June 17, 2008

Drivers Lock Down Gas Tanks to Protect That ‘Liquid Gold’

By Helen Jung, The Oregonian, Portland, Ore.

Jun. 15--These days "fill 'er up" is increasingly followed by "lock 'er down."

With regular gasoline in Oregon averaging $4.18 a gallon, motorists are snatching up locking gas caps to keep thieves out of their tanks. But the clamor for locking lids has soared along with pump prices, triggering shortages.

"There seems to be a run on them for sure," said Paul Chully, manager of the Napa Auto Parts store at Northeast Columbia and Martin Luther King Jr. boulevards in Portland. His store's trucks were hit by gas thieves, he said, before the latest spike in prices.

Gasoline, Chully said, "is like liquid gold."

Portland police say they know anecdotally of illicit siphoning, but they don't track gas thefts, so it's impossible to estimate how many unwitting drivers find their cars suddenly running on fumes. And some victims may never report thefts, considering their relatively low-dollar value, leaving them in the category more of annoyance than high crime.

It's really not a surprise that thieves siphon from cars and trucks, especially considering the same kind of pilfering is rampant for commodities such as used cooking oil. Thieves have raided barrels outside restaurants for their frying oil, a key ingredient in biodiesel.

Metal, too, has become a high-value target, with thieves last month snatching and selling for scrap the aluminum wheelchair ramp from a disabled Clackamas woman's home.

No wonder car owners are looking to guard their gas. Provided, that is, they can find a locking lid.

"We're out," said Mike Halvorson, Internet manager of Baxter Auto Parts, which has 35 stores in Oregon, Washington and California. "We're not going to get any until the end of the month."

The chain, headquartered in Portland, has more than 5,000 gas caps on back order, he said, with about 500 requests coming in daily.

Connersville, Ind.-based Stant Manufacturing Inc., one of the country's largest producers of locking gas caps, has seen demand jump to about three or four times normal in the past few months, said Chris Hoffman, product and marketing director. The company fell behind the past few weeks and hopes to catch up with all current orders by the beginning of July, he said.

There are no signs of demand abating either, he said.

The concern comes not only from people whose gas has been stolen. Many hear stories about a neighbor or other hapless motorist who walks out of a grocery to find a vehicle on empty, Halvorson said.

"It's going to get worse," he said. "It's getting into a total steal fest."


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