When the BBC screened a Panorama investigation into the highly organised and growing blackmarket in road fuels last month, it brought to attention the lengths to which criminals will go to get their hands on this high-value product. From drive-offs and the illegal trade in red diesel to full-scale fuel laundering and ’pop-up’ petrol stations, the film exposed how fuel has become the ’perfect illicit commodity’.
’The Great Fuel Robbery’ programme culminated with shocking footage of a foiled theft at a Shell forecourt in Birmingham by the so-called White Tanker Gang, which used generators to siphon fuel from the underground storage tanks. Viewers saw one gang member on top of a tanker pumping fuel directly from the tank, and as the marked police car pulled onto the forecourt, the man jumped to the ground and ran, causing fuel to overflow and turn the A34 into a river of diesel.
As a result, last August three men were jailed for a total of eight years and 11 months. But while the White Tanker Gang is safely ’banged up’, the investigating West Midlands Police detective constable Simon Pittaway said that every price rise at the pump presented an opportunity for criminals to maximise their illegal profit, adding: "We will see a lot more of it".
In a bid to tackle this growing threat of theft from underground storage tanks, the petrol industry has been searching hard for a suitable deterrent. Tank maintenance company Eurotank Environmental has just launched EurotankGuard, a system that uses wireless technology to alert retailers when a tank manhole or access point has been lifted. A metal bar is bolted across the manhole with a wireless switch in the centre. A break in the circuit will create a signal that is sent to the system’s antennae, which triggers an alarm.
Supermarket retailer Morrisons is trialling the new system at a site in the Midlands. Mark Todd, director of petrol at Morrisons, says: "Morrisons has already taken steps to ensure that we can effectively detect thefts and activate alarms, but we wanted to be involved in the trial to see if we could aid the development of a cost-effective solution that alarmed before any equipment was interfered with.
"The idea is to have this solution provide an audible alarm to act as a deterrent combined with a silent alarm that we’d also route through to our security service provider this will ideally ensure that we curtail any attempted theft and be able to follow up with a site inspection."
EurotankGuard can be fitted to all underground tank access points and adapted to work in conjunction with any alarm system. The cost of installation depends on the forecourt’s number of tanks, existing alarm system and the type of alarm generated, but the company will provide a free site survey and theft risk assessment.
Edward Wheeler, managing director of Eurotank, says: "EurotankGuard provides a record of attempts to steal fuel, even if no fuel was taken, and the cross bar restricts access into the chamber by a person working/stealing in a time pressure scenario, therefore increasing the time it would take to get into the chamber, with the knowledge that the alarm is sounding.
"The pressure switch is in the middle of the cross bar so that it can never be stopped from being activated. If the switch is on a side they could come back on another occasion after learning the position and lift the other side and then slide a sheet in between to keep the switch down. A timer can also be fitted in the control box, which has a key to deactivate it/activate it for maintenance purposes."
Petrol pipework and forecourt specialists D Berry & Co last year launched the Mono chamber system. The solution incorporates a locking cover to the existing chambers, and, according to the company, is now being supplied to most of the majors. The security cover is of a lightweight steel construction that is installed beneath the tank chamber cover. It is secured to the chamber by a set of fixings that cannot be accessed without the cover being removed. The unit is then locked with short shanked security padlocks, which are positioned so that they cannot be accessed by cutting tools.
While major fuel thefts from storage tanks are increasing, a recent British Oil Security Syndicate (BOSS) survey of its members has found that losses incurred by theft of fuel in the first half of this year fell by 6.4% compared with the same period in 2010. Kevin Eastwood, executive director of BOSS, says: "Over the same period the average fuel price rose by 15% this means that the net number of litres taken per service station has declined and, by implication, so has the number of incidents.
"Historically, the trend has been for the level of crime to mirror the price of fuel both up and down but in recent years pump prices have increased by a significantly greater proportion than the overall value of theft," adds Eastwood. "This can be attributed to factors including the reclassification of drive-offs as a criminal rather than civil offence, more widespread adoption of BOSS crime-fighting initiatives and their positive effect, and the introduction of new technologies such as automatic number plate recognition,"
BOSS has been instrumental in setting up around 70 Forecourt Watch schemes partnerships between retailers and local police designed to deter criminals and report incidents to police in the most efficient way. "Forecourt Watch schemes across the country have built robust working relationships between retailers and a named local police contact, establishing co-ordinated recording and reporting procedures," says Eastwood. "Many of these schemes have been very successful in reducing losses and the associated bureaucracy for retailers and saving police valuable man hours. In areas where Forecourt Watch has been introduced, forecourt crime can fall by up to 55%."
BOSS is developing new technologies to make reporting quicker and easier such as an electronic reporting scheme being trialled in conjunction with Greater Manchester Police. Areas with high losses remain the focus for introducing new schemes, and BOSS regional co-ordinators are working hard to develop relationships with police forces and retailers in those areas.
"Police forces take theft of fuel very seriously as it is rarely an isolated act of criminality," says Eastwood. "Those who steal fuel are often involved in much wider-ranging criminal activity. BOSS’s work with police forces helps them to identify and detect these criminals, denying them access to the road and ultimately bringing them to justice."
BOSS has also introduced Payment Watch to help UK fuel retailers recover losses incurred by ’no means of payment’ incidents. The scheme is proving popular and helping participating retailers to recover up to 80% of financial losses incurred in no means of payment incidents. About a thousand service stations are signed up to BOSS Payment Watch and this number is continuing to grow. "Feedback from retailers is very positive, with many reporting that a significant number of drivers who initially claim they can’t pay, find a way to do so when faced with the official, police-branded documentation," says Eastwood. "Many others return to pay within a few days."
A new scheme for tackling ’no means of payment’ and drive-offs is being launched by Somerset-based Pay for Fuel. The scheme combines automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) and an inform-and-collect service for non-paying drivers. The system works by detecting vehicle number plates and immediately comparing them to the Pay for Fuel live database, which is downloaded to the garage system. If the vehicle is known within the scheme, the system will alarm, letting the cashier know before the car has pulled up to the pump.
Should a drive-off or ’no means to pay’ incident occur, the data stored is immediately matched to the DVLA registration database to locate the name and address of the vehicle keeper. A letter is then sent to the keeper, including the evidence from the forecourt, asking them to pay the outstanding charge. After a set period of time, a further stronger letter is sent detailing the offender’s rights should they not pay. A final letter is then sent. This will detail the initial charge for fuel, an additional charge for Pay for Fuel, and finally will give a breakdown of charges that will be levied by a court-appointed bailiff should they not take this last opportunity to pay.
Mark Davis, manager of Pay for Fuel, says: "The full-managed system has been trialled on a few sites and losses have been reduced by 76%-85%. These figures have been calculated from one of the largest fuel retailers and a totally independent report was carried out to see what the impact could be over their group. The systems have now been linked to our new multimillion pound data house to allow sharing of hotlists of offenders. The scheme is a must for every garage with a problem of more than £35 per week."
Installation costs for Pay for Fuel are from £29.99 per week, which includes installation of the ANPR data centre, Collections department and shared access to the common database. Pay for Fuel is also offering a free two-month trial, subject to availability.
"The Police are very interested in the scheme," adds Davis. "At one of our trial sites in London the police conducted a three-day programme to see how the system could help them monitor other crimes. In that time they arrested people caught on our system for gun crime and other crimes."
Advanced CCTV systems incorporating automatic number-plate recognition are growing in popularity. Point-of-sale provider HTEC’s forecourt ANPR solution offers a centralised database. The system works in conjunction with HTEC’s HydraPOS and Forecourt Protect ANPR Systems, and uses fixed cameras pointing to each pump, or a swivel camera capturing registration details as each car begins to fuel and passing them to the central host.
The central host contains drive-off records from across the country including police records and recorded stolen and false number plates, and provides small to medium-sized forecourts with the ability to secure themselves against drive-off fraud. After reading a vehicles’ registration, the system requests a central database check. The host responds back with a message that indicates whether the vehicle has previously been registered as a drive-off or non-payment.
The system then passes the response direct to a terminal located in the shop to determine the correct course of action allow fuelling to commence, warn the operator that the pump should not be activated or even send an automated message back to the police. The central database records all ANPR readings with a location, date and time stamp.
Stephen Mcleod, CEO at HTEC, says: "Many offenders are using false and stolen number plates to avoid ANPR recognition, therefore can return to the same site using multiple number plates. HTEC’s central database allows you to record false or stolen number plates. However the ultimate drive-off prevention is pre-pay.
"Retailers should consider installing pay-at-pump facilities, particularly in the most vulnerable outside lane. This can also improve fuel volume throughput. On the whole, fuel retailers have been positive about pay-at-pump technology, and those considering adopting it should not be overly concerned about possibly losing out on shop revenues, especially if they have a compelling shop offer."
Quadrant Security Group (QSG) is now rolling out a wireless IP ANPR system. Steve Clift, business development manager of QSG, says: "It is often the case that criminals target specific retailers and locations due to their remote nature or their lack of CCTV or ANPR facilities. Traditional analogue ANPR & CCTV can be installed, but the cost quite often can be very prohibitive due to the fact that most of the time these systems have to be retro-fitted. This results in the forecourt having to be dug up and new cables laid into the ground.
"It has been estimated that the costs of a ’hard dig’ can be as high as £50 per metre. Given the size of some forecourts and where the ANPR/CCTV cameras are best placed that the costs can run into thousands, before the equipment is even purchased. Therefore it isn’t uncommon for a very basic ANPR system to cost in excess of £10,000, which is simply too expensive for small, independent retailers."
Clift says that wireless IP works on a completely different model to traditional analogue systems. All the retailer needs to supply is a power source near to where they want the camera to be located. QSG`s trained engineers install a wireless ’bridge’ at a designated area within the forecourt and group the cameras together locally either wirelessly or wired, depending on the environment. Then they aggregate the cameras over a single link. This link can be as long as 1km and can carry up to 75 simultaneous camera feeds for ANPR or 30 simultaneous camera feeds for CCTV.
"The installation costs are drastically reduced and quite often the installation bill doesn’t exceed £1,000 for a fully commissioned system," says Clift. "Once in place, the retailer has the immediate benefit of a fully ACPO-registered system and can start collecting number plates to enter into their own system.
"Over a relatively short period of time retailers can build up a comprehensive database and this can then be disclosed to other petrol stations within the area or other colleagues if the site is part of a franchise or group."
Pump manufacturer Wayne has been developing features to increase the security of its dispensers. With features such as individual key locking kits, remote control access configuration, and door sensors or alarms, Wayne claims to have one of the most secure fuel dispensers on the market place.
The company says that security begins with designing a dispenser that is difficult to break into and manipulate. Wayne dispensers have secure, individual lock options, which are accessed only with an individual key; sensors that detect unauthorised access to hydraulic cabinet and electronic head; secure system communication; and multiple levels of passcode protected access.