HUNTINGTON STATION, N.Y. - It's a crime that costs all of us.
Restaurants nationwide are being targeted by thieves who are not stealing money, but something just as valuable.
Suffolk County police Wednesday night arrested a man for stealing used cooking oil from Chick-fil-A in Huntington Station five times in two months.
As CBS2's Carolyn Gusoff found out, restaurants across Long Island have been repeated victims of a new rash of- a crime making a big comeback.
Cooking oil that used to be dumped down the drain is now a hot commodity. Restaurants sell it to processors who filter and boil it to turn used cooking grease into a sort of liquid gold.
"It makes biofuel. It goes to cosmetics. It goes to animal feed," said Steven Parisi, operations manager of Environmental Services, Inc., or ESI.
Much of it, say processors, goes to thieves -- a crime making a comeback with the price of oil high, taking a bite out of business.
ESI in Yaphank claims nearly half the oil they're supposed to collect is stolen.
"Our trucks are going to locations, our clients, and we're getting there and our receptacles are empty, busted into," Parisi said.
"They come in the night, or they come when we are busy, and nobody has time to watch this," said Romeo Auer, owner of Barona Bay Restaurant.
Oil bandits have hit Barona Bay in Hampton Bays nine times in three months, leaving behind a mess, and maddening losses.
"Not only from me, from many restaurants here on Long Island, and if they fill up the truck, we are talking about thousands of dollars," Auer said.
"We've seen everything from pry bars to bolt cutters to saws," said private investigator Patrick McCall. "We've seen a pattern of people using shovels."
McCall, hired by collection companies to crack down on oil crooks says he's tracked 300 Long Island restaurants repeatedly hit, and they may not even know it.
"They'll target a pizzeria, a deli and a Chinese restaurant all in the same shopping center, and they'll hit 10 to 15 of those locations in a night," McCall said. "A lot of these companies have legitimate accounts with restaurants through various parts of Long Island. However, during the course of picking up their legitimate stops, they are being observed breaking into containers that do not belong to them and siphoning oil that they are not entitled to."
Gusoff caught up with two suspects in court accused in multiple oil thefts.
"Did you steal oil from restaurants?" she asked. "Can we ask you what your position is on the charges?"
"I'm OK," one suspect said.
"Well, the restaurant owners aren't OK. They're out thousands upon thousands of dollars," Gusoff said.
"At this point, I'm going to let you know that he's not going to say anything at this time," an attorney said.
One challenge, say police, is individual thefts are misdemeanors, but for the victims, the losses add up.
"They don't even know what happened because they're not looking in the grease pit everyday to see what was taken," said Nassau County Police Commissioner Patrick Patrick Ryder. "Please check it. Let us know, so we can stop this."
"I caught a few in the act, but by the time I catch him, he took off," Auer said.
Restaurants are advised to make sure the logo on the trucks collecting used oil is the same company they contract with.
"It it doesn't match, most likely it's a theft," Ryder said.
"Everybody loses except for the criminals," Parisi said.
Investigators say the problem is far worse on Long Island than in the city, where containers are often locked indoors, and all of us pay the price in rising restaurant bills.
Who's buying all this stolen oil? Investigators say it's sold on the underground, illegal market to out-of-state recyclers and is difficult to track.
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