If you’ve noticed something strange happening at gas stations in the Bay area lately, you might not be alone. Here’s what happens: someone comes up to the gas station pump and brings one of the nozzles over to the other side of the gas tank. Why, you might ask? So that when a paying customer drives up, they foot the bill, even though the gas is being pumped into someone else’s car! You may drive away with an empty tank and light on funds. As ingenious and simple as this scam is, it has fooled hundreds of folks already. However, it amounts to nothing less than theft.
When property, even gasoline, has been taken, it is considered theft by California law (‘petty theft’ or ‘grand theft’ depending on whether the property taken was valued at under or over $950). California Penal Code 484 and 459.5 defines theft very simply: taking someone else’s property without their permission. While it may seem odd to think of gasoline as a possession, under the law it is no different than any other property. Penalties for petty theft, which is what these nozzle switch scammers would be accused of in each instance, include up to 6 months in county jail and a $1,000 fine.
However, if you’ve been taken in by this scam already, then there is little hope of ever seeing your funds (or gasoline!) returned. Sometimes a gas station clerk or owner will reimburse you for the price of the gas you lost, but others are not as sympathetic. Certainly, law enforcement agents have no way of knowing who stole your gas, even gas station security cameras often make it difficult to see the license plates of these thieves. The best protection for consumers is to be aware, if something looks out of place at the pump, its best to take a good look around before authorizing a purchase.