The tricks that some are devising to hack gas stations and refuel for free

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Gasoline prices are at record highs, prompting a spate of thefts made out of fuel. But while some thieves go from car to car opening the tank cap and siphoning the precious liquid, other more sophisticated ones have found a way to refuel for free at service stations by directly hacking their pumps.

According to nbc newsAt least 22 people have been arrested in the United States since March for digitally manipulating the computers that manage gasoline pumps or installing homemade devices to lower the price of fuel.

Both methods take advantage of the fact that these computers are highly standardized and depend on a small group of manufacturers, who usually do not add great security protections.

The first method primarily affects Wayne brand dispensers. These pumps have a remote control option so that station owners and fuel inspectors can easily access their computers. Remote controls are not regulated and are available online from marketplaces like eBay.

While Wayne pumps require a code to access the system remotely, many service stations leave the default settings unchanged, continuing to use the factory codes.

At least one person awaiting trial in Charlotte, North Carolina reportedly took advantage of this lack of security to set a pump in a mode designed to inspect gasoline. This mode allows technicians to dispense as much fuel as they want without paying, but in this case it would have allowed a gas thief.

The second method affects dispensers manufactured by Gilbarco. The thieves use a homemade device, which can be made from a handful of hardware, to slow down the pulser that measures how much gasoline is being pumped. This button is the one that informs the dispenser of how much it should charge a customer. The device manages to reduce the speed of the button so that it registers only a fraction of the fuel that is being dispensed.

It is not as simple as it sounds. The thief has to open the dispenser panel to install the device that manipulates the pulses. But as with passwords, many pumps use a standard Gilbarco key that is available on the Internet.

Although gasoline theft has existed for as long as gasoline has existed, it was with Hurricane Katrina that a drastic increase in prices caused US service stations to standardize payment in advance to avoid theft. This forced thieves to learn how to manipulate pumps and payment systems, a practice that has become more common as fuel prices rise again.