A Detective’s Tips on Preventing Cooking Oil Theft

Food Safety

Cooking oil theft is an often-overlooked but increasingly prevalent crime that impacts many businesses, particularly in the food service industry. Our team has witnessed firsthand the ramifications of these thefts on local businesses and the broader recycling ecosystem. To shed light on this growing issue, we engaged in a Q&A session with Detective Aaron Woelkers from the Bensalem Police Department. He has extensive experience in apprehending cooking oil thieves. Detective Woelkers provides valuable insights into the methods used by these criminals, the challenges law enforcement faces in addressing this type of theft, and the steps businesses can take to protect their used cooking oil.

In this interview, Detective Woelkers shares the troubling trend of increasing cooking oil thefts in Bensalem Township, highlighting the tactics employed by thieves and the critical role of video surveillance in solving these crimes. He discusses how thieves typically operate under the cover of night, using rental trucks and makeshift equipment to siphon used oil from unsecured containers. By understanding the patterns and strategies of these criminals, businesses can better safeguard their assets. Detective Woelkers also emphasizes the importance of cooperation between businesses and law enforcement to effectively combat this growing problem. Read on to learn more about the innovative measures and success stories from Bensalem’s efforts to curb cooking oil thefts.

Q – Can you provide an overview of the prevalence and scale of used cooking oil thefts in the area you cover? Are these crimes increasing or decreasing in frequency?

A – Over the past 18 months Bensalem Township has seen a steady INCREASE of cooking oil thefts. Cooking oil thefts were practically unheard of prior to 2022. As of  March 1st, we have not had any reported cooking oil thefts but many times the thefts go unnoticed and unreported due to businesses not realizing the oil has gone missing.

Q – What are some common methods used by thieves to steal used cooking oil from restaurants and other establishments?

A – Most of the cooking oil thefts involve a rental truck or van. I have personally investigated thefts where a rental Home Depot or Penske box trucks have been used. We will often see Ford and Chevy work vans equipped with tanks and pumps as well. The thieves will often use large 275-gallon plastic tote tanks, a gas-powered pump and hoses to steal the cooking the oil. Many of the vehicles used to steal the cooking oil are very dirty due to the nature of the material being stolen. I have only dealt with one actor who actually used a commercial grade pumping truck to steal the oil.

The actors generally operate overnight and in the early morning hours. Many of the containers the restaurants use to store the used oil are unsecured or easily accessible with minimal effort from the actors. The actors will just pull up along side the tanks/containers/access ports and pump out the used oil and take minimal efforts to hide their actions.

Q – How do you typically approach investigating cases of used cooking oil theft? What insight and information should our customers gather?

A – Cameras, cameras, and more cameras. All of our thefts that occurred in Bensalem have been solved due to video surveillance. In Bensalem Township we are fortunate to have numerous traffic cameras and license plate readers all throughout the township. Being able to obtain a vehicle description and timeframe from the restaurant soon after the theft allows the police to search specific areas and license plate readers for the actors vehicle. So the two most important pieces of information potential victims should provide to police is a timeframe of the theft and a vehicle description. These two key pieces of information can easily be obtained through video surveillance.

Q – Are there any challenges or obstacles unique to investigating used cooking oil thefts compared to other types of theft or property crimes?

A – The most challenging part of the investigation isn’t identifying the vehicle used but identifying the driver/passenger(s). Many of the rental trucks and vans used to steal oil are rented by a third party to help distance the actual actor from the crime. I will revert back to the video surveillance. The quality of the cameras makes a difference. I have been able to identify actors based on clothing worn during the theft because the quality of the video surveillance was clear enough to match the clothing the actor was wearing during a previous traffic stop, visit to a convenience store or some other prior contact with police.

Q – Have you observed any patterns or trends in terms of the locations or types of establishments targeted by thieves?

A – After interviewing a few of the actors caught stealing oil, they admit to targeting areas where there are a lot of restaurants in a small area. One actor showed me his phone and stated that he just looks for area with lots of food symbols on the map and targets those areas. These areas are often close to major roadways and in Bensalem Township we have I95, the PA Turn Pike, and Rt. 1 allowing the actors to access these areas and quickly get back onto the roadways and out of town.

The type of establishments being targeted range from pizza shops to Chinese restaurants and then major chain restaurants such as Chick-Fil-A, Wendy’s, and TGI Fridays.

Q – What are the potential consequences for individuals or businesses caught engaging in used cooking oil theft?

A – Depending whether or not the oil containers are secured behind a fenced in area, the actors could be looking at burglary charges. For those containers that are not secured behind fencing, the actors will often face theft by unlawful taking and trespass charges. The severity of the punishment depends on their prior criminal convictions and the value of the theft. Actors will face restitution, probation terms and possibly jail again, depending on the prior convictions and the value of the theft. In Bensalem Township, we have confiscated the vehicles and equipment used when possible.

Q – What are the most effective measures that businesses can take to prevent or deter used cooking oil thefts?

A – One of the best ways to deter the crime is to secure the containers as best as possible. Some establishments have a locked access port to protect the oil but this obviously comes at a cost. Sign posting is also a great deterrent and relatively cheap. Posting signs advising potential thieves that they are on camera may discourage them from trying to steal your oil. To be honest, if a criminal wants to steal they will find a way to do it. We have seen cut locks, holes cut in containers and homemade hose adapters to access ports equipped with specialized couplers.

Q – Are there any notable success stories or cases where you were able to apprehend individuals or groups involved in these thefts?

A – Bensalem Township Police have made several arrests over the last two years relating to cooking oil thefts. We used license plate readers, contacts and cooperation with rental companies, video surveillance and information sharing to apprehend these criminals. One group in particular was targeting not only Bensalem Township but many other jurisdictions in Bucks County. Due to video surveillance and tag readers, we were able to identify the vehicle involved and we entered that license plate into a program that would alert law enforcement any time that vehicle would pass through a license plate reader. Patrol officers were able to flood the area where the targeted vehicle recently passed and they were able to stop the vehicle and identify the actors involved.

Q – Looking ahead, what do you foresee as the future challenges and trends related to used cooking oil theft?

A – Supply and demand will determine the future trends of cooking oil thefts. The value of used cooking oil was rather high last year but as of late the prices have dropped. I spoke with one of my defendants yesterday and he advised that he is getting out of the cooking oil recycling business since the price of used oil has dropped and no longer a lucrative business for him.

I believe one of the major concerns would be the recycling companies that are accepting the used cooking oil. I am not aware of any restrictions or regulations that these companies have when it comes to purchasing the used oil. Many of these thieves do not have any business credentials and do not have to provide any type of documentation when selling the (stolen) oil.  I believe these recycling companies need to have stricter policies when it comes to accepting used oil which would naturally deter thieves from selling stolen oil.

Key Takeaways:
  • Alarming Trend: Cooking oil thefts are on the rise, with criminals using rental trucks and makeshift equipment to siphon used oil during late hours.
  • Critical Role of Surveillance: Video surveillance is essential in identifying and apprehending thieves.
  • Preventative Measures: Learn effective ways to secure your cooking oil, such as enhancing container security and utilizing surveillance cameras.

Don’t let your used cooking oil become a target. Stay informed and take proactive steps to secure your operations.

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