Grease Bandits Profit from Stealing Used Cooking Oil

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

It is a life of crime filled with grease, and so odorous that some can’t help but wretch at the smell. But the money from stealing used cooking oil is just too good to pass up for many thieves.


From Virginia to California, grease bandits have grown in number, making off with vats of discarded oil from restaurants worth hundreds of dollars at a time.


The booming black market for the “liquid gold” has reached $40 million a year, and cooking-oil crimes have doubled in number in just seven years.


Much of the growth is attributed to the demand for biofuels, as well as the use of cooking oil to help feed livestock and to make soaps, detergents and other products.


“People at first said, ‘This is a joke,’” David Meeker, an official with the Virginia-based National Renderers Association, told the Dallas Morning News. “It may be called a waste product, but our guys pick up over 2 billion pounds a year. It’s not a joke.”


Police for the most part are not making cooking oil crimes a priority. Despite the fact that 5,943 grease thefts were reported around the country two years ago, only 188 criminal charges were filed and 97 people were convicted.


It’s been an uphill battle for the victims, often because law enforcement equates grease with refuse. “I caught a guy three times stealing [cooking grease],” Lil Grease Monsters’ Jerry Duty told the Great Falls Tribune. “A cop tells me, ‘I can’t arrest him. It’s only trash.’”


But in this case, one man’s trash is clearly another man’s treasure. One late-night visit to the back of an eatery that serves fried foods can yield more than $1,500 for crooks. Such thefts do sharply cut into the profits of restaurants, as many split the proceeds from used oil with companies contracted to haul it off from the eateries. The financial damage to these businesses has forced some to lay off employees or take other measures to compensate for the loss of revenue.


But stealing the stuff has its hazards, particularly if the weather is warm.


“Some stink so bad you want to throw up,” Clay Carrillo-Miranda of Haltom City’s Best Grease Service, a legitimate enterprise that hauls away cooking oil for customers, told the Tribune. “When it’s 105 degrees, this job isn’t a lot of fun, so that’s when I go out at night.”


Some legislatures are attempting to address the problem. At least three states (California, Virginia and North Carolina) have adopted new laws to discourage grease banditry. In Missouri, where grease theft is a federal crime, one grease dealer was sentenced to 10 years in prison and had to forfeit more than $200,000 from his illicit business.


The industry is also acting on the local level, using private investigators, back-alley stake-outs, employment of oil tank measurement techniques, and even building theft-proof containers that would, dangerously perhaps, require a blow torch to access the oil.


If this criminal enterprise is largely unknown to the public, that could soon change—because grease wars are now going Hollywood. After the 2013 publication of a New Yorker article on the cooking oil crime wave, a dozen TV production companies decided this was a “hot” topic for a TV reality series, according to the Tribune. Jon Jaworski, a Houston lawyer who has spent 25 years defending grease theft suspects, is now moonlighting as a Hollywood agent to his oil-bandit clients.  Proving that crime can pay in a variety of ways, he has already signed 10 of them to reality show contracts.

-Danny Biederman, Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

Grease Bandits Making a Haul on Used Cooking Oil (by Wendy Hundley, Dallas Morning News)

Thieves Find a Lucrative New Commodity: Grease (by Barry Shlachter, Great Falls Tribune)


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