Fat theft on the rise in Buffalo

A Buffalo company says it is losing $ 300,000 a week and is worried about the violence of those who confront bandits who steal used cooking oil from outdoor restaurants.

BUFFALO, NY – It’s not a new crime, but it’s one that is on the rise: the theft of used cooking oil from vats outside restaurants.

In 2017, the National Association of Renderers estimated that $ 75 million of used cooking oil, commercially referred to as “yellow grease,” was stolen each year.

According to a Buffalo-based company involved in the industry, thefts are increasing for a variety of reasons.

Founded 16 years ago by Sumit Majumdar, Buffalo Biodiesel pays 25 cents per gallon for used cooking oil it collects from 18,000 restaurants in 12 states.

They clean it and process it at their factory in Tonawanda, then sell it to refineries which end up producing biofuels.

But over the past two years, thieves have stolen it more and more frequently from their collection containers.

According to Majumdar, the recent theft of grease from a tub his company supplied to Pan’s Garden restaurant in Buffalo was just one of some 20,000 such grease thefts his company had contracted to recover over the past two years. last years.

“It’s stolen because the value of used cooking oil is so high,” Majumdar said.

With federal mandates that an increasing amount of fuel used for transportation must be infused with renewable sources to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it has increased demand for these products, including yellow grease.

At the same time, the many restaurants that went bankrupt due to forced government closures during the COVID-19 pandemic have reduced the available supply.

This also led to higher prices for the product.

“When the fat thefts started a few years ago, it was $ 2 and the change per gallon for refined fat. Now it’s approaching, and now it’s approaching $ 4.50 a gallon, ”said Majumdar.

According to Majumdar, thieves operating a vacuum truck have been known to make up to $ 1,500 a day by first stealing the grease and then selling it on the black market for 10 times what he pays restaurants to transport it.

Fat thieves need willing partners in their business, after all, noted Majumdar, “there are no pawn shops for this stuff.”

Instead, there must be a middleman willing to pay the thieves and then collect the fat and sell massive amounts of it to an unscrupulous processor who will buy it without question.

“We are prepared to say that this is done through organized crime,” said Tom George, a retired police lieutenant from the town of Evans, whom Mujumdar hired a few months ago as a liaison with the police.

Part of George’s job is to help Buffalo Biodiesel deal with prosecutors and law enforcement agencies in a multitude of jurisdictions in the many states where he has clients.

Even if a thief is caught, he may not suffer serious consequences despite the lucrative nature of his crime.

While they can make a lot of money from selling the fat on the black market, the value of the theft can be calculated based on what a legitimate buyer, such as Buffalo Biodiesel, would have paid the restaurant for the fat. stolen. .

For a 50 gallon drum, that would be around $ 12.50.

“It’s petty theft,” noted George, whose job is also to convince law enforcement that this is part of a bigger problem that could lead to more serious crimes, like money laundering. silver.

If Majumdar pays 25 cents a gallon of raw cooking pill, and then sells the refined product it makes from it for $ 4.50 a gallon, it doesn’t seem to make much sense for an unscrupulous trader to buy it from thieves for $ 2.50 a gallon and then make a much smaller profit.

Unless there is something else involved.

If an organized crime syndicate is involved, as George believes, then he may not care as much about the slightest amount they can earn on the fat, as the desirability of such a scheme. create for the money. laundering of profits from much more lucrative businesses, such as the sale of drugs.

In the meantime, the thieves are costing restaurateurs the money they would have made by selling the grease to Majumdar, for whom the stakes are even higher.

“I think we’re probably losing almost $ 300,000 a week right now,” he said.

Coming to western New York

Although widespread, the largest eruption of fat theft suffered by Buffalo Biodiesel has occurred in states such as New Jersey and Pennsylvania, where up to 80% of the fat it has contracts to purchase has been siphoned off by thieves, who brazenly break locks. the vats or, in some cases, made their way through the lids of the grease traps.

“We now have places where it’s not even worth picking up,” he says.

However, Pan’s Garden’s recent theft of Grease tells him that the Grease Bandits, in their never-ending thirst, are expanding their area of ​​operation.

“It tells me this is all heading towards western New York,” he said.

While the theft of fat may not seem serious, and in fact was once famous ridiculed in an episode of The Simpsons, there is no laughing matter for the victims

If there’s one thing George thinks local law enforcement should take seriously, it’s the threat of potential violence, which Majumdar is also concerned about, to the point that he has hired a social media team. for post stories about flights, and videos of them happening, and alert restaurants not only to the crimes, but also to the potential danger that exists in confronting thieves.

“We’ve had instances where they will face these people and that’s what concerns us,” said George. “It will eventually escalate into violence against third parties, whether they are injured restaurateurs or Buffalo Biodiesel employees. Some of these people (when confronted) are not going to turn around and run. There is too much money at stake. “

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