TAMPA, Fla. - In the past two weeks, five thieves have been caught siphoning large amounts of fuel from Bay Area stations using stolen accounts, bogus credit cards, and hidden tanks.
Investigators say it’s a crime hidden in plain sight and a trend that could be part of a bigger fuel-theft ring. Thieves pump diesel into concealed bladder tanks, inside their vehicles, then pay the expensive bill with bogus credit cards.
In Hillsborough County, someone has been locked up for fuel fraud every day this week.
Janel Martinez Morejon was nabbed Monday hitting multiple gas stations to fill a hidden tank. On Tuesday, deputies busted Michel Maribona Torres after he siphoned $200 worth of diesel for free. And Cesar Echevarria Jimenez was arrested Wednesday.
Collectively, the trio was carrying more than 20 counterfeit credit cards.
In Pasco County, investigators are seeing similar crimes.
“We’re definitely seeing an uptick in this sort of crime,” said Amanda Hunter with the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office.
Two weeks ago, two men were locked up after one vigilant gas station worker tipped off deputies.
“Hi, I have a vehicle at my location that’s been known to use fraudulent credit cards, they were actually looking for it the other day, and it just pulled up,” the clerk told a dispatcher. “He just finished up at $99, so, I’m seeing, he’s running another card, possibly... Yeah, it’s just been an ongoing problem with them at this store."
Deputies caught Ismel Lopez-Alonso with 96 gift cards encoded with stolen account numbers. They discovered his flatbed truck was disguised to hide a large fuel bladder.
Hours later, Rodolfo Camejo Cruz was pulled over after being seen pumping "an excessive amount" of diesel fuel into his van.
"It looks like the floor is raised up,” said a Pasco County deputy involved in the traffic stop.
Camejo Cruz gave deputies permission to search and it did not take them long to find a switch that redirects fuel into a large tank installed under the back seats. Hidden in an air vent, they spotted 23 fraudulently-obtained credit and debit card numbers disguised as gift cards.
"They feel weird,” the deputy said. “And there’s ZIP codes on them so, I feel as if they, they replaced the mag strips, and they have the ZIP codes on the back of ‘em."
Officials say the crooks lug the stolen gas across local roadways. Hundreds of gallons can be hidden in modified trucks, vans, and SUVs. Hunter says the converted vehicles are essentially moving bombs.
“So you fill a very large quantity of fuel and go down the road and say, for whatever reason, an accident happens, now you have an explosive situation on your hands with that amount of flammable fuel,” she explained.