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Page last updated at 05:34 GMT, Monday, 21 July 2008 06:34 UK
Petrol theft 'doubles' in five months
By Matt Cole
Newsbeat reporter

Petrol pump

Thieves have been avoiding rising petrol prices by siphoning fuel from other motorists' cars.

The RAC motoring organisation says between January and June it's seen a doubling in the number of cars it's attended which have had all their fuel drained.

Driver Dan Sparks from Leamington Spa had parked his car on his drive overnight but when he came to start it the following morning, it didn't.

He explained: "I drive thousands of miles each year so I will always check my fuel before I go home each night and ask myself, 'Do I need anymore ready for the morning?'

Dan Sparks
Dan Sparks had petrol taken from his car on his front drive
"I absolutely vividly remember I had about three-quarters of a tank left, or there or thereabouts.

"I parked on the drive and went to bed. But when I got up the next morning and got in the car and put my key in the ignition, the warning light came on saying there was zero miles left in the tank.

"I was really confused as I had plenty of fuel in my tank for the next day. Probably 40-45 of fuel was in that tank."

On closer inspection of his fuel cap Dan realised thieves had somehow bypassed the lock and siphoned his diesel.

There was just enough fuel left in his system to limp to the nearest garage. But Dan discovered he wasn't the only victim that night.

He said: "I rang through to the local police force to report it. They investigated it. They told me it was about the third or fourth call they'd had that morning about diesel thefts."

Tanks drilled

The attack on Dan's car was rather unusual in that his fuel line hadn't been cut nor had his tank been drilled, both more common ways thieves get at your petrol.

Prakesh Patel
When there seems to be a price increase people find other ways to get fuel and start stealing petrol
RAC patrolman Prakesh Patel
However, even when those methods are used many drivers still aren't aware they've been robbed until the ignition fails to spark.

RAC patrolman Prakesh Patel says most people have no idea why their car won't start when they call for help.

He said: "You do checks and say, 'You're out of fuel', but people say, 'No, no, no. I filled up with petrol yesterday'.

"But then you look underneath the car and see a hole in the tank or that the fuel line has been cut and they've drained it off into a canister.

"You see disbelief on the customer's face. They can't understand why their petrol's been taken.

"Then it dawns on them, the price of the fuel is so expensive it's a valuable asset now."

Widespread problem

According to the RAC some parts of the UK have been affected more than others, including Greater London, South West England and the West Midlands.

The AA also acknowledged it was also dealing with more cases, though a spokesman said for now it was more of "a growing nuisance than an epidemic".

Petrol pump
Mechanics warn running a car on empty damages a car's fuel pump
Most police forces can't give statistics on fuel thefts from cars because they're recorded under the same heading as any other theft from a car, be that golf clubs, handbags or petrol.

Durham Police has collated some data which show in January this year they only had seven reported incidents.

A month later, as the petrol price climbed, that jumped to 29.

Prakesh Patel says it's a familiar pattern.

"When there seems to be a price increase, or a shortage of fuel, people get out there and find other ways to get fuel and start stealing petrol," he said.

Figures show petrol prices have risen nearly a quarter during the past year, and diesel 36%.

Last Wednesday, the Chancellor Alistair Darling announced he would postpone a scheduled two pence rise in fuel duty.

But AA figures available the same day suggested the cost of a litre of unleaded petrol was averaging 119.5p across the UK, with diesel averaging out at 133p.

Theft danger

Victims tend to lose more than the petrol they've bought.

Prakesh Patel said: "The worst thing is not only the fact you've paid for your petrol and you've lost the use of your car, but on top of that you've got to pay for all the repairs - and the repairs generally cost more than the petrol they've taken."

One problem, he explained, was that damaged tanks have to be totally replaced.

He said: "If it's a fuel line we can try to repair the fuel line temporarily, but with a hole in the tank there's nothing we can do.

"You can't plug it, you can't put a patch over petrol, so unfortunately it's a tow to the garage."

The mobile mechanic also warns would-be thieves that they could be putting their lives at risk.

"You've got the friction of the drill bit going in, and it gets warm so it could ignite.

"Metal tanks will be worse. Most modern cars have plastic but if you've got older cars which have metal tanks there's more chance of sparks which could ignite.

"I wouldn't try it myself. Life's too short. You want to enjoy yourself not die burning in flames."

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