With gas prices at record highs in the U.S. in recent months, some people have turned to hacking the pump.
Since prices spiked in March, police have arrested at least 22 people across the country for either digitally manipulating computers that manage gas pumps or installing homemade devices to discount their fuel, according to an NBC News review of police and local news reports.
The most common tactics aren’t technologically sophisticated. Gas hackers take advantage of the fact that gas pump equipment in the U.S. is heavily standardized and largely relies on a handful of manufacturers that often don’t include strong security protections. And some of the hacking tools are easily available online for purchase.
While there’s no formal law enforcement metric to measure the trend, 1 in 4 convenience-store gas station owners say fuel thefts have been rising since March, said Jeff Lenard, a vice president of the National Association of Convenience Stores, an industry group.
Gas theft has existed for nearly as long as there have been gas stations, Lenard said. But it was only after Hurricane Katrina, where a drastic price increase led to more thefts, that most American stations began requiring customers to prepay for gas. That led to thieves learning how to manipulate pumps and payment systems, he said, and that practice has become more common as gas prices have risen.
“There’s really nothing like gas prices to get people to think about budgets. It gets people to say ‘Where do we save money? Where do we find money?’” he said.
Len Denton, a fuel industry veteran and the founder of Guardian Payment Solutions Corp., a startup that makes security products for gas stations, said that gas station owners and law enforcement officials have told him of a rush of theft complaints from station owners and police since March.
Most American gas stations use pumps from one of two manufacturers: Wayne Fueling Systems or Gilbarco Veeder-Root. Besides thieves simply arriving in off hours and stealing gas in bulk from underground storage tanks, gas hackers primarily steal using one of two methods, one for each of the two companies, Denton said.
Neither company responded to a request for comment.
The first exploits the fact that many Wayne fuel dispensers have a remote control option to allow station owners and fuel inspectors to easily access them. Those remotes are not regulated, though, and NBC News found many of them for sale online on places including eBay.
An eBay spokesperson said in an emailed statement: “eBay is committed to providing a secure online shopping experience to millions of people globally. We have programs and policies in place to monitor our marketplace for items that encourage illegal activity and work with regulators to remove items when patterns of abuse or criminal behavior are reported.”
While Wayne’s gas dispensers require remote users to enter a key code to access its controls, many station owners never change it from the default setting, Denton said.
John Clark, a police officer at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department North Division in North Carolina, said a suspect he arrested in March used a remote control to access a Wayne pump at a Charlotte gas station then sold the gas. The suspect, who is still awaiting trial, put the pump into a setting designed for technicians to test gas, which allows them to dispense fuel without payment, Clark said.
“You can just pump as much as you want. The easy solution to prevent this from happening is to change that code when pumps are installed, but for whatever reason, whether apathy or lack of knowledge, some of these owners aren’t.”
“It’s illegal, obviously, but it’s a good deal for them,” Clark said. “He’s making money selling gas at zero expense to himself.”
The second method, often used against Gilbarco pumps, tricks a gas pump into dispensing far more gas than it tracks. Gas pumps rely on a device called a pulser to measure how much gas comes out of a pump, telling it how much to charge a customer. Thieves use homemade devices, which can be made from a handful of parts from a hardware store, to slow the pulser so it registers only a fraction of the gas it dispenses.
A thief still needs to open up a gas pump panel to install a pulser manipulator, but many Gilbarco cabinets use a standardized key. NBC News found such keys were also widely available for sale online.
While gas thieves often sell to regular people at a discount, they tend to steal more from independently owned stores. Such stores tend to have only a handful of employees working at a time, unlike major chains that can employ security staff and better surveillance equipment, Denton said.
“The smart thieves are the ones that know how to avoid the guys with all the resources,” he said.
“The big corporate gas guys, they’re arming up,” Denton said. “The little guys, they’re much more vulnerable.”