LILBURN, Georgia (CNN) — The man in the white shirt was pumping gas into an ordinary-looking white van. But he was no ordinary customer.
For one, it took him a long time at the pump. And then there were the stolen credit cards police say he took out of his wallet. In the 17 minutes he was at the pump, he used two cards to pump 95 gallons of diesel fuel.
What happened at this gas station outside Atlanta is part of a crime wave around the country, police say. It’s called “pump and dump.” Thieves use stolen credit cards to get gas and then sell it at cut-rate prices to truckers and gas stations that are part of the scheme.
Authorities say it’s a multi-million dollar crime with a quick payoff.
The criminals look as if they are pumping gas like any other customer. But their vehicles are vans, trucks and SUVs fitted with hidden tanks that can hold several hundred gallons. The hidden tanks range from sophisticated contraptions to a simple plastic or metal container inside the vehicle.
“It’s a very lucrative way to make money. It runs below the radar,” said U.S. Secret Service Agent Steve Scarince, who supervises the agency’s Los Angeles Fraud Task Force, and tracks the crime around the country.
Scarince said the gas theft rings in the Los Angeles area typically resell the stolen gas to gas stations for a fraction of the usual cost. The stations then sell it — at full price — to the public. In other parts of the country, police have arrested thieves who resell the stolen gas to independent truckers or who use it themselves.
The crime typically starts with the thieves stealing credit card information or buying stolen numbers online. They then use those cards to buy gas.
But catching and prosecuting them can be a lengthy process.
Det. Bert Ross, of the Lilburn, Georgia, police department, worked an 18-month investigation into a pump and dump group with assistance from the U.S. Secret Service and other law enforcement agencies. That investigation recently resulted in five arrests for fraud, forgery and identify theft. Ross identified the man who spent 17 minutes at the pump using two stolen credit cards as Edwin Ramos, 36, who bought $350 worth of diesel fuel. Ramos is being sought by police.
“They’re buying fuel using stolen credit card information,” Ross said. “Either they’re getting the cards themselves or they’re having them embossed, and using stolen credit cards to buy diesel fuel. They’re transporting that fuel around the state, sometimes outside the state.”
Ross said the gas theft investigation in Lilburn began after a suspicious clerk in a gas station convenience store tipped off police to a customer pumping a large amount of gas into the same truck every day.
“She would go out, she’d write down tags, print out the receipt and put it to the side,” Ross said. “For a while, I’d go in every couple days, I’d walk in and she would have an envelope there for me, full of transactions. I’d go back and say, ‘OK I know this guy, I know him, but I don’t know this guy. Let’s figure out who this guy is to see how he fits in the network.'”
The investigation led to 35-year-old Jorge Garcia Ramirez, whom Ross described as the ringleader of the group. Ramirez has not entered a plea to the fraud, forgery and identify theft charges.
“Typically, they’ll go in because credit cards restrict the maximum amount of fuel you can put in a vehicle, which is usually $75, so they’ll make anywhere between two and eight transactions at different gas stations in a day,” Ross said. “They use one credit card and they pump three times for $75. And then they would go to another gas station and do the same thing,” he said.
“They operate six days a week. They typically take off Sundays.”