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Sunday, April 21, 2024

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Locking Down Tank Ownership


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Speaking with Oil & Energy back in June about a piece of legislation that would codify protocol for ‘emergency’ and ‘normal’ propane deliveries, New York Propane Gas Association Director of Legislative Affairs Richard Cummings pointed to a provision of the bill that would require delivery companies to have a minimum of $1 million in liability insurance. “That just ensures that you’re a legitimate company and not some guy who bought a bobtail,” he joked.

Which begs the question, “Is that even a thing?”

As it turns out, one might be surprised.

Frank Minnella, founder of Lock America, Inc., recalls attending numerous trade shows over the years, where — let’s just say ‘less than scrupulous’ — dealers approached his booth, looked at the propane tank locks on display with a smirk, and said something to the effect of “I’ve seen these before.”

As if by ‘seen’ they’d really meant “tried to crack.”

There were others, Minnella says, who took pride in the fact that they never had to buy or sell a tank to run their operations at all — as if investing in one’s business and working toward a return on that investment were a sucker’s game.

Today, we’d like to think things are different. Since Minnella has stepped into more of an advisory role at Lock America, Dan Walsh, the company’s sales manager, now handles most of their trade show duties. Discussing the emergency-propane delivery bills that were floated this past winter, he says, “The few people that I’ve talked to [about it] have said they wouldn’t fill a competitor’s tank up without calling them.” He added, “If a legitimate propane businessman is called out to a [tank] that is not theirs, with a Lock America lock on it, from what I’ve heard, they will contact the actual owner.”

Walsh’s colleague, Robert Chen, adds, “This will give the original owner the opportunities to collect the unpaid balances or to perform the services needed to retain the customers.”

On the other hand, Walsh says, “If an illegitimate vendor comes out to fill a tank with a Lock America lock, they would actually be breaking into it, and we’ve done our best to keep those people out.”

No one at Lock America could identify an instance in which their latest propane tank locks were cracked, but from Walsh’s explanation of the products’ updated technology, it’s clear that these security professionals have seen it all. “Thicker and harder steel caps prevent drilling a hole through the brass fitting to insert a screwdriver or piece of metal to twist the cap off with the lock still on,” he says. “Thicker caps also prevent channel locks or other tools from squeezing the cap tight enough to twist it off.”

Minnella points out that the company continues to update its locking technologies every decade or so. “We’re probably on the third generation,” he says, explaining, “Once you’ve put a lock on someone’s tank, there are going to be some guys who try to figure out how to break it.” This is not to say that Lock America’s POLocks and Fill Valve locks aren’t among the toughest protecting propane tanks today — simply, that thieves will thieve.

This is equally true for the gasoline business, where the issue isn’t so much stolen fuel or tank ownership as it is credit card skimming, which, in some cases can even lead to identity theft. Making matters worse, station operators might find themselves virtually complicit in this theft simply by not being more vigilant in preventing it.

Asked if rising gas prices tended to increase incidence of credit card skimming and perhaps consequentially, Lock America’s sales of anti-skimming locks, Minnella emphasized that data theft happens “all the time,” not just when gas prices are up. Because most gas dispensers are shipped from the factory with the same lock and key, “the real problem anyone who’s ever worked in a gas station has seen is the universal key,” he says.

Minnella points to two tactics thieves commonly employ to exploit gas pumps’ vulnerabilities: “Guys who have access to the universal key will just go into the station, block the camera, open the door, put in a skimmer and close the door, so until the station changes the paper no one will realize anything has been done.

“Another method, we see more out here on the West Coast, is they would go into stations that only take debit cards, and they would have a business card, go right up to the business manager, and propose an upgrade to their card readers. The manager would think it was legitimate, and they would change them all out!”

Part of the cunning behind such skullduggery lies in the fact that the owners didn’t even know they’d been robbed until much later. “The guy who’s smart never shows you he’s done anything,” says Minnella.

Furthermore, while pump door stickers might help show station operators that they’d been had, they certainly wouldn’t stop the theft from occurring in the first place, nor would they prevent the thieves from flipping that stolen customer information on the Dark Web the very same night.

According to the Identity Theft Resource Center, incidence of data breaching increased by 44.7 percent between 2016 and 2017, setting new records each year. Clearly, the problem isn’t going away anytime soon.

However, when someone tries to break into one of Lock America’s gasoline dispenser locks, it isn’t as simple as prying a door or blocking a security camera. The company has six million unique key codes in stations around the country, along with virtually drill-proof keyways protecting pump operators and everyday consumers from those who’d take advantage of them.

Of course, as any family-friendly fuel dealer knows, locking down tank ownership isn’t just about outwitting thieves — it’s about responsibility, which, when dealing in flammable materials like propane, translates to liability.

Recent court cases have shown that propane tank owners can be found at fault for installing locks that can be cracked with ordinary household tools, even if a second company has since come along and begun filling the tank. In the Fill Valve and POLock, Lock America has developed products to prevent unauthorized filling and tank disconnects. Neither can be broken by everyday appliance.

The same goes for Lock America’s High Security System, which was built to replace the old “universal” gas station locks. And while pump operators might argue they’re in the business of selling gasoline, not protecting consumer data, one can never be too careful. As Minnella says, “In the case of gas dispenser card skimming, it’s only a matter of time before someone blames the gas station for letting their card reader be skimmed.”


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