Fuel theft is an almighty headache for council fleet managers, but how prevalent a crime it is nationally across the haulage sector is probably impossible to pin down. LAPV knows because we've tried, laments Mike Gerber

Fuel crime is endemic. “There's so much going on you don't record it unless itís a significant quantity.” a spokesperson for TruckPol, the Metropolitan police division that deals with haulage crime in Greater London, comments.

When police in Wakefield recently reported that thieves in the district had siphoned off diesel worth more than £11,000 in a six week period, probably to be sold off at a discounted rate for cash, the official recommendation was: “Take simple measures like storing vehicles out of sight at night and keep storage tanks in a concealed area - CCTV and lighting improvements can also help.”

Premises security is obviously essential, but the culprits are as likely to be insiders who perhaps have an arrangement with accomplices to transfer a portion of their tank-load off-site.

What thieves are up to

External fuel thieves range from small-timers to highly organised external gangs linked to sophisticated laundering operations. The most ingenious criminals are likely to find the means to breach even the tightest compound defences, and the pickings can be big enough to give them the motivation.

Chrys Rampley, security expert at the Road Haulage Association, explains: “Some people have storage tanks on site, these can be siphoned in seconds. The fuel is siphoned using very high-pressure suction pump and transferred to a van outside into a modified tank. A haulage company in the West Midlands had to move because of this - their vehicles were being attacked on regular basis. Other companies de-siphon every night and refill in the morning.”

Petty criminals also steal fuel, says Rampley. “They siphon it in lay-bys in five gallon drums and sell it on where they can. Fuel is stolen because of the high conventional prices, and one market for it is the taxi trade,” she says.

Practical solutions

Gilbarco Veeder-Root is definitely a company worth checking out because of its extensive experience providing fuel storage and dispensing installations to councils, with anti-theft measures factored in.

Types of installation include: secure storage systems that prevent fuel being removed direct from the storage facility; fuel pumps with high accuracy metering devices to measure every drop dispensed to vehicles; and pump controllers that restrict access to fuel and provide management information to identify unauthorised usage, questionable fuel issues, out-of-hours issues, small-quantity issues and other data.

Theft detection is also a feature of electronic gauging and wetstock management systems in Gilbarco's council installations.

Spokesman Stephen Hannan says: “We have a wide base of local authorities and public services that utilise our services; however we are reluctant to identify users as there are contractual clauses with many authorities which preclude us from identifying contractors or preclude us from utilising local authorities as a referral.”

For whatever reason - a possible epidemic of staff theft, the driver shortage, fear of a union backlash - we just suggest these as possibilities - councils certainly seem to be coy about this issue.

“There's lot of inside work,” confirms Don Armour of the Freight Transport Association, speaking about fleet operations generally. He knows of instances of collusion between established employees and new employees who can be tipped off on how the system works - people who work for place for a while then leave.

Theft of fuel is a greater problem now than it was a few years ago, he says, because it has become a more valuable commodity.

One answer, he suggests, is electronic smart cards: “Unless you've got a card and know the pin number, the pump doesn't switch itself on.”

Armour is looking even further ahead. “There is nobody I know yet that uses more sophisticated systems, like biometrics (hand print or iris recognition) on hand pumps. That is coming in other areas and might filter down, for instance form areas like air freight where security is tight and loads can easily be as much as £500,000.”