High fuel prices driving up damage from petrol and diesel theft, while catalytic converters are being stolen for metal content
Motorists whose cars refuse to start this Christmas could be victims of the latest austerity trend ? fuel and catalytic converter theft.
Insurers and car rescue services are reporting a small but rising number of thefts, predominantly from commercial vehicles but increasingly from domestic cars. The AA says its officers are being called out about once a week to cars that have been damaged during a fuel theft, while police in North Lincolnshire have warned motorists to keep their vehicles secure after a spate of thefts in December. In some areas of the country, motorists have been advised to get their catalytic converters marked to prevent thieves from selling the items on to scrap dealers.
Thieves steal fuel by cutting through fuel lines, smashing open fuel caps, removing petrol tanks or, in some cases, drilling into the fuel tanks and pumping out the contents. Big cars, such as people carriers and 4x4s, are particularly vulnerable because they are higher off the ground, giving easier access, and they have bigger fuel tanks.
Joe Hind ? not his real name ? from north London discovered his fuel had been stolen when he took his car, a 10-year-old people carrier, into the garage to have it checked because of a persistent smell of petrol.
"I had been smelling petrol for a couple of weeks, and the garage said the car was likely to need a new fuel tank. But when they looked at it, they found someone had tampered with the fuel lines, pulling them out to get at the fuel but not reinserting them properly," he said. "The garage said the petrol was unlikely to have ignited, but it's still worrying. It's even possible they did this more than once."
Martin Smith, technical claims manager for insurance company Aviva, said the theft of fuel was a "reaction to high fuel prices and the economic downturn". But he added that most people would not claim for the cost of repairs, because these were lower than or close to the value of the excess on their insurance policy.
Miranda Schunke, spokeswoman for recovery service Green Flag, said: "We were called out to a number of incidents earlier in the year, where the fuel lines had been cut. From our experience, the driver is unaware initially they have been involved in a fuel theft ? Customers generally ring the call centre to say 'I have a fuel leak,' or 'I have run out of petrol.'"
Schunke said most incidents involved the fuel line being cut or the petrol cap being prised off, and that older vehicles with a key-opened fuel cap were most at risk. "Drilling into the fuel tank is another potential access point but is very dangerous and could cause an explosion from one spark," she added.
Red diesel ? fuel sold to farms that carries a lower tax duty than standard fuel ? and domestic heating oil, another form of diesel, are also sometimes stolen for use in cars.
Figures collated by NFU Mutual, an insurer specialising in farm insurance, show the value of claims for heating oil theft increased by 153% in the first six months of 2011 compared with the same period in 2010. The east of England was the worst affected region.
Costs were partly due to an increase in the number of crimes, which doubled in the first six months of this year, but also due to the cost of cleaning up any environmental damage caused by thieves.
The most expensive claim dealt with by NFU Mutual this year for clean-up costs as a result of a damaged tank following an oil theft was over ?30,000.
Will Howell, spokesman for the insurer, said that red diesel is sometimes mixed with heating oil and engine oil to disguise the dye, to prevent detection during spot checks by the police and Revenue & Customs.
Catalytic converters are stolen because they contain precious metals ? platinum, palladium and rhodium ? which can be recycled. The AA says it has seen an increase in thefts since the beginning of the credit crunch in 2008, when prices for precious metals started spiralling.
The catalytic converter was stolen from Jane Green's Land Rover Freelander while it was standing in a car park near her workplace in Wolverhampton. She said: "When I got back to my car, the police had left a note on the windscreen telling me not to turn the car on but to call them as soon as possible. I did and was told a witness had seen a man with a drill around my car."
Green's catalytic converter had been removed with a saw and drill, causing damage that cost ?900 to repair.
Aviva's Smith advises that car owners should ideally use garages, or if that is not possible, park in busy, well-lit locations to deter thieves from tampering with their vehicles.