Ziker Cleaners is a 105-year-old, third-generation family dry cleaning business located in South Bend, Ind. A typical morning starts with the company’s drivers meeting under a canopy where they hop into their respective delivery vans and prepare to shuttle laundry back and forth between customers and the dry cleaner’s various locations. But recently, it was Ziker’s fleet that was taken to the cleaners.
“We came out one morning and we saw a small storage tub with a bit of fuel in it. We looked up and there was a hole drilled in the bottom of the gas tank,” said David Ziker, owner. “We were like, you’ve got to be kidding me! First it was catalytic converters, now they’re stealing fuel.”
Ziker is hardly the only one that’s been cleaned out by fuel thieves. Across the nation, fuel theft is on the rise, and the targets include gas stations, consumer vehicles, and yes, fleet vehicles.
Gas Theft is a Costly Crime
In March 2022, AAA warned motorists that as gas prices inched up to near-record highs, gasoline thefts would likely increase as well. The not-for-profit organization noted that it could cost vehicle owners more than the expense of replacing the stolen fuel. That’s because on many newer vehicles, thieves can’t just siphon the gas from the fuel tank because of the way they are designed to include ‘roll over’ valves that prevent gas from spilling out. So instead, today’s thieves drill a hole directly into the fuel tank.
Essentially, any vehicle parked on the street or in an unsecured parking lot is a target. Criminals no longer have to waste time finding a way to remove the fuel cap and insert a hose in the tank. Experts say they often use battery-powered tools that need just a few seconds to drill a hole, after which they use bottles or other receptacles to collect the fuel.
According to AAA, a small hole in your fuel tank can mean a much larger hole in your wallet — with fuel tank repairs costing as much as $1,000 to replace. Moreover, damage to a fuel tank is not always covered by insurance.
According to a mechanic in Memphis, plastic gas tanks that get attacked by thieves need to be replaced in their entirety because it’s too hard to repair plastic, reports KREM2. Making matters even worse, there is a shortage of gas tanks right now for newer cars.
Lest owners of older vehicles think they can escape fuel theft, mechanics caution that thieves can easily poke a hole in metal tanks, too, which is the type of tank installed in many older cars.
For Ziker Cleaners, whose fleet vans are equipped with plastic fuel tanks, the post-crime tab was quite steep — and there was downtime and trauma to contend with as well. As far as costs go, there was the loss of the fuel along with the price of towing and repair.
“We had to get the van towed to the repair shop we use, and the estimate was 2 grand to put a new tank in,” Ziker said. “And, they couldn’t do it for 10 days because they were so busy.”
Fortunately, Ziker had a spare van in the fleet that one of his drivers could use while the damaged vehicle was sitting in the shop. But the biggest kick in the teeth came two weeks later when the dry cleaning business was hit up yet again. Thieves vandalized a second one of Ziker’s fleet vans to rip off the gas.
It’s not just cars and vans that are being targeted. In March, Stacy Houston, owner of a Las Vegas biohazard cleanup company, experienced fuel theft with five of her fleet trucks. When she arrived at the office, she discovered that someone opened the gas doors of five trucks and drilled holes into the fuel tanks to drain all the fuel out of them, according to a report by NewsNation.
“One of them is a 14-foot box truck that’s like $200 worth of gas,” Houston told NewsNation. “I understand people are hurting, but we are all in the same position. We are all paying the same for gas.”
Tips to Mitigate Fuel Theft
Based on a review of recent news reports, the fuel theft trend appears to have been at its worst in the beginning of 2022 through the spring — when gas prices were skyrocketing. However, it is difficult to say just how prevalent the problem is now, as there is a lack of data tracking national fuel thefts over a longer period.
David Mesa, fleet manager for the City of San Jose, Calif., has experienced fuel theft numerous times over the last several months at multiple locations where the fleet resides. The theft has happened with city fleet assets as well as short-term rental units. "They steal our convertors and punch the tanks at the same time," he said. “It has cost us downtime and thousands of dollars in unexpected maintenance expenses.”
Clearly, fleet operators need to remain vigilant and follow the advice that AAA offers to all motorists. When in public, park in a well-lit area with high traffic. If possible, park in a secure location like a fenced-in lot or parking garage. When parking in a garage, find a spot near the exit or elevator as those have the most visibility and foot traffic. If parking on the street, when possible, park with your gas tank on the street side.
Perhaps most importantly, fleet operators must caution their drivers about the prevalence of fuel theft. In the event one of your fleet vehicles becomes a victim, it’s important to take swift action.
AAA urges victims of gas theft to contact the police to file a report. Reach out to your insurance company to see if your policy covers related repairs. And, take your vehicle to a trusted repair facility as soon as possible.
David Ziker took a few additional steps after his vans were a two-time target. He tried to have a fence erected around the canopy where his vans are kept, but two fencing companies said it would take up to a year or two and a third cancelled the appointment to provide an estimate. That’s when Ziker took matters into his own hands.
“We’re so paranoid that we dispersed the vans away from our main site where we typically park them every night. And some drivers we trust to just take them home,” said Ziker. “Fortunately, I have another building where we used to run our uniform rental business out of, so we have some indoor parking there. Essentially, we have our small fleet of vans all dispersed right now.”