MIAMI -- These criminals lug huge amounts of stolen gas across South Florida’s roadways, hiding hundreds of gallons in modified trucks and SUVs.
Authorities refer to the gas thieves’ converted trucks as moving bombs because of the hazard they pose if one were to crash and explode. “They’re out there, they’re so common — trying to blend with people who go to work every day,” said Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Alexis Otano. “God forbid one of these vehicles gets into an accident.”
And officials say the gas theft has been on the rise.
Such fuel pilfering cases are up in Broward County with 16 people charged so far this year, compared with 10 last year. Between 2013 and 2017, only seven were charged. The Florida Highway Patrol’s Troop E, which patrols Miami-Dade County, has seen a proliferation, detaining more than 30 vehicles with so-called fuel bladders, or concealed fuel compartments, in the two years since troopers ran across their first modified truck.
In several cases, authorities view trying to bust fuel-theft rings as a cat-and-mouse game. And they say they’re dealing with well-organized gangs of inventive diesel thieves. The gas thieves use bogus credit cards to buy the gasoline from stations, then find people willing to buy the fuel at below-market rates.
“It’s like the mafia," says Broward Sheriff’s Office Detective Ryan Zimber. “They help each other out.”
It has led to some dramatic encounters on the road for police.
On a cold October night in 2016, two police officers spied 10 pickup drivers acting strange at a North West Miami gas station. Most of the men were pumping fuel — but into their truck beds, not into their gas tanks. The officers found that suspicious. They flicked their cop car’s lights on and approached the station, causing the pickups to scatter like roaches in the dark.
Four drivers couldn’t get away. As officers approached, they saw that one — Yuniet Fuentes — had a handgun in his pants, and they watched him toss a small Louis Vuitton bag onto the ground.
Fuentes was arrested. Inside the bag officers found 16 gift cards, each encoded with stolen credit card numbers. Yunior Rodriguez Rivero, the driver of another truck, had 64 stolen credit cards on him.
Fuentes is now serving a two and a half year sentence in federal prison for the credit card fraud, and Rivero was sentenced to time served for the same crime.
Several recent cases involving gas theft and fraud also have led to charges in federal court. Spokespersons for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in South Florida identified 10 cases involving credit card fraud and fuel theft in the past two years.
Last Wednesday, Raul Morgan Borrego was sentenced to five years of probation after being caught fueling a bladder truck in April. He had used four stolen credit cards to purchase the diesel. On Monday, court documents indicate that another man, Alexander Arguelles, is expected to plead guilty in Fort Lauderdale federal court in a similar but unrelated case.
‘Mobile gas stations’
Since pulling over his first bladder truck in 2017, Trooper Otano has become an expert in identifying the modified trucks as they trundle down South Florida’s roads, laden with stolen diesel fuel.
According to him, the trucks function like “mobile gas stations,” their drivers using stolen credit card numbers to siphon off gas for free and then resell it to truckers in depots or to construction companies and tradesmen.
The thieves often steal the credit card numbers from other gas pumps with devices called skimmers, which, once illegally installed, can transmit customers’ financial information via text message.
The trade is lucrative. Broward sheriff’s detectives estimate that the operator of a bladder truck can gross up to $1,500 a day.
In February 2018, authorities busted a fuel theft ring that was making $100,000 a month.
And it’s a racket controlled by tightly organized gangs, some of whom may have previously been involved in the drug trade, Otano said. “They’re making so much money doing this, they’re moving away from the [marijuana] grow houses because this is less risky,” Otano explains.
Both the Broward Sheriff’s Office and the Florida Highway Patrol report that the rings are getting more sophisticated in their smuggling tactics, foregoing pickup trucks for stealthier SUVs that have had the back seats modified and replaced with fuel tanks.
The Highway Patrol even pulled over a minivan after noticing it rode suspiciously low to the ground, only to discover it had a fuel compartment hidden in the trunk.
One Oakland Park gas station owner worried about the hazard to the public a few years ago when a thief secretly put 255 gallons of gasoline into a modified van. “It was a moving bomb,” the owner said. “God forbid he [the thief] would have gone to I-95 and had an accident.”
Burden on gas suppliers
Ned Bowman, executive director of the Florida Petroleum Marketer’s Association, a trade group that represents gas stations, describes a similar game of cat and mouse played between station owners and fuel thieves looking to skim credit card numbers.
“The skimmers came in a few years ago, so we put [special] tape on the gas dispensers to keep them from installing the skimmers. They bought the tape online, and installed them anyway," Bowman notes, with exasperation.
Because credit card companies and banks will refund fraudulent purchases, the burden of the theft often falls on gas stations.
Court documents show how one Wilton Manors 7-Eleven lost nearly $13,000 to gas thieves between February and March this year alone.
Security experts recommend that fuel customers always choose the gas pump that can be most clearly seen by the station attendant, since that one is less likely to have a skimmer installed in it.
And they caution that commuters should avoid buying gas with debit cards, because skimmers can just as easily transmit secret pins.
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