Authorities warned Las Vegas Valley residents Thursday about people using fraudulent credit cards to buy gasoline in bulk with the intent to resell it for cheap.
Police have arrested 25 people in the scheme, which brought illegal fuel sales to neighborhoods throughout the valley, Metropolitan Police Department Lt. Shane Womack said at a Thursday morning joint news conference with firefighters.
It’s a troubling trend that already has caused blazes in the valley, and while such fires haven’t yet killed anyone, police and fire officials fear that may not last if the practice continues.
The gas scheme appears to be organized, and those already arrested likely had some training or experience to pull off the credit card thefts, fraudulent gas purchases and storage, using vans or pickups modified with huge tanks to carry fuel to residential areas, said Womack, with Metro’s financial crimes division.
“A concern of all of us from a public safety standpoint is that somebody else gets this basic understanding, they try to modify their own — it may even be just for themselves and they want to store 200 gallons to give to their friends — and then they blow up a neighborhood,” Womack said.
Over the past 18 months, authorities noticed that those using fake credit cards with stolen card information to buy gas in Clark County or other states were starting to purchase it in much larger amounts. The stolen credit card information used to make “cloned” cards were all from outside Clark County, Womack said.
Police tracked the fuel carriers to valley neighborhoods, where offenders would fill other vehicles or offload it into storage tanks, some capable of holding hundreds or thousands of gallons of diesel or gasoline, Womack said.
With summer ahead and fuel prices on the rise, officials want the public to keep their eyes, ears and noses open for signs of illegal operations.
“Neighborhoods that seem perfectly normal with kids riding bikes around were storing thousands of gallons of fuel and are operating like a gas station at all hours of the day and night,” Womack said.
The danger lies in the highly flammable vapor, Clark County Deputy Fire Chief Jon Wiercinski said. More heat during the summer means more vapor, and that vapor can spread and find an ignition source away from the storage container, he said.
Static builds up while transferring flammable liquids without properly grounded containers, and in “almost every instance” investigated fuel wasn’t correctly stored, Wiercinski said.
“(The containers are) not built for this particular purpose, and you could have a much larger fire that is really difficult for us to control,” he said.
Metro coordinated with the valley’s fire departments and police departments, as well as the Nevada Highway Patrol and Secret Service, to identify and round up the fuel offenders.
The fuel scheme is prominent in Western states and particularly in Clark County, where the weather is nice, there are plenty of gas stations, numerous travelers and little in the way of public transportation.
Metro released a short public service announcement about the crime that will be played at select gas station pump monitors in the valley. It features some of the 25 confiscated vehicles and examples of vehicles with modified, often covert, tanks.
The investigation is ongoing, and officials hope the public understands that the risk of disaster outweighs the price of a cheap tank fill.
“This is not just a financial crime,” Womack said. “This is something that could level a neighborhood and cost people their lives.”
What to look for
Those who notice suspicious or dangerous activity can contact police at 311 or 911, as well a Fuel Theft Squad line at 702-828-1987. People can also call Crime Stoppers at 702-385-5555 to remain anonymous.
Police urged the public to look for:
— People spending a long time at fuel pumps or using multiple credit cards
— Vehicles with two fuel intakes
— Neighbors fueling directly from a truck or a residence
— Strong smell of diesel or gasoline
— High vehicle traffic in neighborhoods, with visits lasting about the time to fill a tank