outdoor security surveillance should monitor the area around access points to gas where thieves may look for opportunities to steal undetected. When evaluating video surveillance or considering updating an outdoor surveillance system, protecting these access points is critical.

The following list highlights several targets:

Fuel storage tank access

Recently in Texas, a normal van simply parked over the fuel access door and stole a big, expensive, stinky load. Over a period of three days, more than 1,000 gallons of fuel were stolen. (source: NBC News DFW 5)

Vehicle gas tanks

This isn’t mining for gold, it’s drilling for gas. Police in Everett, Wash., reported in March 2022 that thieves were drilling holes directly into vehicle gas tanks. The fuel simply leaks out and is collected for resale.

Unlike siphoning gas from the access door on the side of a vehicle, this drilling method leaves cars and owners stuck and without transportation until the necessary repair is made. Repairing the hole can reach as high as $1,500. The level of selfishness keeps escalating higher and higher.

Pump payment areas

Maybe this was an expected item on the list, but whatever, it's on here anyway. Credit card skimming at gas stations is perhaps the most well-known form of theft at gas stations. Thieves place a device on top of the existing payment credit card skimmer and collect card numbers and customer credentials to make fraudulent purchases.

The good news is, theft of this type has been on the decline. In Arizona, an article published in March 2022, reported zero cases of skimming after a crackdown. Yes, zero. Nada. Nothing. The state suffered from a record-high 209 cases of skimming and many stations changed their payment method to chip or tap-to-pay.

Station Pumps

It is critical to understand the many ways thieves can target gas pumps themselves. Your sandwich break will have to wait, people. Keep reading.

Pump manufacturing is highly regulated—meaning it’s not really a cool kids club. Gas station owners infrequently install new pumps because of the cost and inconvenience. The vulnerability of pumps is both a manufacturing and owner/operator problem. Unfortunately, station owners are the ones who take the loss, not the manufacturers as they are left with few measures against vulnerable, outdated, security methods easily hijacked by gas station thieves. It’s just never-ending problems with this one, people.

The primary issue is that there are only two large manufacturers of gas pumps. Wayne Fueling Systems and Gilbarco Veeder-Root. The two manufacturers do not have much competition, and therefore have less incentive to improve security measures.

Left with only vapors, owners ask, “What just happened?” and have little to no help recovering the loss. The crime may not be evident until hours or days after the theft occurred. Gas station owners are on their own to purchase good video surveillance that records the vehicle make and model, and any identifying characteristics to report to the police.

Station pump key codes

Gas pumps ain’t no eye-scanning Clear station at the airport or Mission Impossible biometric data mapping scenario. Wayne Fueling Systems pumps are accessed by key code. Not the average key code that requires personalization like a new login on a website, but the factory-set key code. The pumps come with a factory default, and many station owners never change it. Probably not the best way to defend yourself.

Remote controls that reveal the key code vulnerability are sold openly on eBay. Unfortunately, servicing contractors and gas station owners, as well as thieves, can access this security “technology,” defense system—if it even rises to that level.

According to a recent Fox News article, a suspected gas thief in North Carolina was recently arrested using a remote control as described above. He allegedly dispensed the gas at no charge and resold the fuel. The remote allowed the pump to be put into a mode used for gas testing. As easy as changing the channel on the TV, the suspect held the device up and changed the price to $0.

Just an average guy armed with a remote control. Boom. National news story.

Station pump dispensing nozzles

Pumps manufactured by Gilbarco can be hijacked by blocking a pulser. Don’t get excited, a pulser is not a laser gun. It’s the technology that measures how much gas is dispensed. The only theft deterrent on a pulser is a simple lock.

By reducing the detected amount of gas dispensed, the cost is reduced. Dad picked up supplies to block the pulser at the hardware store with the toilet seat on Saturday morning. Remember that story? It’s kind of crazy that pulsers can be blocked by common, everyday supplies available at the hardware store.

Station pump controllers

Inside the large and weak rectangular gas pump box is a vulnerable, old embedded controller. This non-beating heart is a villain in the fight against the gas theft problem.  In 2017, this outdated technology was discovered by Kaspersky Labs researcher Ido Naor. While not maliciously installed, this legacy, unsecured gas pump component is horrifically outdated and open for attack. The controller is like the man behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz facade. Old, confused, and just barely keeping up with the status quo.

Nador was shocked that some of these components were more than 10 years old and had essentially open access to the internet. The following vulnerabilities were published in the report, released in 2018:

An intruder able to bypass the login screen and gain access to the main interfaces would be able to do any of the following:

  • Shut down all fueling systems
  • Change fuel prices
  • Cause fuel leakages
  • Circumvent payment terminals to steal money (the controller connects directly to the payment terminal, so payment transactions could be hijacked)
  • Scrape vehicle license plates and driver identities
  • Execute code on the controller unit
  • Move freely within the gas station network

(Source: Kapersky Labs)

How can gas station owners prevent gas theft?

Start eating that sandwich, a ridiculously intuitive surveillance solution is about to enter. If anyone doesn’t like it, exit’s in the back.

Gas station owners, along with many other small business owners, may dream about having a white van or trailer, like those in the movies, filled with technology to provide security on-site. But this isn’t a practical reality. Or is it?

Smaller than a white van and larger than a white iPhone, LVT outdoor video surveillance systems deliver a superhero solution in a white box on wheels. This remote, solar, and battery-powered theft deterrent is compact but mighty in its heavyweight class. It is packed with battery-powered cameras, audio, and lighting. Mobile surveillance units, or MSUs, bring the big guns to every on-site security need. This is why LVT utilizes this MSU technology.

LVT delivers a significant upgrade from independent cameras or stand-alone security efforts. These one or two theft deterrents may be budget-friendly, but they leave significant gaps in protection. For example, motion-sensing lights can be purchased relatively inexpensively, but then they need to be installed. The lights also need to be checked and maintained. Cameras can also be mounted to a building, but the video is only stored for a short amount of time. If the cameras require disposable batteries, they need frequent replacement. Coordinating, maintaining, watching, and detecting theft is a job that never stops.

With LTV’s full suite of bright lighting, audio alerts, and recording technology day and night, what security solution even comes close? Even in the event of an epic power outage, or limited staff on-site, the gas station would be protected. There is no need to worry. LTV’s mobile surveillance unit has the 360-degree view covered.

The truth is LiveView Technologies can bring a secure setup to just about any site in minutes. Battle-tested, around-the-clock protection is available. Viewed by thieves as an alien lifeform to avoid, LTV surveillance units deter criminals in almost all settings.

Let’s move forward and stop being stuck with traditional mounted-camera surveillance ideas.

For the compulsively safe, here are a few additional tips to keep gas pumps protected:

  • Keep areas around gas pumps well-lit. Thieves cannot hide what they are doing in well-lit areas. Well-lit areas are generally avoided. Lighting can also increase the chances descriptions of thieves can be provided to authorities.
  • Install a pump alarm. Alarms can alert you when a thief tries to tamper with your pump. They are not foolproof, but they can help you catch a thief in the act.
  • Install security cameras. You can catch thieves in the act by installing cameras at your gas station. This will help you identify the person and make it easier to prosecute them for the crime.
  • Close far-away pumps during periods of low customer traffic.
  • Place signs near the pump. This can be as simple as a “we are closed” sign. Others can be more complex like “pump out of service” signs.
  • Use a digital lock. A digital lock is an expensive tool, but it has a high rate of success. It can lock the pump’s programming, making it impossible for a thief to tamper with it.
  • Use tap or chip-to-pay POS devices

Optimal LVT gas station surveillance locations to prevent gas theft

  • Near fuel storage tank access doors
  • In view of card swipe access points on pump
  • Above pumps away from store
  • In dimly lit areas

Let’s recap: Stealing gas is easy. But so is LTV’s outdoor surveillance solution.

LTV pulls up with its mobile unit. No plug-in. No fuss. A few minutes later—protection. Life carries on and gas station owners can relax and ease off the caffeine and stress.

Consider the alternate scenario. Employees or owners physically walking around on-site relying on antiquated security cameras.

Next, the brilliant bad guys pull up and steal gas. It’s a simple, stinky crime that leads to all kinds of questions. The crime is then publicized, and damage is done to both revenue and reputation.

The choice appears clear. In a few minutes, all gas theft security concerns can be handled decisively by the pros. LTV’s intelligent automation streamlines security and helps eliminate the threat of gas theft. All the worries of protection, loss, and damage after a theft are eased. Gas stations should be a place of safety, yummy snacks, and quick fill-ups. Make the effort to streamline security now.

Contact LVT today to test it out for yourself with a pilot.

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