FAIRBANKS — Heating oil thieves in Fairbanks have refined their tactics and are targeting empty houses that are for sale, a trend Alaska State Troopers say is new this winter.
“It’s the perfect crime,” Fairbanks trooper Ryan Mau said. “You’ve got an empty house with a full tank of oil. There’s very little risk going to a house that’s vacant. It’s like leaving a bowl of candy out on the front porch on Halloween and expecting a kid not to take any.”
Since Oct. 1, troopers have received 20 reports of heating oil thefts at homes and businesses around Fairbanks, most of which are empty and for sale, Mau said.
Troopers estimate about 5,300 gallons of heating oil has been stolen in those thefts.
“We have thefts as large as 900 gallons and as small as 80 gallons,” the trooper said.
At roughly $4 per gallon, that translates to more than $20,000,
“It’s getting out of control,” Mau said. “Last year, we thought we caught it and it died down, but this year, it’s going gangbusters again.”
In previous years, heating oil thieves focused on homes in remote areas with few neighbors, he said.
“The trend this winter is the real estate business,” Mau said.
It makes sense, the trooper said. Thieves can go online and check real estate listings to get addresses of homes that are for sale. They then stake the homes out to see if they are occupied or vacant, checking to see if anyone is home at night, if the driveway has been used or if there are newspapers piling up in the driveway.
Once thieves figure out nobody is home, they return in a truck with a water tank in the back and pump the oil out of the tanks. In some cases, thieves are breaking into the homes, backing their trucks into the garage, punching a hole in the wall and running a hose out the back to drain the oil tank.
“Some of these pumps are pumping 15 to 50 gallons a minute, so it doesn’t take long to empty a tank,” Mau said.
If a neighbor happens by when the thieves are there, they use the excuse that they’re interested in buying the house, he said.
“That will satisfy most neighbors,” Mau said.
Realtor Wes Madden said four or five houses he has listed for sale have been victimized this winter, one of which froze up as a result and needs thousands of dollars of repair. Madden now offers to install locks on tanks of clients for an extra $150 to prevent heating oil thefts and frozen homes.
“If they’re not going to spend $150 to safeguard their house, I’m almost saying I can’t list your house,” Madden said. “What we advise our clients is if their house is vacant and they put a ‘For Sale’ sign out and they’re not plowing their driveway or taking precautions to keep thieves and vandals away, they’re pretty much easy pickings.”
Sellers are required to sign a vacant property addendum to protect the real estate company against insurance claims, he said.
Of the 100-plus listings Madden’s company has, he estimated about 30 are vacant. He has one employee that checks on vacant houses and he advises the owners of vacant houses to put locks on their fuel tanks and have a friend or neighbor keep an eye on it.
“It’s a big deal for us,” Madden said. “I’ve got a spread sheet with everything on it — is it vacant, does it have a fuel lock, who the fuel company is, who winterized the house, is somebody checking on it.”
Bert Perkins, a realtor with Stars and Stripes Realty, said he won’t list vacant homes because of the potential for heating oil and other thefts.
“It’s impossible when a house is vacant to make it look like it’s occupied,” Perkins said.
Madden advises sellers of vacant homes to put freeze alarms in the house. That way the owner can monitor the temperature inside the house and the alarm will notify the homeowner if the house is in danger of freezing.
“It’s a cheap insurance,” he said. “I’m in Texas and I can call home and it tells me what the temperature in my house is. If it drops below 45 degrees, it’s going to call me.”
Several fuel companies in town sell locks for heating oil tanks, but it’s hard to find one that is foolproof, said Bob Wilson, manager at Alaska Aerofuel. Both the fill and vent tubes need to be locked and even that won’t prevent a thief from using a hack saw to cut through them to get a siphon hose down into the tank. Likewise, on above-ground tanks thieves can access the fuel lines coming out of the tank.
“What I tell a lot of customers to do is drill a hole through the pipe, put a hardened bolt in there, put a nut on it and bugger the threads so they can’t get it out,” he said. “Something so they can’t get a hose down in there.”
Alaska Aerofuel sells locks for both pipes for about $50 apiece. The locks fit around the tops of the pipes and can’t be cut with bolt cutters, he said.
“I’ve sold a lot of them,” he said.
Thieves are not easily dissuaded and can sometimes take a lock to be a special challenge.
“We had one client, a church, that had 700 gallons of fuel stolen and he came in and got a lock and put it on the tank,” Wilson said. “A few days later, somebody came along with a hack saw, cut the pipe and left a note saying, ‘We’ll get it if we want it.’ They didn’t steal anything; they just wanted the church to know they can get it if they want it.”
Troopers are asking for the public’s help in thwarting heating oil thieves, Mau said. Anyone who sees something suspicious in their neighborhood should take note and notify troopers, he said.
“If you see a big dually truck with a water tank in the back going through your neighborhood at 3 o’clock in the morning or see headlights late at night at the house next door for sale and you know the owners are in Arizona, get license plate numbers and descriptions of drivers, he said. “Being a nosy neighbor right now is a good thing.”
Thieves most likely are selling the heating oil they steal to friends, using it themselves or trading it for drugs, Mau said.
“Even if they sell fuel for half the price it’s going on the market, they’re still making out pretty darn good,” the trooper said.
Some of the vacant homes that have been victimized have frozen up as a result of the thefts, forcing homeowners to claim thousands of dollars in damage for plumbing repairs and stolen oil. That inevitably results in higher insurance rates for everyone, Mau said.