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Low-tech thieves target customers at Sonoma County gas stations

Ishara Sweeney couldn’t put her finger on it, but something was odd about the gas pump at the Santa Rosa Chevron station.

The hose seemed out of place and the numbers began moving before she squeezed the handle. They stopped suddenly at $36.36 but she didn’t hear a click sound.

Sweeney was further baffled when she got back into her Toyota Corolla after believing she had fueled up and saw the needle hadn’t moved on her gas gauge. It wasn’t until a knowing attendant arrived that she learned she was the victim of a scam.

“I felt pretty dumb,” said Sweeney, a Santa Rosa acupuncturist, who was ripped off Wednesday at the fairgrounds-area station. “I saw the red flags … but it never occurred to me that someone would do something like this. I’m kind of astounded.”

She is among the latest to be taken in by a disturbing crime trend hitting local gas stations, leaving customers with the bill for thousands of dollars in stolen fuel.

The scam is low-tech yet devious, says Peter Van Alyea, owner of Rohnert Park-based Redwood Oil Co, who has seven Chevron stations in Sonoma County, including the one on Bennett Valley Road.

Thieves switch nozzles from one side of a gas pump to the other and wait for unsuspecting customers to arrive and enter their payment information.

When a purchase is authorized, they pull up, fill their tanks and speed off. Customers are left scratching their heads trying to figure out what happened.

The scam has played out at least a half-dozen times at Van Alyea’s stations over the past few months and is likely more widespread, affecting people across the Bay Area and beyond, he said.

“It’s pretty appalling,” said Van Alyea, who has posted warnings at his stations and reported the thefts to police.

Surveillance camera video taken from his station shows exactly how thieves are doing it but has yet to lead to any arrests.

In a video shared with The Press Democrat, a suspect wearing what looks like an Oakland Raiders jersey is seen walking to the pump before any customers arrive and swapping handles.

Moments later, a customer drives up. An accomplice in a white minivan swoops into place on the opposite side.

The video ends there, but Van Alyea says customers generally become confused and make their way into the store, where attendants give them the bad news.

He’s reimbursed a few victims and others have written it off as bad luck, he said.

The videos are too blurry to get a license plate number, but Van Alyea said he has a clear picture of a suspect with a “strange” hairstyle who brazenly walked into the store after a theft.

“This is becoming a popular way of getting free gasoline and making the innocent consumer suffer,” he said.

Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Eric Litchfield said he’s received just one report. That could change if gas prices continue to increase, he said.

“It’s tied to how expensive it is,” Litchfield said. “If people can’t afford it, they’ll steal it.”

Meanwhile, Sweeney said she’s not too worried about the money she lost. She likes to help other motorists, often paying bridge tolls for drivers behind her.

But she would like to see the suspects get caught. She’ll be watching closely the next time she fuels up for anything suspicious.

“It’s pretty crappy,” she said. “It’s rude. In fact, it’s more than rude.”

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ppayne.

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