Soaring fuel prices have reduced family spending on other things, cut into business profits and led to a dramatic increase in fuel thefts across Mississippi and the country.

The farming industry relies heavily on fuel to operate farm equipment, run irrigation systems and transport raw commodities. Some fertilizer is derived from petroleum, which has made this cost go up as well.

County governments and schools often store bulk quantities of fuel for their own fleets. With diesel well over $4 a gallon and gasoline at the $4-a-gallon mark, tanks are becoming popular targets for thieves.

Herb Willcutt, safety specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said fuel thieves have gotten ingenious.

“Some of the stories in the news include vans and trucks with built-in pump and tank units that drive over the filling port at service stations, access the ports through a hole in the floor and pump the fuel into the tank. They replace the port so no one knows what they were doing and then drive off. This often happens in broad daylight,” Willcutt said.

“Another trick is to use containers that will slide underneath a car and punch a hole through the fuel tank. The fuel is quickly drained into the containers. Still others use a siphon hose to empty unattended fuel tanks,” he said.

Willcutt said some steps can be taken to safeguard fuel from being stolen. Lock all pumps in an “off” position, and turn electrical pumps off at the point of electrical supply.

Secure the nozzle and fill ports on aboveground tanks to prevent gravity flow or siphoning. Use locking fuel caps on all tanks.

Put a security fence around supply tanks, and park vehicles and machinery in secure, well-lit areas. Put vehicles behind closed, locked garage doors when possible.

Keep a log of fuel purchased and used, and make sure these figures balance monthly.

Store fuel in bulk tanks for anticipated immediate needs.

“Owners of large operations may want to purchase extra fuel now as a hedge against rising prices, but remember that what goes up may come down,” Willcutt said.

Mason Stringer is president of the board of supervisors in Covington County, Miss., and has been on the board for almost 22 years.

He said his county has not seen a big increase in fuel thefts in recent months, but they have always taken steps to protect their fuel.

“They steal more gasoline than diesel fuel,” he said of thieves in the area. Stringer said the county takes many precautions to safeguard equipment and fuel. All tanks are locked and equipment is fueled at the county barn, and then the facility is locked.

“We try to park our road equipment at a designated area where they can be watched, or we park them by the entrance to someone's property where they will drive by them and can watch them for us,” Stringer said.

A final tip to prevent fuel thefts is also simple. Keep the fuel out of sight.

“There has been a significant increase in thefts of gasoline containers in neighborhoods,” Willcutt said. “Homeowners often leave their gas cans handy for their own use, but many thieves cannot resist the temptation of $20 worth of gas in an easily portable, 5-gallon container with a handle.”